Flashing Back: Lily Tomlin and Dabney Coleman discuss “Nine to Five”

coleman-tomlin-9-5If you saw yesterday’s edition of “Watch This” on the Onion AV Club, then you already know that Eric Thurm shined the spotlight on the 1980 comedy Nine to Five, starring the unlikely trio of Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin as office employees battling back against their sexist supervisor, played by the always-irascible Dabney Coleman. As these things always do, it immediately reminded me of the conversations I had with Tomlin and Coleman about the film in their respective Random Roles interviews.

Both are lengthy, in-depth pieces that are worth reading in their entirety (you can find the links above), but if you’re only just curious about their reflections on Nine to Five, here are the appropriate excerpts about the film in question:

MBDNITO FE002Lily Tomlin: You know, Jane Fonda produced Nine To Five and created it for herself, Dolly [Parton], and me. But I turned it down at first. I was shooting The Incredible Shrinking Woman, which was a real trial. We were shooting for seven months. We finally had to shut it down just so I could go make Nine To Five. It was just a lot of stuff. Plus, Shrinking Woman had come on the heels of Moment By Moment, where we’d had such a disaster, and we were just in agony over that, anyway. But we went ahead and starting shooting Shrinking Woman, and one thing and another… blah blah blah, I won’t go into it, but it was a long, long shoot and very physical, with a lot of running around on scaffolding 30 feet high with no railings, because it was supposed to be a lab table.

So what happened was that I was on the set of Shrinking Woman one night, and I hadn’t said “yes” to Nine To Five yet, which was just unforgivable of me because of Jane Fonda. So they came to me and said, “They’ve got to have an answer,” because I just kept stringing them along, and I said, “Well, if it has to be now, then I’m saying no.” So I go home and I tell my partner Jane, “I turned down to Nine To Five,” and she said, “This is the worst thing you’ve ever done! How can you do that to Jane? She created this movie for you and Dolly, and you just cannot do that. This is going to be a terrific movie!” And I said… [Hesitates.] I’m telling you too much.

AV Club: I promise you, you absolutely are not.

LT: No, I am. I know in my heart I am. [Laughs.] I mean, there were things like… I didn’t like certain jokes in the movie, but they always got big laughs. Colin [Higgins] always knew where the laughs were and the timing. For instance, I didn’t like when we’re all at the bar and we’re supposed to be loaded, and I say, “Are you a woman or a wouse?” And then I didn’t like when Jane had to say, “And if I’m doing M&Ms,” because she doesn’t know what S&M is, and stuff like that, I was like, “Oh, this is just too lame. Nobody’s going to laugh at that.” But, of course, they do laugh, and quite heartily.

And there were times when I’d say to Colin… There’s a scene in Hart’s office, where Hart is pontificating about playing football and how girls don’t know what it is to be part of a team and all that stuff, and of course it was very funny. But earlier, I’d said in the outer office, “I’ve never seen anybody leapfrog so fast… and I’ve got the bad back to prove it,” which was a line that my partner Jane gave me and I threw in. So when Hart’s talking about football, I said to Colin, “Can I lean over and say to Jane, ‘Or leapfrog’?” But Colin said, “They’ll never hear you.” Well, I chewed on that for a while, but when the movie came out, the audience is laughing so much at Dabney [Coleman] that they wouldn’t have heard it. Colin seemed to know every beat. It was astonishing. Anyway, at some point, I called them back up and told them I wanted my part in the movie back. [Laughs.]

AVC: You, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda would seem to be a very unlikely trio, but there was real chemistry between the three of you.

LT: Yeah. And for years, we tried to make a sequel, but it just never worked out. There were several scripts, but after Colin died, we sort of gave up on that. Which is a shame. I wish we’d done it, if only just for the sake of doing it.

Dabney1Dabney Coleman: How adorable is Lily Tomlin? She’s one of the greats, I think. In every way. Well, I think of Lily initially because I think she had a lot to do with my getting that part. When I was doing Bright Promise, a now-defunct NBC soap opera, she was doing Laugh-In at the same time, and I loved that show and, in particular, I loved her. I loved when she was playing a high-school cheerleader, and she did this little cheer. I wanted to meet her, so after shooting Bright Promise one day, I just went over to the set of Laugh-In, knocked on her door, and when she invited me in, I said, “I just wanted to tell you how great I think you are, and that cheerleading thing you do.” I can’t do it justice, but it was just adorable the way she did it. In fact, I kind of had the hots for her. I thought she was very sexy. Cut to about 10 years later, I haven’t seen her since then, but [Nine To Five director] Colin Higgins, he was talking to Lily, and she said, “Well, what about Dabney Coleman? He’s funny and he’s sexy.” That’s a quote. [Laughs.] And Colin says, “Okay.” My understanding is that’s literally the way it happened, so I think that’d pass for saying that she got me that part. And that’s the first thing I remember when I think of that film.

The next thing I think of is how great all three of those girls were to me, because they were several steps up the ladder from where I was in my career. All of ’em were well-established. To varying degrees, but all extremely successful already. Almost icons in their fields, if you want to break it down like that. And here’s this guy coming off of Mary Hartman, which is not too shabby. [Laughs.] But it was late-night TV. Anyway, what I’m alluding to is that all three of them went out of their way to make me feel equal. There’s no other way to put it. Status-wise and talent-wise, they all made me feel extremely secure and were very supportive. I worked with Lily a couple of other times, most notably on The Beverly Hillbillies, but on both that and Nine To Five, I remember every now and then, she’d say, “Dabney, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to make it funny. What should I do?” And I’d look at her and just say, “Lily, come on. I’m not gonna say shit, because I have a feeling you might just come up with something that’s gonna be very, very funny. Don’t ever ask me that again, okay?” It was just very cute. Lily Tomlin asking me how to be funny. Unbelievable.

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