Spotlight: John Lithgow
Photo by J. Marcus
If ever an actor could be described as a “renaissance man,” it is John Lithgow. He has acted on stage (he won a Tony for The Sweet Smell of Success and recently appeared on Broadway in The Columnist), television (including the beloved 3rd Rock From the Sun and Dexter), and, of course, film (everything from The World According to Garp to Twilight Zone: The Movie and Rise of the Planet of the Apes). But he is also a bestselling author and children’s entertainer, as well as a painter, a songwriter, and family man.
On September 21 and 22, he performs his one-man theatrical memoir, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, at the 710 Main Theatre (formerly Studio Arena). He recently told Spree about that show, and his long career.
You recently finished a run of The Columnist, and you were in one movie released this summer, The Campaign, and another later this year, This is 40. Now, you’re on the road again with your show, Stories by Heart. How do you manage such a busy life?
It’s a pretty crazy life, but that’s what you bargain for when you become an actor. If you’re lucky, you get to work in many different venues and mediums, and I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in movies, TV, and theater. But it does make for an extremely unpredictable life, bouncing from one thing to another. And if you add in children’s concerts and book publishing, there are some days when I wish I could be split in about five different pieces.
What’s your favorite medium?
I think at the heart of all of it is theater. I grew up in the theater, and I keep returning to theater. And I think that whatever I bring to movies and TV [has] a certain degree of theatrical performance. If you think of 3rd Rock From the Sun, or something as extreme as Dexter, those are TV projects which have all the trappings of very highly theatrical performance. I think people count on me for that when they hire me—to bring a certain theatrical energy. My big challenge is always taking it down a notch.
It seems like your father, Arthur, influenced both the one-man show and much of your acting life. Can you talk a little about your father’s impact on you as an actor and on your development of the show, and also your 2011 book, Drama: An Actor’s Education?
The one-man show would never have come to be if it hadn’t been for an extremely vivid experience with my dad near the end of his life. And the book would never have happened if it weren’t for the one-man show. So when I did the one-man show, book publishers came and saw it in New York and urged me to write a memoir. So the book is very much an extension of the solo show. And the experience that I refer to was when he was an older man, about a year and a half before he died. He had an operation; he was very ill, he was very, very despondent, and depressed. I went to take care of him and my mom for a whole month to arrange for some kind of home care for him. And I knew right away that my greatest challenge was going to be purely to cheer him up, make him want to keep on living. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t think of anything that would do the trick.
But then I hit on bedtime stories. And I read bedtime stories to him and my mom from an old book that he had used to read bedtime stories to me and my siblings when we were kids. And that did the trick. I showed him the book at night, I told him to pick a story and he picked “Uncle Fred Flits By.” It all came back to me as I was reading it to him. And I was thrilled by what a brilliant piece of comedy writing it was. But even more I was thrilled that it made my father laugh. And it simply brought him back to life. And that experience was such an epiphany—from that I extrapolated all the reasons I do what I do. Why I act. That is why I tell stories. And the one-man show basically recounts that entire episode of his and my life. And then I perform the two stories that I read to him and my mom. One, “Uncle Fred Flits By” and the other, a very American story by Ring Lardner called “The Haircut.”
So the evening is both entertainment and a rediscovery in two fantastic pieces of writing. But it’s also a meditation on the nature of storytelling. It is biographical and autobiographical, about me and my father. I just love taking it around the country and performing it in all sorts of venues, including many of the places I lived while I was growing up when my father was touring around the country presenting Shakespeare in different places, in Ohio and Massachusetts and New Jersey. It was quite a crazy childhood, but it left me with a lot of hometowns, and it’s nice to go back and visit all of them. The night before I perform in Buffalo, I’ll be performing in Rochester, which is where I was born.
I’m doing my show on the stage of the Studio Arena [now 710 Main Theatre], and there’s a certain melancholy note to that, because when I was growing up that was one of the prominent, very highly regarded regional theaters. But I am very happy that Buffalo theater is so active and creative. All of these terrific companies, I know about them well—the Kavinoky, Torn Space, Irish Classical. I’m just so glad they’re all there. And I just want to tip my hat to them and say, “Carry on. I hope you have better fortune than Studio Arena had.”
Spree summer intern Will Robinson-Smith is a journalism and theater student at Northwestern University.