When we think of Lily Tomlin, what comes to mind first isn’t her star turns in films like ShortCuts and 9to5 or on television’s The West Wing—or even Ernestine, the snorty, sassy, snood-sporting operator she played with such aplomb. Rather, we think of Edith Ann and her loyal dog Buster. A precocious tot, squirmy but serious Edith Ann often discussed the adventures she shared with Buster, from ice skating and bath time to making him a sandwich that included mustard, pickles, oatmeal, cheese, pretzels, tuna fish, peanut butter, salami, raisins and one black olive. He didn’t care for it, so Edith Ann decided to order pizza: “Buster likes pepperoni with double cheese and so do I. And that’s the truth!”
Underlying this comedy routine is another truth: Tomlin’s love of dogs, which comes through even when she speaks in the charming, halting voice of a five and- a-half-year-old girl explaining how she made a sandwich so unappetizing that it even went bust with Buster.
Tomlin—who, upon seeing a stray running by the roadside, has been known to pull her car over and attempt to lure the frightened pup off the busy street by means of a fast-food sandwich— has lived with animals all her life. Recently, she headlined “Stand Up for the Animals,” a comedy-and-causes benefit at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood devoted to bringing attention to the work of Voice for the Animals .
We hopped on the phone to chat with her about her work to improve the lot of Los Angeles Zoo’s Billy the elephant and other animal-related topics, and she also shared a few stories of the dogs she has known. As it turns out, Lily has lived with and loved beasties of all stripes throughout her life. She speaks movingly of Chi Chi, the dog she had as a teen; a Corgi-mix named Princess she doted on for years; and her current critters, cats Murphy (who came into her life when she joined the cast of Murphy Brown, natch) and Roddy McDowell, so named because, Tomlin says,“he’s elegant…and sensitive.”
She has vivid and emotional memories of her pets, including the death of one of her beloved dogs. “I knew she wasn’t well. I went out in the yard with her, and we lay on the grass for a long time, looking into each other’s eyes. She died later that evening.” We both paused to consider the moment, and then she continued.“ They’re our creatures, they’re just everything.”
Although Tomlin has lived with a number of dogs, she hasn’t worked with all that many, except for a comical elevator scene from Big Business, in which a dog she’s walking gets on an elevator and the doors shut. I asked about the connection between Hollywood and hounds beyond the larger topic of animal actors, and if there were any lessons humans working in showbiz could take from dogs in general.
She spoke about the authenticity of pups—“They have an innocence and a goodness because they’re not ambitious …”—and what performers can learn from that. Summing it up perfectly, Tomlin observed that “dogs want to love their people, and actors need to love their audience. Dogs have all the empathetic qualities that a good actor should have.” Dogs seem to inspire just about every calling, it seems.
Including conflict resolution. Remembering a time when she had a lot of animals in the house—including a goat named Bucky that she would take on outings with her dogs (“You’d have to walk behind him with a little lobby dustpan and a broom, sweeping up his pellets.”)— Tomlin recalled how one of her dogs would take on the role of mediator. “We had two cats in the house; the cats loved to torment Diva [a Doberman] because she was so easily cowed. One day, the cats were at the bottom of the stairs and Diva was at the top: They were at an impasse. Tessie [a Terrier], who was a little bossy thing, ran through Diva’s legs and stood there, barking at the cats and Diva too, as if to break it up.”
While tales of Bucky and Diva were not told during the “Stand Up for the Animals” night, Edith Ann did make an appearance, to much applause. Later, I learned more about Voice for the Animals from executive director Melya Kaplan.
Kaplan’s approach to animal assistance could be described as multi-dimensional. Among her organization’s projects are Billy the elephant’s well being, an animal assistance hotline, a senior-animal rescue program, and efforts to help the huge population of dogs and cats living on the streets in Greece. She’s also assisting families facing foreclosure with keeping their pets. And she isn’t shy about sending praise to one of her most front-and-center advocates. “Lily is absolutely phenomenal,” says Kaplan. “She’s been the celebrity who took the lead, just saying it like it is.”
Hearing about Tomlin’s work with this group, and her animated tales of Tessie and Diva and Chi Chi, it’s not surprising that she’s a friend of the furry. Now, whenever we catch a clip of Edith Ann bragging about Buster, we’ll think of all the real Busters Lily’s loved along the way, and her willingness to extend that love to dogs and cats (and elephants) today.
Photo courtesy Lily Tomlin