It's a new twist on an old story for Lily Tomlin. ''I was raised in the Baptist church,'' she tells me. ''And every Sunday I'd sit in the kitchen with my dad, trying to get him to go to church.'' We're in the back room of a Mexican restaurant not far from the Hollywood studios where The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the film adaptation of her one-woman play of the same name, was shot. ''My dad's smokin' some old Luckys, you know, drinkin' a beer. Sayin', 'Aw, babe, don't worry about the old man.' '' She laughs a sound of sweet discovery at her imitation. She still has the best 10,000-watt smile around.
''I'd say to my Sunday-school teacher, 'What if my father doesn't go to heaven? How could I be happy there?' And she'd say, 'Whatever you need to be happy will be in heaven.'
''So years lateruld tell interviewers this was when I was still on Laugh-In, and I was still so popular, because of Ernestine that I wasn't worried, 'cause I'd know there'd be some people sitting up there in heaven, saying, 'I wish that girl that used to be Ernestine was up here, and give us a good show.' '' She laughs delightedly. ''And I figured I had my way up there insured. But now,'' Tomlin says, and this is the twist, ''my TVQ has dropped, so I may not make it.'' The look on her face is complicated, both mocking the idea and fearing it.
''Lily loves opening nights and all that, and I don't like it at all,'' Jane Wagner, 56, says of Tomlin, who, at the height of her Laugh-In fame, saw a TV movie Wagner had written and sought out her writing aid, beginning a collaboration in work and life that has lasted two decades. ''I've always accused her of being like Margaret Thatcher she really gets an adrenaline rush from being in the public eye. Lily's never denied it.''
Yet at 52, Tomlin has been out of public sight, if not out of mind, for quite a while. For 15 years, she endeared herself to millions, beginning with her revelatory early-'70s appearances on Laugh-In as Ernestine, the power-mad telephone operator, and 5-year-old Edith Ann. Not long afterward, there was an Oscar nomination for Nashville (1975) and a Broadway debut (1977) in the Wagner-written Appearing Nitely, which won her a special Tony and landed her on the cover of Time. Then came a two-year downturn, triggered by her biggest flop, the Wagner-directed Moment by Moment (1978), a love story she starred in with John Travolta. But she bounced back with the hit comedy 9 to 5 (1980) and All of Me (1984), her remarkable pairing with Steve Martin, as well as a number of Emmy-winning TV specials.
She reached an apotheosis of sorts with The Search, which opened on Broadway in 1985. The tour de force starred Tomlin as Trudy the bag lady and 11 other female and male characters ranging from a trio of feminists to a male bodybuilder to a lonely rich woman into whose minds and bodies Trudy's out-of-kilter soul strayed. It was Tomlin's greatest vehicle.