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Lily Tomlin Remembers the Magic of Allee Willis

Acting legend looks back on her dear late friend as Willis’ inaugural Night of Wonders launches
Photo courtesy of Lily Tomlin.

The “Classic Lily” tab on Lily Tomlin’s official website — noted as “the world’s only” — is, today, barely operational. It looks like it was created at the dawn of the internet and never updated.

The reason for this might be, simply, the same reason why, when we lose someone we love, it’s impossible to let go of what they left behind. Updating it means erasing a special footprint on that site — that of Tomlin’s friend Allee Willis, who years ago (“quite a while ago, I can’t even recall,” Tomlin says) made that webpage.

Willis, who sometimes went by the name Bubbles, created the page with “dignity and taste,” as noted in the signature seen at the bottom of that page. Willis was a Broadway composer, a multimedia visual artist, a graphic artist, a songwriter and, says Tomlin, “an all-around fantastical person.” She famously wrote the “Friends” theme song and was the only woman inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018.

“She was so involved in video and did so many things and had mastered it,” Tomlin told QBurgh. “And of course I was totally fumble floozy. Couldn’t do anything.”

Tomlin believes this was the beginning of a wonderful, enduring friendship as the two artists, both gay and from Detroit, bonded instantaneously. Though Tomlin couldn’t pinpoint exactly what brought them together, “once you [were] exposed to her, she just became a fixture in your life.”

Recently, Tomlin, 83, attended the L.A. launch event for the Willis Wonderland Foundation, called Night of Wonders — a fitting tribute to the magical mind of Willis, who died suddenly in 2019, at age 72, after suffering a cardiac arrest. The foundation supports the education and advancement of songwriters and multimedia artists, notably those in underserved communities.

Tomlin was eager to talk about the foundation, her friend and the event, which RuPaul also attended. So eager she and Willis’ partner, Prudence Fenton, tried to contact Pride Source on their own, unprompted, one recent Saturday evening, without a publicist involved, but were met with a voicemail. Prudence left a message. That’s just how important Willis was to Tomlin.

Photo courtesy of Lily Tomlin.

Im sorry that you couldnt get through to us, but I really appreciate the fact that you two looked up our business line and tried. Because it just says how much you want to talk about Allee. Clearly, she was a very special friend in your life.

Allee was so amazing. I think this Willis Wonderland Foundation is a wonderful, multi-level idea in keeping with Allee’s legacy.

She just blew me away, really. She was a total original. And all the people around her were always like a part of her family and they were so devoted to her, and the foundation plans on so many ideas and practical extensions of who Allee was. And her house. I mean, her house is going to be the headquarters for the foundation. That magical, ideal ’50s house that’s filled with art. Have you been there?

I havent been there. Can you walk me through it?

Well, it’s just an incredible, typical ’50s suburban house with ’50s cars parked in the driveway. Old Chryslers and things. I have a ’55 Dodge Royal Lancer myself. She’s got seven bowling balls in the front yard. And then in the back she has a beach blanket around her pool. And then in the house itself, it’s totally magical. She had an alter ego, Bubbles the artist, that she never admitted to being, but she managed Bubbles. And Bubbles created all this porcelain dinnerware and display pieces. And I have several pieces myself with Ernestine’s [Tomlin’s famous telephone operator character] image on it.

She testified before Congress on behalf of the songwriters in fighting for their access, their right to their material, and not being ripped off by the media in certain ways. And her wardrobe alone was a visual statement. Her massive wardrobe alone. Her haircut. Everything about her, she was tireless. Just constantly had a big audio-visual setup that she worked.

The way youre describing her, and from what I know about you and your work, it just makes all the sense in the world that you two would be friends.

I’m so grateful for her friendship. She was a terrific person. I can still see her up in the middle of the aisle at [historic Hollywood restaurant] Musso and Frank. She talked at the top of her voice no matter what she was talking about. She had something to say about everything and just telling it to you in really big ways.

Do you remember a time when something made her that passionate?

