Lily Tomlin Talks Jenny the Elephant, Dallas City Council and Ross Perot Jr.

The cell phone rang at 10 last night, and Lily Tomlin was on the other end at long last to talk about, right, Jenny the elephant -- though she did have some to say about her canceled HBO series set in Dallas, 12 Miles of Bad Road, including a story involving Mary Kay Place and Ross Perot Jr. you'll find at the end of this piece. Good timing too, as today Mexico-based People for the Defense of Animals officials were at City Hall begging the city not to send Jenny to Mexico -- say wha'? Sure enough, said the group's president: "Mexico is 80 years behind in animal welfare laws and standards compared to your country." So Tennessee it is, right? Still to be determined.

Speaking of determined, back to Tomlin. Turns out, not only did she send Mayor Tom that missive about which we wrote last week, but she's called damned near every city council member, not to mention city manager Mary Suhm, who pawned Tomlin on to Parks and Recreation Department director Paul Dyer, Dallas Zoo director Greg Hudson and other zoo officials who'll determine where the elephant winds up in coming weeks.

"I pled with them from the common-sense angle," says Tomlin, an animal-rights activist from way back. "The Elephant Sanctuary wants her. But my sense is zoos are a closed business, and they keep those elephants in the system and create breeding farms for elephants. ... I talked to Pauline Medrano for a long time and tried to persuade her to listen to the experts coming to the council meetings and see how simple it would be to relinquish the elephant to a sanctuary. And Vonciel Hill was great: no-nonsense, earnest, serious.

" And, look, I'm sure they get calls all the time, but she said she will really pay attention to this," Tomlin continues. "I just hope it wasn't lip service and they try to make the right decision here. I owe Steve Salazar a call back, and I owe Dwaine Caraway a call. I did talk to Mayor Leppert for a half-hour. He kept trying to get me off the phone, but I was not going to let him say goodbye." She laughs. "It's so simple. They should let the animal go to a sanctuary and give it up."

Tomlin knows she's treading into dangerous waters here: the faraway celebrity getting involved in another city's business -- involving an elephant, no less. She's been on Unfair Park; she's read the comments from those who think she ought to butt out, and she knows there are plenty of folks who think the city's got far better things to worry about than the fate of an elephant. Which isn't stopping her. She's dug in. This morning, she even posted a lengthy essay to her blog at Women on the Web titled "Lily Tomlin to the Rescue of a Special-Needs Elephant."

Tomlin became interested in Jenny's case because of a similar one in Los Angeles last year that grabbed her attention. A friend then told her about Margaret Morin, the registered nurse behind Concerned Citizens for Jenny, which has brought in several experts to plead their case to the council. Morin and Tomlin now speak on a regular basis, and Tomlin speaks highly of her new friend -- who, Tomlin says, "spends her days caring for other people and her free time trying to save an elephant."

"And, look, I know my involvement helps in some ways and hinders in others," Tomlin says, adding that it's very possible she'd be willing to make an appearance before city council should it come to that before a final decision's made in a few weeks. "But, see, I'm shy. I know that sounds silly, but even though I am an entertainer, it's not in my nature to grandstand. I've never been this systematically devoted to this issue, and I don't know whether it's because of Margaret or because I've learned so much about the issue over the past year. But the choice seems so simple. To make the wrong one seems so bureaucratic and arbitrary: We're going to do it the way we're going to do it.

"It's sad. Then you see the differences these sanctuaries can make. They're healing. But there are those who will ask: 'Why do you care about one elephant when I can't put gas in my car?' But it's more than symbolic: One animal at a time, one project at a time, moves everyone closer to a more humane society. The culture has gotten so brutal and so ridiculing. You have to be tough. You can't be tender. Tenderness is the act of the chump."

Which is why the chump will spend the next few days trying to reach the rest of the city council -- including, ironically enough, her sole ally on the council, Angela Hunt, with whom Tomlin has traded messages.

Funny thing is, Tomlin had planned on spending a lot more time in Dallas -- till HBO axed the series in which she and Mary Kay Place were to play Highland Park Realtors selling prime properties to the local glitterati. Last time Tomlin was in town, matter of fact, it was to research her role: Tomlin, who has many friends in Dallas and throughout the state (she was, after all, dear friends with the late Ann Richards), finagled an invitation to a Dallas Center for the Performing Arts fund-raiser, where the buy-in was "$1 million a plate," as Tomlin recalls.

"We sat at a table with a lot of well-known Dallasites," she recalls. "We spent several days there. And it was wonderful. But, see, Mary Kay's from Tulsa, and her family still lives in Oklahoma, and I'm an inner-city kid from Detroit. So at this dinner, we're on the elevator with Ross Perot Jr. and his wife, and he said, very kindly, 'I'd sure like to take you around tomorrow in our helicopter and show you Dallas.' Well, we laughed like it was a joke, because it was almost like someone saying, 'I'll give you your weight in gold.' It was so extreme. And he probably didn't know what was so strange about it. We weren't laughing at him. I swear."

As for the fate of that stretch of Bad Road, well, it's all but a dead-end. Linda Thomason's working on another show, though, with much of the very same cast. Only, this time it'll be set in ... Austin. Of course. --Robert Wilonsky

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky