In December 1980, a feminist workplace comedy called 9 to 5 was released and became an instant classic. It grossed over $100 million at the box office, star Dolly Parton had a No. 1 hit with the titular theme song, and it eventually became both a successful TV show and a Broadway musical.
But a fun byproduct of the film is that the three leads — Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda — became friends on set and have remained friends ever since. In Parton’s new A&E biography, Tomlin and Fonda can’t say enough good things about their country music star friend.
Both Fonda and Tomlin Say Parton Is a Force to Be Reckoned With
Tomlin says Parton’s story is an “extraordinary tale” and adds that while she is “somewhat a cartoon character,” she “is who she is, even though she isn’t.”
“She’s an entity that exists and she’s kept it alive for how many decades? So I think [the persona is] partly her now. I mean, if it wasn’t her before, which I think it partly was, I think it’s certainly instilled itself in her so much that she is who she is, even though she isn’t,” says Tomlin.
Fonda, who is known for her liberal politics, admires that Parton can touch such a wide range of people across all ideologies and beliefs. She says she’s never seen the kind of affection and devotion from fans that Parton has earned.
“It’s like through her songs, she opens up her arms wide and embraces such a broad swath of people that don’t always feel seen and it’s why people love her,” says Fonda. “And it’s why when we’ve been in public with her, her fans will drive for hours to be where she is. I’ve been with a lot of big movie stars and I’ve never seen the devotion her fans have for her in anyone else. It’s quite extraordinary.”
Fonda Knew Parton Had to Star in 9 to 5 Before They Ever Met Each Other
Fonda recalls how she was driving home from having just seen Tomlin’s one-woman show and she was thinking about 9 to 5, which she (Fonda) was producing. And then it suddenly hit her — the two of them had to star in it and Parton had to be the third lead.
“I was driving home from having just seen Lily Tomlin for the first time in her one-woman show called Appearing Nightly and I was totally smitten by Lily. And I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to be in a movie, which I was producing, about secretaries unless Lily Tomlin is in it too.’ And driving home, turn on the radio, ‘Two Doors Down’ is playing, and I suddenly get an image of Dolly Parton sitting at a typewriter and I thought — that would be something to have Dolly Parton in her first movie, playing a secretary, in a movie that among many other things is going to touch upon sexual harassment. She’s perfect,” says Fonda.
Fonda and Tomlin Were Blown Away When Parton Wrote the 9 to 5 Song
But Parton only agreed to do 9 to 5 if she could write the theme song. Fonda and the other producers agreed, so the women got started in rehearsals and also trying to get to known one another off the set, having what Tomlin calls “pajamas parties” at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
“You cannot finish a day with Dolly without laughing so hard that you have to cross your legs,” says Fonda.
Then when they got to set, Parton says she just wandered around, getting a feel for the “office” and the song “9 to 5” just started coming to her.
“One memorable moment that Lily and I talk about from time to time was the morning Dolly came to work and motioned us over,” recalls Fonda. “And just outside the set, she said, ‘I’ve just written the song.’ And she used her long nails as a washboard and she sang ‘9 to 5’ and Lily and I looked at each other and we had goosebumps.”
Tomlin adds, “Jane Fonda and I were just flabbergasted. We thought it was so great. I said to Jane this will make the movie a hit if nothing else.”
“We knew this is not just a movie song, this is an anthem,” says Fonda.
The Dolly Parton A&E biography airs Sunday, April 12 from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., followed by Willie Nelson: American Outlander, a special concert that pays tribute to Nelson’s seven-decades-long career.