Sunday Conversation with Lily Tomlin

The many faces of Lily Tomlin are well known to television audiences, and with her current gig on the FX legal thriller “Damages,” there’s one more just as compelling. Tomlin, 70, plays Marilyn Tobin, the dispossessed wife of the Bernie Madoff figure, Louis Tobin, and a dark departure from the classic characters she introduced on “Laugh-In” 40 years ago.

Ernestine and others are alive and kicking in Tomlin’s concert tour and her Las Vegas show, “Not Playing With a Full Deck,” which is returning to the MGM Grand from April 29 to May 5. She’s also working on a “Desperate Housewives” spinoff, a mystery comedy featuring her character, Roberta Simmons, and Kathryn Joosten’s Karen McCluskey character.

What drew you to “Damages”?

I was a huge fanatical fan from the beginning. It was well written, it was exciting, it was so unpredictable and the plot turned on itself. Mary Kay Place and I were working on a show together [the never-aired series “12 Miles of Bad Road”] . . . and as much as we loved what we were doing, we were crazed to get out of the studio to get home to watch this show. And we saw Glenn [Close] at the Emmys that year, and we were just all over her. My Teamster on “Damages” who was driving me every morning -- I’m getting all hyped up, my heart is racing just talking about it, how exciting it was -- he had never watched “Damages” until I got on the show this year and . . . he said, “Really, I’m addicted.”

How did you decide how Marilyn Tobin should look?

They’d never had a redhead on the show that I could remember, certainly no major character. I wanted someone that would look mature and her look would be very important to her, her nails and her grooming. I showed the creators several different photos of different ways to go with my hair. I brought that wig to them. I’m a very big wig person, not in real life, but I’ve made wigs for years, for characters. Imelda Marcos had a shoe room. I have a wig room.

One review noted comic undertones in your performance. Are you conscious of that?

No, I think they’re projecting it. There are lines in the first episode, when I say about Patty Hewes after she’s deposed me, “I don’t think she’s very smart, that woman.” To be so innocent to say that about Patty Hewes . . . The reviewer said she laughed out loud, but I don’t think it was because I was comedic. I think it was because of the irony of the lines.

You’ve actually been going back and forth between comedy and drama for many years. Do you have a preference?

I don’t see any difference, really. It’s just a matter of style or degree. And I’ve listened to Marty [Short, who plays the Tobins’ devious lawyer], and he has the same point of view. You’re just going to try to represent the human who’s written on the page.

On April 8 you’re going to be honored by “Laugh-In” cast members in a Voice for the Animals benefit at the Comedy Store. Are you still in touch with them?

Oh, yeah, many of them I am. I was very friendly with Henry [Gibson], and Henry died last year. He was the first one of that original group. I see Jo Anne [Worley] quite often. And George Schlatter, the producer, I’ve always been close to George. He was really the reason for me to become well known. When I started out and I would go to different people and show them my characters, they would pretty much pull away from me. I’m sure they thought I was sort of bizarre. And George totally went for it. I didn’t air until the last show of ’69, and Ernestine overnight was like a sensation.

And she’s still around. She’s in the show you’re touring in.

Ernestine works now at a big healthcare insurance corporation. And when the divestiture came, she was not going to stick around.

I read that Ernestine has been denying healthcare. What’s she going to do under healthcare reform?

She’s still in the catbird seat.

I understand you live in a smart house in L.A.?

When the mailman would leave the mail, it would say, “Your mail has arrived.” There were touch screens for temperature. And then when I came into the house and I was going to remodel it a bit -- I had so many rotten contractors -- they tore everything out and nobody could replicate it.

So your house ended up not being so smart ?

The joke I would say at the time was it was the dumbest thing I ever did.