Lily Tomlin of '80 for Brady' talks defying ageism, staying in love with Detroit

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In “80 for Brady,” Lily Tomlin’s character delivers an inspirational message during the 2017 Super Bowl game to quarterback Tom Brady that would make Coach Taylor from “Friday Night Lights” get teary-eyed.

So given Tomlin’s longstanding affection for her Motor City hometown, would the Oscar nominee and winner of Tonys, Emmys and one Grammy be willing to give pep talks next season to the Detroit Lions?

After asking whether the team has been struggling — hey, living legends are busy! — Tomlin, 83, says she’ll be thinking of the Lions and hoping that they win.

“I guess maybe they should look at our movie and see these old friends aren’t too easily vanquished. They keep at it, they keep at it and they come through,” she says by phone. “And they get Tom Brady to come through.”

Rita Moreno, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sally Field star in "80 for Brady."
Rita Moreno, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sally Field star in "80 for Brady."

Opening in theaters this week, “80 for Brady” is inspired by a group of real-life older women who bonded over being fans of the New England Patriots and specifically the NFL team's quarterback for 20 seasons, Tom Brady, who announced his retirement Wednesday from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In the Hollywood version of this football-fueled friendship, Lily plays Lou, a cancer survivor whose fandom for Brady helped her recuperate from chemotherapy. Jane Fonda, who’s 85, is Trish, a former local TV commercial star who now writes erotic fiction about Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (with titles like “Between a Gronk and a Hard Place”).

Sally Field, 76, is Betty, a cautious retired math professor from MIT. And 91-year-old Rita Moreno is Maura, a widow who is still getting over the death of her husband and who has been getting attention from a retirement community resident (played by another famous Detroiter, Glynn Turman) who has a major crush on her.

Written by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, who explored high school friendship in 2019's “Booksmart," “80 for Brady” has hints of outrageous comedy (just wait for the Guy Fieri hallucination that Maura has) and a few tender moments on the challenges of growing older. When the plot takes these golden girls to the Super Bowl, the movie becomes a veritable fantasy camp for women of a certain age. Lou and her friends impress the younger folks around them, overcome insurmountable obstacles and, yes, somehow gain entry to the Patriots locker room.

Being deep in AARP territory doesn’t hold this quartet back. But what does Tomlin think about the state of real-life ageism in 2023, particularly in entertainment? ”It’s how I’ve felt about it for 50 years. I resented it. I thought it was wrong. I always made my own work,” she says, referring to the award-winning TV specials and stage productions she has created with her longtime life partner, Jane Wagner, whom she married in 2013.

As a titan of modern comedy, Tomlin wears her accolades lightly. The Cass Tech alum left Wayne State University in the mid-1960s to pursue a career in  comedy and emerged in 1969 as a star of NBC’s “Laugh-In." Her hit characters on the hip variety show included opinionated telephone operator Ernestine, precocious child Edith Ann and tasteful lady Mrs. Earbore, who was modeled after Grosse Pointe society matrons. (Her mother’s maiden name happened to be Ford, Tomlin says, but she was not related to the auto dynasty).

Tomlin has found success in every niche of performing that she has attempted. She has had recurring roles in prime time TV on CBS’s “Murphy Brown” and NBC’s “The West Wing.” In children's television, she was the voice of Ms. Frizzle on the cartoon series “The Magic School Bus.” In movies, she earned an Oscar nod for Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” lit up the screen along with Fonda and Dolly Parton in the classic feminist comedy “9 to 5” and starred with Steve Martin in “All of Me” and Bette Midler in “Big Business.”  Her first comedy album landed a Grammy

“My father was a factory worker and my mother was a nurse's aide. … I knew what the hardscrabble life was," Lily Tomlin says of her early years in Detroit.
“My father was a factory worker and my mother was a nurse's aide. … I knew what the hardscrabble life was," Lily Tomlin says of her early years in Detroit.

