John Lithgow on playing Winston Churchill and passing on Cheers

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John Lithgow on playing Winston Churchill and passing on Cheers

Photo: Alex Bailey/Netflix
Photo: Alex Bailey/Netflix

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: If there’s one sure way to confirm John Lithgow’s success as an actor, it’s that he’s managed to maintain a high-profile career for the better part of four decades. Granted, he didn’t really hit household-name status until the early ’80s, but after films like The World According To Garp, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Footloose, The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, and Harry And The Hendersons, his reputation as a character actor was permanently secured. Since then, Lithgow has also found success on the small screen, earning both laughs (3rd Rock From The Sun) and screams (Dexter), and his latest turn is toward the dramatic, playing Winston Churchill in Netflix’s new historical drama, The Crown.

The Crown (2016)—“Sir Winston Churchill”

Photo: Alex Bailey/Netflix

The A.V. Club: How much about the history of Winston Churchill did you know going into this project? Are you a history buff?

John Lithgow: Not particularly. Actually, I had done a project called World War II: When Lions Roared on television, an NBC miniseries, playing [Franklin D.] Roosevelt with Bob Hoskins playing Churchill and Michael Caine playing Stalin. It’s about their dealings during World War II. So I learned a lot about Churchill as a wartime prime minister—and much more about Roosevelt, of course—but I would say, in totality, I knew about 10 percent of what learned. I mean, it was really an extraordinary education, certainly about his late years. There’s a great book called Churchill Defiant about exactly this period. But the 70 years preceding that… I mean, what an extraordinary history! It’s the history of the 20th century, that man! So it was really plunging in and really, really enjoying it.

AVC: You’ve certainly done the accent before, but how was the challenge of doing the makeup?

JL: Well, you know, I had great collaborators. This woman named Ivana Primorac, we were intent on doing as little makeup as we could get away with, just so it wasn’t a painted papier-mâché mask, you know? In fact, it was about a 20-minute-long makeup job. It was very simple. There was a wonderful hairpiece—they do great hair in Britain—which made me look even balder than I am. It was like a comb-over that goes straight back!

So that, a little bit of fake eyebrow, two remarkable little plumpers that gave me my Churchillian jowls and also helped with the voice, and I jammed cotton up my nose to give me a bulbous nose, and that was about it. And a few liver spots! We wanted to keep it just me, 10 years older than I am. And I thought it was wonderful makeup. That and sticking a cigar in my mouth and putting on those great, eccentric spectacles. You know, those little things. And the body. The body did everything. The fat suit and the clothes tailored to me if I were about 80 pounds heavier. It was something!

Dealing: Or The Berkeley-To-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972)—“John”

AV Club: We try to go back to an actor’s first on-camera role, and it looks like yours was playing John in Dealing.

JL: Oh, my god! I haven’t heard about that in so many years. Good for you! You’ve actually surprised me!

It was the first time I was ever in a movie. I didn’t know what moviemaking was about. Nothing! And nobody told me! Nobody gave me the slightest instructions! I didn’t know about two-shots and over-the-shoulders and close-ups and masters. I knew nothing! And it was a very interesting experience, for sure. I was quite young, it was in… oh, god, what year would it have been?

AVC: It was released in ’72, so it would’ve been made maybe in ’71?

JL: I think it was ’71. And everybody wanted to do another Easy Rider. That’s what it was all about. We were all stoned, all the time, so that didn’t help. I mean, try to learn how to make a movie when you’re stoned. I don’t think we were ever stoned on the set, but… it was about dope dealing, for god’s sake, so I did plenty of research with everybody else.

I don’t know. I was playing a sort of Harvard fop, which a couple of years before was exactly what I had been. The director was from Harvard, and he’d known me then very slightly. He’d known me as sort of a campus star actor. And that’s how I got into the movies: in a movie that nobody has seen or even mentioned to me in about 40 years. So good for you!

AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?

JL: Well, I grew up in a theater family. My father was a regional theater classical repertory producer. He created Shakespeare festivals. He produced all of Shakespeare’s plays, mostly in Shakespeare festivals in Ohio. One of them, the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, is still going. So I grew up not wanting to be an actor, not wanting to go into the family business.

AVC: I was going to ask if there was a temptation to rebel.

JL: Well, it wasn’t actually rebellion, but I was very interested in being a painter. I had facility, I had talent, and I loved painting and printmaking, and I was quite serious about it. But I went to Harvard and immediately fell into the theater gang, and I was already an experienced actor, so you go with the flow! I’ve already used the phrase “campus star.” [Laughs.]

AVC: Were you surprised to find yourself the campus star?

JL: Well, surprised and delighted! Anyone who hears enough laughter and applause at a young age will become an actor, whether they intend to or not. And it’s worked out fine. I’ve always considered it my first big mistake.

The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (1984)—“Lord John Whorfin”/”Dr. Emilio Lizardo”

AVC: There have been threats of bodily harm if this one gets skipped.

JL: Oh, no, you can’t skip that one. That’s my pride and joy! As a matter of fact, I just saw that somebody posted a Dr. Lizardo speech online right after Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention. It’s the one where he says, “Where are we going?” And they say, “Planet 10!” And I say, “When?” And they say, “Real soon!” [Laughs.] Buckaroo Banzai… Only very lucky actors have a role like that in their résumé.

AVC: What did you think when you first got the script?

JL: Oh, I turned it down.

AVC: Did you really?

JL: Oh, yes. It didn’t make any sense to me at all. I thought, “This is nuts! And a crazy character!” But they begged me just to get together, and I met W.D. Richter and Earl Mac Rauch, and I loved the guys. They were so delightful. And I remember Rick saying, “Do this! No matter what happens, it’ll be really fun!” And he persuaded me. And from the beginning to the very end, I think I was laughing all the time except for when the camera was rolling. And, in fact, there is a moment in the film where you can see me breaking up. It was that much fun!

AVC: It wasn’t a huge box-office success, but the devotion of its cult following is profound.

JL: Oh, yes! When it first came out, though, we were all disappointed. It got a very bad release, because it was done in the very last moments of one regime at 20th Century Fox and Tri-Star. That was when it was done. It was one of the first releases of the new regime, and it was one of those films where nobody particularly wanted to claim credit for it. The new regime didn’t want the old regime to get credit, and the old regime was no longer in the picture. So it got this strange little release where it was almost dumped on the market, and the crazy brainy hipster population discovered it. But they were the only ones.

AVC: They’re still flying the flag for the film, though. Shout Factory just reissued it on Blu-ray.

JL: Yeah, I just did an interview for that! I loved it. It was so much fun. And D.W. Richter is just a great guy.

Resting Place (1986)—“Maj. Kendall Laird”
Baby Girl Scott (1987)—“Neil Scott”
My Brother’s Keeper (1995)—“Tom Bradley”/”Bob Bradley”

JL: My Brother’s Keeper?! My god! You’ve really done your research. Really, I haven’t even thought about these in years. That was a wonderful project. It was Glenn Jordan who directed it, and it was based on a real story. It was back during the “disease of the week” era of movies of the week, but they did some pretty extraordinary stuff on network television. Those days are completely gone. I did two or three really good ones: My Brother’s Keeper, Baby Girl Scott, and Resting Place. I got two Emmy nominations for them, and they’re really wonderful pieces of work.

My Brother’s Keeper was about a pair of identical twins, both gay men, who both taught at the same school on Long Island, one of whom contracted AIDS. It was in the early years when they were just trying anything to try and corral this horrible epidemic, and it was all about… It was kind of an obscure plot, but it was about an effort to attempt a bone marrow transplant between two identical twins, thinking that might be a solution, and the insurance company was not stepping up to pay for it. I mean, it was very odd. But it was fascinating to play these two men.

When we made the film, one of them had died, so it was the other one who gave the blessing for the project and was very involved in it. I lost a lot of weight for a lot of the characters, and I wore an inch-thick fat suit for the other one. And I looked just different enough, but certainly very, very similar… like identical twins! Glenn Jordan was a superb director, and it was a very moving story.