I remember that one of the last times I saw her at Musso’s was, I’d gone to the theater to see some production or something at the Pantages [Theatre] and she had a little party there at Musso’s. She was standing up outside the booth and as soon as she saw me, “Oh, Lily!” and then blah, blah, blah. I can’t even possibly recreate it. It was just… she was excited about everything. Excited and interested and bigger than life. And her death was sudden, just like that. It shocked all of us.

Aside from the website, what else did you work on with Allee professionally?

She would do things at the gay center [Los Angeles LGBT Center] and I would present her, or I would present Bubbles. And she would hang her China on the walls. One time she did a plate of me and my partner, Jane [Wagner]. Separate plates. And they were so outrageously funny. When I walked in and I saw those plates on the wall, I started laughing. I just was overcome with laughter.

Photo courtesy of Lily Tomlin.

What did these plates look like?

I have this big red, smiling mouth and stringy looking hair, but you knew it was me. And then Jane was really stoic, blonde, passive, soft smile. You want me to send you a photograph of them? You’ll get a kick out of them. I’m sorry. I’m forcing all this stuff on you.

Oh, are you kidding me? Nothing is being forced on me. I want to see those plates, Lily.

I should start taking them on the road with me! Anyway, I know I was older than Allee. I was five or six or seven years older than she was. But she went to Mumford High School, which was almost in my neighborhood. But I wound up going to Cass Tech because I was in the northern district, and Northern High School was a really tough high school. And so, a lot of kids went over to Cass Tech. And it was supposed to be where the smart kids were anyway. And I was happy to play that role and fell right into it. They weren’t all that smart, believe me.

[Publicist chimes in with a heads that we have five minutes left.]

Oh my god. Wait. And so, the best part was… I grew up in a Black neighborhood. I couldn’t stand the Beatles. I mean, not the Beatles, but whoever would be the big stars of… They were ’64, I was already out of high school. But like Pat Boone or some… don’t say any denigrating stuff. Even Elvis. I didn’t think Elvis was so hot because I liked all the Black artists and dancing. It was so much cooler.

Photo courtesy of Lily Tomlin.

Before we wrap, Id like to ask you about the Night of Wonders event. It sounded magical. And it also sounded very queer to have you and RuPaul there. What was that like?

It was wonderful because everybody was so devoted to Allee. They’re all freakish, anyway. And they have great fun and they love to dress up. And they’re running back and forth on the stage and carrying signs. It was filled with artistic joy.

Lastly, Lily, what do you have coming up?

Well, Jane Fonda and I, right after “Grace and Frankie,” like a month later, we went into this movie with [director] Paul Weitz. I’d done a couple of movies with him before and I really like him. It’s called “Moving On.” It’s a very small, intimate little movie. And I know they’ve sold it and they’re negotiating the distribution, but that’s all I know. And we had great fun doing that. And then about a month after that we did “80 for Brady” with Jane [Fonda] and I, and Sally Field and Rita Moreno. And Tom Brady.

You have to know Lily, but that cast right there is a queer mans dream.

It is, right? My god. Something appeals! But Tom Brady is… it was just none of us knew anything about football.

But it was great fun; we had fun with the director. We had fun doing the project. In fact, they’re having a screening today and a few people are going. I’m not going. The first time I see it, I don’t want to have to be with other people.

Do you like to watch your movies by yourself first?

Yeah, or with just people I know real closely. It’s going to be at the agency and there’ll probably be a lot of agents there. I’m not as brazen and outgoing as I might appear.

You and Jane have spent a lot of time on screen together over the last decade. Whats that feeling like to know that you are so beloved on your own, but also so beloved together, especially by LGBTQ+ fans?

I’m so grateful that I have an audience in the gay community. And it doesn’t compute to you that you’re anything. I realize that people like “Grace and Frankie,” or enough people liked it. And I know that over the years I’ve had hardcore fans that I’ve really enjoyed being with and relating to, because I’ve kept the stories of my characters going all those years.

To contribute to the Willis Wonderland Foundation, visit the official site.

Chris Azzopardi
Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter.