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The Reincarnation of Edith Ann : LILY TOMLIN'S PROBLEM CHILD GOES IN SEARCH OF HERSELF

January 16, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She's cute. She's inquisitive. She's precocious. She lisps. She's honest. And she always says what's on her mind.

Edith Ann is one of Lily Tomlin's most beloved creations and on her mind a lot these days, even though she won't perform the adorable little girl in concert any more. "You just reach a point," Tomlin, 54, says matter-of-factly. "You feel a little peculiar sitting up in the chair trying to be 5 1/2."

But Edith Ann lives, thanks to the magic of animation. And that's the truthhhhh .

Edith Ann is the star of two new ABC prime-time specials. The first, "Edith Ann--A Few Pieces of the Puzzle," premieres Tuesday. The second, "Homeless Go Home," in which Edith befriends a bag lady, is scheduled to air later this season.

Of course, Tomlin provides the voice of Edith Ann.

"Pieces of the Puzzle" finds the precocious little girl, nicknamed "No Neck" by her schoolmates, feeling unloved and unwanted on her birthday. In fact, none of her family has remembered it. Her father, Dirk, an unemployed, recovering alcoholic, is off in his own dream world. Her mother, Anna, is busy with her job as an airport security guard. Her older sister Irene loves rock 'n' roll more than her anything else. And forget about Edith's baby brother, Vic. The two simply hate each other.

Even Edith Ann's school chums at Edgeville Elementary are bugging her. Only after having a heart-to-heart talk with her school psychologist, Dr. Maria Lopez, does Edith Ann fit together "a few pieces of the puzzle" of life.

Sipping on a soda at a Los Feliz restaurant, the Tony-, Emmy- and Grammy Award-winning actress explains that she and her longtime collaborator, writer-director Jane Wagner ("The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe"), first came up with the idea of animating Edith Ann about 15 years ago. Wagner even wrote a treatment, but the two didn't seriously pursue selling the idea.

The first artist to animate Edith Ann was Tomlin's friend, the late Richard Amsel. "He was a big Edith fan and he was also a Disney fan. He could draw, but he couldn't animate so he taught himself how to animate. He did about a minute and half of Edith and he filmed me first on 8 millimeter," Tomlin recalls. "It was just so adorable. I don't know where that film is. It was real appealing. It was just in her little voice."

A few years ago, after Tomlin and Wagner received a letter from an executive at Hanna-Barbera, they became serious about the Edith Ann project.

"He was so enthusiastic," Tomlin says. "He persuaded us to come and take a meeting. We spent like six months talking to him about whether or not to animate Edith ..."

None of the concepts was quite right, so Tomlin and Wagner started going to animation festivals. "For a while we wanted to do it in model animation like 'The Nightmare Before Christmas.' At one point, we built Edith's house and a lot of models. We built them in our garage and we hired some animators, some very good people. None of this really worked out the way we wanted it," Tomlin says.

Until a year ago, when they met Hollywood-based animators Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo, who previously worked on "The Simpsons," and the animated "Rugrats," the popular Nickelodeon cartoon. "We felt really good about them and we made a partnership."

ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert immediately gave the go-ahead for the project after meeting with Tomlin and Wagner. "He loved the scripts and just went for them like that. I don't know what his exact words were, but he said, 'I don't want to rush this because I think this could be something terrific,' " Tomlin says.

Tomlin and Wagner were very involved in the production, even collaborating with character-design artists to not only bring Edith Ann to life but also to help realize the characters Edith talked about in her monologues.

"They just started drawing different styles," Tomlin says. "You kind of tell them what you liked and what you didn't. We already knew how Edith had to look. She's not stylized in some extreme way and she vaguely resembles me doing Edith."

And for good reason. Klasky-Csupo studied Tomlin doing Edith Ann more than 20 years ago on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."

Even the family dog, Hug the Pug, went through various permutations. "I actually went to a photo session at Greg Gorman's studio," Tomlin recalls. "He had a little French bulldog. I think that's what they are called. I took a Polaroid of the dog and took it back to one of the character designers. He started modifying the dog because I liked the way the dog looked so much."

The animators also subtly wove real photographs into the animation. "Because it's all about Edith's emotional life, you really want people to get involved, get caught up in it and really believe in everything she's feeling and going through," Tomlin explains. "I think it's really an effective thing to do."

The photos inject a touch of reality. "I don't think the average viewer will even notice it immediately," Tomlin says. "I think it's affecting in some way. Sometimes, the sky is real and there are textures that are real that have been scanned into the computer. If you look at the table top in the kitchen, it's like a Formica table top. It has real depth to it, but it is elusive. The cartoon of milk is real and sometimes it isn't."

Tomlin is thrilled with the end result. "It's all the things we would want something to be," she enthuses. "We wanted it to be funny. We wanted it to be instructive and inspiring. We want it to be entertaining."

And now Tomlin and Wagner hope it will become a weekly series.

"We are primed for that," Tomlin says. "That's what we've worked for."

"Edith Ann -- A Few Pieces of the Puzzle" airs Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.

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