The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers (2004)—“Blake Edwards”

JL: There’s another one that I don’t hear very often! That was just an offer, one that surprised me. I’m always being asked to play roles or characters that I don’t really resemble, but it was working with Geoffrey Rush and Stephen Hopkins, a terrific director. Like The Crown, that was another of my London gigs.

AVC: How did you approach the challenge of portraying Blake Edwards?

JL: I don’t know, I just sort of immersed myself and imagined myself a knockabout comedy director! Apparently Blake distanced himself from the project. He was not enthusiastic about being impersonated by anybody. I never heard how he felt about them casting me. But when the movie was done, he was very proud of it. In fact, he did more press interviews for it than I did! He really got out in front of it. So that pleased me. It’s kind of nice to know that somebody was happy with your performance.

L.A. Story (1991)—“Harry Zell”

AVC: Technically you played Harry Zell in L.A. Story, but you didn’t make it into the final cut of the film.

JL: You know, it was about a five-minute episode within L.A. Story that was hilariously funny. It was a parody of all those kind of hotshot C.A.A. [Creative Artists Agency] agents back in those days. In fact, I even made my entrance to a fancy Hollywood restaurant with a jetpack on my back. I zoomed in from above and sat down with Steve [Martin], and in rapid-fire fashion I pitched three or four completely insane projects. It was, like, a sitcom about rape and things like that. It was really funny. But the thing is, you couldn’t have any short version of that. It was either the whole five minutes or none at all. And at a certain point, they realized, “There’s just too much in this movie,” and they had to cut some of the story. So I was cut out of the movie, which was too bad.

But Dan Melnick, the producer, and Steve himself had the class to tell me about it even before they made the decision to make the cut. And Steve wrote me the most hilarious letter. It began, “Dear John: Sometimes in the history of great film performances, like Dustin Hoffman, for example, in On The Waterfront, or Laurence Olivier in The Killing Fields. But wait, you say! Dustin Hoffman wasn’t in On The Waterfront! Laurence Olivier wasn’t in The Killing Fields! My point exactly.” And on and on he went. It was like a two-page comedy monologue that’s a precious keepsake of mine. That’s the one thing I got out of L.A. Story. That, and they did mention Harry Zell at one point the film: “My agent, Harry Zell.” But that was it! That was my appearance. But I’m good friends with Steve, so my friendship survives.

Obsession (1976)—“Robert LaSalle”

AVC: How did you and Brian De Palma first cross paths?

JL: I was in a little summer theater workshop in Princeton, New Jersey. I was at Harvard at the time, and I was working with a bunch of Brian’s Columbia pals. It was sort of a college summer workshop. And we did a Molière farce, and they invited this friend of theirs, Brian De Palma, down to see it. And the first I ever knew of Brian was hearing him roar with laughter out in the audience. Brian has a huge cackling laugh that you don’t hear very often. And then backstage I met him for the first time. We were all about 20 years old back then. That’s how far back we go. In fact, Dealing—the movie that you mentioned—it was Brian’s idea! He suggested me to the director. So he’s part of my origin story as a movie actor! And then two years later, he cast me in my first major film role: Obsession. I’ve worked with him three times now.

Blow Out (1981)—“Burke”

AVC: Of the three, Blow Out is probably the most critically acclaimed.

JL: Yes! Yeah, it really is a terrific film. It really holds up. And it’s one of [John] Travolta’s really good performances.

AVC: It was also sort of an adaptation of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up.

JL: Well, Brian doesn’t do adaptations. He sort of does riffs. Or homages, if you want to be pretentious. [Laughs.] You know, you could say that Obsession was his Vertigo film, and I can’t remember what the very, very precise references are in his movies, but those were his Hitchcock tributes. But they’re very distinctly De Palma’s.

AVC: Blow Out certainly has an ending that’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a bit dark.

JL: Oh, yeah! [Laughs.] He kills the people you’re really interested in!

Raising Cain (1992)—“Carter”/”Cain”/”Dr. Nix”/”Josh”/”Margo”

AVC: Raising Cain, meanwhile, has gotten a reappraisal recently as a result of a new director’s cut of the film that, oddly enough, wasn’t actually done by De Palma.

JL: Now you’re actually telling me news I didn’t know. I don’t keep up on these things! Who did the cut?

AVC: His name is Peet Gelderblom, and he took the film and created a new cut based on the original script, and De Palma thought it was great.

JL: Oh, Brian liked it? Wow! No, I haven’t heard anything about it. I’ll have to see it! Maybe he’s made a little bit more sense of it. [Laughs.] Brian’s movies are like Chinese puzzles. They’re incredibly intricate, and sometimes they’re so intricate that he has to edit them differently when it comes times to finish them. I remember a couple of my scenes being cut in two and separated by about 20 minutes.

AVC: That’s almost certainly the film where you play the most roles.

JL: Yeah. I think there’s five. It was kind of my Faces Of Eve. I loved it. It was really fun.

3rd Rock From The Sun (1996-2001)—“Dr. Dick Solomon”
Frasier (1995)—“Madman Martinez”
The Best Of Enemies (2015)—“Gore Vidal”

AVC: You hadn’t actually done a series at the point that you took on 3rd Rock From The Sun. What was it that led you down that path? Was the material just too good to turn down?

JL: Well, I never intended to do a series. I thought a series was the kiss of death for a character actor, because it was all you would ever be known for. Like the great Carroll O’Connor. He’ll be Archie Bunker forever. So I had sort of avoided it. In fact, I turned down the role of Frasier on Cheers when it was first offered to me. That’s a little known fact.

AVC: Did you ever hear that there was an NBC executive who wanted to do a swap week, where you’d play Frasier Crane one week and Kelsey Grammer would play Dick Solomon?

JL: No! This is the first I’ve heard that! Of course, if I’d been Frasier, it never would’ve been a hit series. Actually, Bonnie and Terry Turner, who created the series, they were very good friends of mine from the three times I hosted Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, and they’re the ones who pitched it to me. Although they were sneaky. They pretended they were just taking me to breakfast, but when I got there for breakfast, they were there with the entire executive staff of Carsey-Werner Productions. And they pitched it to me, and the first thing Terry said to me was, “Well, it’s about these four aliens.” I thought, “Oh, my god, how do I get out of here?” But three minutes later, he persuaded me to do it. It was such a fantastic role and premise for a character man, an alien who basically can’t figure out how to be a human being, so he tries everything.

JL: By the way, Kelsey Grammer and I did finally work together this past year. We were the two voices—I was Gore Vidal, and he was William F. Buckley—in that terrific documentary called The Best Of Enemies. It’s a very good film, and he and I finally worked together. Although I did work once on Frasier. But I was one of the call-ins, so I just showed up and sat in the sound booth, just like everybody did.

Twenty Good Years (2006)—“John Mason”

AVC: On the flip side of 3rd Rock, you had Twenty Good Years. How do you look back on that decidedly shorter experience?

JL: Well, my takeaway was a wonderful friendship with Jeffrey Tambor. It was a premise that just didn’t work. We shot 13 episodes, and they only aired four of them before they canceled the series. It was just clear that it wasn’t connecting. It wasn’t resonating. The whole notion of two old guys who want to make sure they… Well, it was sort of a bucket-list sitcom, and it ran out of steam very quickly. It’s a shame, because there were an awful lot of good elements in it. And it was the only time I’ve ever worked with Jeffrey, and he was just a complete joy to work with. It made me very, very happy to see him having such a success on Transparent. Stepping into my high heels, I might add.

All That Jazz (1979)—“Lucas Sergeant”
The World According To Garp (1982)—“Roberta Muldoon”

JL: Well, that was a great experience, and working with [director] George Roy Hill was a real pleasure. That and All That Jazz were my two connections to great old-time moviemakers. I mean, George Roy Hill came right out of live TV in the 1950s, and Bob Fosse came right out of Broadway. Both of those were just terrific filmmaking experiences for a young actor who hadn’t done much.

AVC: In regards to playing Roberta Muldoon, did the aforementioned high heels take a bit of adjustment for you?

JL: Well, it was kind of a construction project, as it always is with a role that requires physical transformation. Actually, the role I would compare it to—of all things—is playing Winston Churchill in The Crown. It’s the same thing where, in both cases, we spent two entire days in fittings just to get the padding right. In Garp, I had to be turned into a woman, and in The Crown I had to be turned into a short, fat man. These are not easy tricks to pull off.

Ricochet (1991)—“Earl Talbot Blake”

AVC: It may not qualify as a guilty pleasure, but Ricochet has definitely become a cult classic over the years.

JL: Yeah, it’s really bitter medicine, that film. It was the first of two times I worked with Denzel [Washington], who’s really one of our great actors. People give him great credit for being a major international sexy movie leading man, but he’s also a terrific character actor. I mean, he goes back to theater regularly, and he really plunges into different characters with a real courage and skill. So it was really fun working with him on that. And you really had to be working with someone who was willing to go the whole way. It’s a huge film for African-Americans. When I meet them on the subway platform or something, it’s always, “Oh, I loved you in Ricochet!” And I say, “You were supposed to hate me in Ricochet!” [Laughs.]

AVC: That film was also one of Ice T’s first substantial acting roles.

JL: That’s right. It may have been his very first. He also wrote and performed the end-credits song!

Dexter (2009)—“Arthur Mitchell”

AVC: Do you enjoy the opportunity to play the bad guy?

JL: Yeah, I love it! Of course, I always think of the bad guy as the good guy. It’s the only way to do it. You think of the villain as the hero of the story, as he does. The most interesting of all was the villain in Dexter, in the fourth season, where I played the Trinity Killer, a man full of conflicts. It was a fascinating part to play, actually: the compulsive serial killer who hates what he’s doing and hopes somebody will stop him.

AVC: Someone on Twitter said that they actually have trouble watching your other performances now that they’ve seen you on Dexter.

JL: That’s right! In New York, there are people who will move to a different subway platform or turn in a different direction when they see me. [Laughs.]

Sweet Smell Of Success (2002)—“J.J. Hunsecker”
Love Is Strange (2014)—“Ben Hull”

AVC: Is there a favorite project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

JL: Oh, you know, there are so many things that you love while you’re doing them, and then you’re disappointed by the response. Even some of the successful ones are never quite as successful as you’d hoped. One of my favorite recent films actually was successful, but on a very small scale, and that was Love Is Strange, a film I did with Alfred Molina two or three years ago. It got a fabulous response, and it did very well for a very small indie, but I would’ve loved to have seen that film cross over and become a major success.

And I’ve done plays that have been disappointing. I loved doing my first musical on Broadway, Sweet Smell Of Success, which I think was a terrific piece of work, but it’s now on the list of famous Broadway flops. It lost its entire $10 million investment. Curiously, it’s never had a major revival. I really think it’s Marvin Hamlisch’s best work since A Chorus Line. It was directed by Nicholas Hytner, and Christopher Wheeldon—he’s a big Tony-winning musical director now—but he choreographed it.

The Day After (1983)—“Joe Huxley”

AVC: For any kid who was a teenager during the ’80s, The Day After was—as it should’ve beena devastating film.

JL: Yeah, it was quite an amazing thing. It was a very dark thing to work on, and it was extremely uncomfortable. I think most of my work was done in some sort of a decommissioned hospital in East L.A., just the most appalling location in boiling August heat. It kind of did feel like, “Well, this probably is what it’d be like!” But it was one of my two times working with the great Jason Robards, and one of my most famous lines I’ve ever spoken was in there: “This is Lawrence, Kansas. Is anybody out there? Anybody at all?” You only get about three or four lines like that in a really successful career.

Louie (2015)—“Funny Man”

AVC: How did you find your way into an episode of Louie?

JL: Oh, he asked. And I said yes. I mean, I love that show, and I really think Louie is an amazing performer. I couldn’t say yes fast enough, and I didn’t even know what it was. At that moment, Glenn Close, Matthew Broderick, Michael Cera, and I were all on Broadway, or we all worked that season on Broadway, and Louie was doing an episode where he and his daughter were watching a Broadway show. So they went after whoever was on Broadway at the moment, and he wrote this sort of fake William Inge play, and we performed it as best we could. The whole point was that it was supposed to be really, really good. So we didn’t get to play quirky Louie characters at all. We were just characters in a dusty old melodrama. But Louie’s eyes had to fill up with tears, so we had to look really good in it.

Orange County (2002)—“Bud Brumder”
Drunk History (2014)—“William Randolph Hearst”/”George Washington”

AVC: Since you’re playing Churchill in The Crown, let’s talk about another recent instance where you were playing famous historical figures: Drunk History.

JL: [Bursts out laughing.] Boy, Drunk History is a ball! I mean, that’s really fun to do. And there again, you just work with wonderful people. In that case, I think I was working with... oh, well, I worked with Winona Ryder in one of them, and I can’t remember who was in the other, but everybody just laughs the whole time. It’s great. And you’re in and out in an afternoon!

AVC: In the other episode, you play Hearst to Jack Black’s Orson Welles.

JL: Oh, yes, that was my second time working with Jack Black. You’re such an archivist: Can you think of the first time?

AVC: Is it Orange County?

JL: It is! Very good! Yeah, I played his dad in that—his and Colin Hanks’ dad. After that, I wrote Tom Hanks a little fan letter, and he wrote a very sweet response. Now, I have another trivia question related to Orange County, which is one of two films I’ve been in that was written by Mike White. Do you know the other film? And you will never get this.

AVC: You’re right. I have no idea.

JL: I’ll give you one hint: It hasn’t been released yet.

AVC: In that case, I definitely don’t know.

JL: It’s a movie called Beatriz At Dinner. There, I managed to stump you!

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)—“John Valentine”
Footloose (1984)—“Rev. Shaw Moore”

JL: By the way, I did an interview the other day for Sways Universe on Sirius, and it was really fun. They had a trivia game for me: They rolled these little clips of my dialogue from five films and asked if I could identify them. I could identify three of them. The fourth one, I took a wild guess and I was right. But the fifth one I did not recognize at all, and I couldn’t get it. But it was Footloose! They had a clip from one of my sermons in the film, and I thought, “What the heck is that? It sounds like Shakespeare or something!”

AVC: That raises a question: Do you ever have people come up and dance in front of you just out of spite?

JL: Oh, I get dance jokes, and I get monster-on-the-wing-of-the-plane jokes, from Twilight Zone. Those are probably the most frequent. I like these games, though. Maybe my future is as a game-show host, if nothing else comes along.

Harry And The Hendersons (1987)—“George Henderson”
30 Rock (2009)—Himself

AVC: Not everyone has a bigfoot movie within their filmography, but you do, and it’s a darned good one.

JL: Well, I think as bigfoot movies go, it’s one of the best. [Laughs.] Going in, I knew it was going to be a funny and fun family film. I don’t know how else you do a movie about a movie about a bigfoot moving in with a suburban family! But it’s a great film. I mean, the people get older and older every year who say, “Oh, I loved Harry And The Hendersons when I was a kid!” Now 50-year-old people are telling me that!

AVC: What did you think when 30 Rock approached you about doing their tribute to the film?

JL: It’s kind of fun when you get to parody yourself. I did that one on 30 Rock, but on 3rd Rock From The Sun, we had five different episodes where it sort of evolved into a parody of something I had done before.

We did a Footloose moment when Tommy started a garage band, and I was in a rage about how much noise they were making. There was a Twilight Zone reference when I flew for the first time, and I thought there was something on the wing of the plane, but it turned out that it was just the engine pod. For Terms Of Endearment, there was an episode where I ran over a chipmunk, and it was in the veterinarian’s office, and I flew into a rage: “Feed my chipmunk his drugs!” That was imitating Shirley MacLaine. [Laughs.] And of course I dressed up as a woman to find out what it was like to be a woman, and that was my little World According To Garp moment. It’s nice when you’ve done enough movies that you can do your own anthology.

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