One of Tomlin’s greatest triumphs was her one-woman Broadway show written by Wagner, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." It earned Tomlin a Tony and was made into a 1991 film. Last year, “Saturday Night Live” alum Cecily Strong appeared in a revival of the play that ran in New York City and Los Angeles.

More recently, Tomlin and Fonda conquered streaming with Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” which lasted from 2015 to 2022 and put them on the radar of millennials. With actresses 60 and older experiencing a moment  currently — women like Jennifer Coolidge of “The White Lotus,,” Sheryl Lee Ralph of “Abbott Elementary” Oscar nominees Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis from “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and the incomparable Carol Burnett, a guest star on “Better Call Saul”s final season — Tomlin has been at the forefront of the rise of women of a certain age.

But it takes coaxing for her to admit that. “I think we had a part in it. I don’t know that we’ve led the movement. Maybe to a certain extent we have because we’re so ubiquitous,” she allows, noting the vigorous “80 for Brady” ad campaign that's under way. “We’re everywhere you look. This movie, I’ve never seen so many promotions. I’m hoping the audience still wants to see it.”

Tomlin’s dedication to work is in keeping with her self-described childhood as a blue-collar kid in Detroit. “My father was a factory worker and my mother was a nurse's aide. … I knew what the hardscrabble life was," she says.

Her voice lights up when she talks about growing up in a neighborhood near Detroit's old Herman Kiefer Hospital. The apartment building where she lived essentially was her first school for character-driven comedy.

“I was terribly attracted to all the characters that lived in our apartment house. I was a very cheeky, independent kid anyway. ... I went to everybody’s apartment and hung out with them. I did whatever they were doing just so I could stay there. The older people would often say, “Don’t you have to be home at a certain (time)?’ ‘Oh, no, no, I told my mother I was coming home late tonight.’ And I was 8 or 10 at the most when I was doing that.”

Tomlin says her working-class roots were a factor in her continuing advocacy for fairness and equality, such as her 2017 trip with Fonda to Detroit to campaign for a living wage. “It’s  not even that you think of yourself as an activist,” she says. “ It’s that you just speak out. You see so many things that are wrong and inequitable, and you just feel you have to say something or do something. And, of course, Fonda became a great cohort for that. ... She’s actually committed to help the climate crisis improve itself.”

Reminded that she was arrested in 2019 at one of Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays climate crisis protests in Washington, D.C., Tomlin says, “I make myself as useful as I can with Fonda and with everyone else.”

Asked how the younger members of the “80 for Brady” cast (Billy Porter, Patton Oswalt, Sara Gilbert and Ron Funches are among the co-stars) treated her, Tomlin responds amiably, “Like old school?”

She seems happy to share memories with actors who grew up watching her. “I did (2013’s) ‘Admission’ with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd a few years ago, and all they wanted to talk about was (1981’s) ‘The Incredible Shrinking Woman.’ They were just mad to talk about that and all the different effects we did.”

In Great Britain, performers of Tomlin’s stature are honored with royal titles for their accomplishments. Shouldn't Detroit do something similar like declaring her a dame of the city? She laughs at the suggestion. “Sure! Why not? What would that get me? With $1.50, maybe it would get me a cup of coffee or something. That would be fun.”

Tomlin knows a damehood would be a hard sell in her unpretentious hometown. “Detroit doesn’t fool around, Detroit is like,  ‘Oh, wait a minute, let’s see, why this person?’”

Besides, it would be difficult to top the compliment she once receive while she was here shopping at Hudson’s or some other bygone downtown department store. “A woman shouted to me across the vast expanse of the showroom. She said, “Lily, Lily, thanks for all the years of merriment!,” says Tomlin. “I thought that was so great.”

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at jhinds@freepress.com.

'80 for Brady'

In theaters; screenings Wednesday night and Thursday, opens wide Friday

Rated PG-13, language, drug content, suggestive references

1 hour, 38 minutes

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: '80 for Brady' movie with Lily Tomlin opens as NFL's Tom Brady retires