Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda have both enjoyed impressively long Hollywood careers. Fonda, 85, was born into a family of actors (her father was the late film star Henry Fonda), and Jane became a successful actress in her own right during the ’60s with roles in Barefoot in the Park and Barbarella; her star continued rising in later decades, when she added aerobics video instructor to her repertoire. Tomlin, 83, began her professional journey as a comedian, performing on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In from 1969 to 1973; in the ’70s, she began acting in movies, including Nashville and The Late Show. Both women’s careers are still going strong — and through it all, they’ve remained close friends.
Fonda and Tomlin appeared together for the first time in 9 to 5, the iconic workplace comedy that also starred Dolly Parton (what a trio!). In 2015, Fonda and Tomlin joined forces again in the popular Netflix series Grace and Frankie, playing longtime rivals who begin an unlikely friendship when their husbands fall in love with each other. Grace and Frankie ended in 2022 — but for those who miss Fonda and Tomlin’s chemistry, worry not: They’re teaming up yet again in 80 for Brady, a comedy that hits theaters this week, and star in the revenge comedy Moving On, out in March. Here’s a look at their 40-plus year friendship — why it works and why we love them for it.
They genuinely admire each other’s talents.
Women are often pitted against one another — especially in Hollywood, where until recently, female roles for women over 40 were few and far between — but Fonda and Tomlin don’t play the competition game. For them, it’s all about admiration and respect.
In a 2022 interview on The Kelly Clarkson Show, Fonda recalled seeing Tomlin perform her one-woman show, “Appearing Nitely,” in 1978. Fonda was awestruck, and remembers being “totally smitten” by the comedian. At the time, 9 to 5 was still in development, so Fonda, believing Tomlin was perfect for the film, requested a meeting backstage. The admiration, it turned out, was mutual. Tomlin, already a fan of Fonda’s, asked for the her autograph. (She has since admitted to getting a shag haircut inspired by Fonda’s style in the 1971 movie Klute!).
In 1980, two years after the actresses were introduced, 9 to 5 was released, and quickly became a classic, beloved for its focus on women in the workplace; its catchy Dolly Parton theme song; and the chemistry between its stars.
They share a sense of humor.
Jane Fonda plus Lily Tomlin equals comedic genius. While Tomlin is better known as a comic, Fonda has no trouble keeping up — and the two play off of one another in hilarious ways. In Grace and Frankie, for example, Fonda portrays a no-nonsense businesswoman, while Tomlin is her free-spirited, bohemian foil; and like all great comedy duos, their performances energize and complement one another. In a joint 2019 interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Fonda said of Tomlin, “I cannot believe the funny bone that she has.” Just watch this clip of Tomlin quipping that she’s known Fonda since “before her first facelift” — a joke that only she could get away with.
On screen, their madcap adventures — from taking down a sexist boss to road tripping to see their favorite football star (the plot of 80 for Brady) — allow them to lean into their silly sides. Off screen, they ham it up equally well, playfully ribbing each other and reminiscing about their 40-year friendship.
They’re proud of getting older.
Both stars have been in the public eye for decades. At 85 and 83, they’re still ambitious, sharp, and living proof that aging doesn’t slow your sense of humor. In a 2016 TED Talk celebrating their friendship, Fonda spoke movingly about the importance of female camaraderie and joked, “it’s nice to have somebody still around to play with and learn from when you’re getting toward the end.” To this, Tomlin responded, “I’m glad to have you parallel aging aside me.” Watching the talk, it’s apparent that these women understand the profound impact and essential nature of friendship.
True friendship, though important at all life stages, is increasingly important as we age because it reduces isolation and helps us maintain community. Fonda and Tomlin may be privileged celebrities, but the easy rapport and meaningful connection they share can be cultivated by all of us.
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