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In character; Lily Tomlin's inspiration is drawn from observing the lives of others

For most fans, Lily Tomlin begins and ends with Ernestine.

The character was a passive-aggressive telephone operator, wound tightly by her hair net, an impossibly curled tongue and snippy snort. Ernestine didn't do much work, and when she did, she made fools of her customers. She was rude and defensive. But that didn't stop Ernestine from finding her way into America's hearts by 1969, thanks to the TV series "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In."

For Tomlin, who visits the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts on Saturday in a performance to benefit Beechwood's Continuing Care Welcome Home program, characters like Ernestine stand for something more than entertainment. At the time, Tomlin was making a political statement about the declining popularity of the New York City telephone service. There were, in reality, many Ernestines; employees of a monopolistic phone company that were causing distress to disgruntled customers. But with a wink, a smile and a funny voice, Tomlin turned the mocker into the mocked. "Laugh-In's" left-leaning politically primed audiences loved it.

Tomlin was bowled over.

"When [Ernestine] hit, overnight, she was fantastically popular," Tomlin says from her Los Angeles home on a recent morning. "It took me a long time to catch up to her. I was very idealistic. Not to say I'm not idealistic now, but not as I was then. I think I'm a little more accepting of the world, to some degree."

"She was original and fabulous. I unconsciously started to just make her a New York character. But as I worked to improve who she would be, she became a totally sexually repressed person. She was so excited by threatening people and that made her body twist up and her face twisted. And she snorted automatically, all kind of pinched up," says Tomlin, before naturally (and expectedly) letting out that trademark snort.

Expect to see Ernestine when Tomlin revisits her trademark characters during Saturday's one-woman show. Finding and exploring characters is a regular part of Tomlin's life. The genesis of each character varies from one to the next, but the process of observing is a constant.

"I went out the night before last to get takeout, and I sat on the bench by the hostess desk. It was so great because of people coming in and leaving. Nobody noticed me because I was down low, but I watched people," says Tomlin.

It's an exercise in human behavior, finding the idiosyncrasies and nuances of everyday life, but it's also an education in that which connects us all.

"I assume that everybody has the same point of view. I want [each trait] to be so close to some human strain that we all recognize the person. When I first did Susie Sorority, I couldn't believe how many people would say, 'OK, OK, OK', " Tomlin says in an airheaded affectation. "She was just the perfect character."

Of those that made her famous -- including Edith Ann, the precocious 5 1/2 -year-old; Mrs. Judith Beasley, a foremother to Martha Stewart; and Pervis Hawkins, the African-American male soul singer modeled after Luther Vandross -- Tomlin points to Trudy the Bag Lady as the one most in alignment with her own personality.

"I love somebody that goes around and [tells it like it is]. First of all she's really smart and philosophical. I used to always say that I wish she could go first-class on the Queen Elizabeth and be seated at the captain's table and start a food fight. Anything to get a rise out of people. Some foolishness," says Tomlin.

"I like the outspoken ones, the ones that stir things up. Now there's a truth-caller," she says of Trudy.

Truth is something that Tomlin has learned to reconcile, especially in the manipulative Hollywood machine. She speaks about her own upbringing in the industry as being easier than what young people have to deal with today and says she respects the resilience of today's young Hollywood, starting with auditions.

"They're just standing on the precipice, where somebody picks them -- or not. Whereas, I couldn't wait around. Nobody was going to pick me. When I was 18, I wasn't like an 18-year-old. I was more eccentric, more character-driven. I've seen young actors going up for a part 15, 20 times. Everybody's got something to say. You go into a room with 40, 50 people -- network people, assistants. I can't even imagine," says Tomlin. "I think it's really tough. It's much harder now to break through."

>Advocacy-as-art

Roles that followed her "Laugh-In" days took on a consistent tone of gender-bending, ceiling-crashing and eyebrow-raising.

Her character of Violet Newstead in "Nine to Five," the 1980 workplace comedy that teamed Tomlin with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton, stood in the name of revolution. The comedy proved to be not only entertaining, but a voice in Hollywood for the feminist movement.

But it was her one-woman Broadway show in 1985, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," that cemented Tomlin's stances. The play satirized and provoked various viewpoints on the nature of human behavior, and the absurdities that arise out of it. The show was a hit, spawning a 1991 film and a Broadway revival in 2000.

Tomlin has always pointed to her partner and writer, Jane Wagner, as the force behind the work.

"I think my sensibility is to be so certain about myself that I know what is right for me. And Jane, you know, she's a [typical] writer: she doesn't really want to write. Just facing that blank page is tough," says Tomlin. "She's way more brilliant than anybody else that I know. I make up stuff that's [silly]. But if there's anything that's really brilliant, it's her."

The politicized nature of her advocacy-as-art stems from an upbringing in both urban Detroit and rural Paducah, Ky. -- the split personalities of which served her observational nature well. It was in Detroit, though, where she started to become curious in the lives of others.

"I lived in an apartment house, an old blue-collar apartment with older, educated people who were on fixed income. I would just hang out with those people. It was so exciting when somebody new moved in, and you would watch to see what they did," Tomlin says. "The adults would let me hang around. I projected some kind of thing where it wasn't like having a kid around."

Of course, it wasn't just the nice little old ladies who entertained her whims. "There was the divorced woman whose boyfriend always slept over. She was the building hussy."

But with this careening eye came truths about life that would shake her young sensibilities, and shape her statements on justice later in life.

"Conversely, there was the horrible stuff -- the man who was always beating the woman up. I was a young kid, and I would hear the fighting and screaming. The grown-ups would always say, 'It's none of your business,' " says Tomlin. "Being with all kinds of people, knowing what's [right and] wrong, I think you grow up with a lot of empathy."

The joy of this precociousness hasn't escaped the actress in adulthood. She recalls a trip to Buffalo in the early 1970s and a young family she met backstage.

"This couple brought their toddler, and they had never seen 'Laugh-In.' The little girl was going around sticking her finger in her shirt, and they didn't know what it was. Finally they realized she used to watch 'Laugh-In' with her grandmother. I thought it was so fabulous," recalls Tomlin.

"To think that 40 years ago some little girl was sitting in the back of the car doing Edith Ann, entertaining her brothers and sisters," she says. "That's about as good as it gets."

***

Lily Tomlin

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst

TICKETS: $47 box office, Ticketsmaster

INFORMATION: www.ubcfa.org