No matter what your favorite John Lithgow performance is, chances are it gets only a passing mention in his memoir, Drama: An Actor’s Education. Rather than simply running down his greatest hits, Lithgow focuses on his early life and career; he talks more about becoming an actor than being one. The son of Arthur Lithgow, who founded and ran two Shakespeare festivals, John was determined to be a painter until he went to Harvard and discovered the school was far more supporting of the performing arts than the fine arts. In periodic asides, Lithgow jumps forward in time, dropping brief insights into his roles in The World According To Garp and on 3rd Rock From The Sun, and allowing that his manic performance in The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension is one of his favorites. But he focuses more intently on early triumphs like his Tony-winning performance in the 1973 production of David Storey’s The Changing Room, as well as a generous helping of personal failures.
The A.V. Club: What was the inspiration for the scope of the book? You’ve made films that have been seen by millions, but in Drama, you’re mostly writing about stage performances that really, only a handful of people have seen.
John Lithgow: Well, it’s explained in the preface. Of course, the easy answer to every single one of your questions is, “Just read the book!” The preface tells the story of the inciting incident that led to the publication of the book. It was almost 10 years ago, I was taking care of my dad, he was age 86 and very unwell. He was recovering from a serious operation, and he was terribly depressed. I took care of him and my mom, I stayed with them for an entire month, and saw immediately that my No. 1 task was not necessarily nursing him back to health, but cheering him up. To all appearances, he’d lost his will to live, and I was going to have to bring him back to life. And I couldn’t do it, no matter what I tried, until I hit on the idea of reading him bedtime stories.
I found this big, fat book called Tellers Of Tales in his bookshelves, which he had used to tell stories to me and my siblings when we were children. That very night, I surprised him with the book. He and my mom were tucked into bed like children, and I told them to pick a story from Tellers Of Tales, and they picked “Uncle Fred Flits By” by P.G. Wodehouse. I immediately recognized the title, but really didn’t remember the book; all I remembered was that it was always one of our favorites, because it was so funny. I started reading it, dutifully. It almost exploded in my hands. It was such a piece of genius comic writing. As I read, more and more of it came back to me. I recognized all those things that we thought were so funny when we were kids. My father started to laugh, and the more I read, the harder he laughed. It was like the engine of an old car starting up after years of disuse, which, as you can imagine, is a line lifted directly from my writing. [Laughs.] It was my sense it was during the reading of that story he came back to life and lived another year and a half. His health came back, and his good humor. I thought this was the moment that a story had revived him.
He passed away, and years passed, and it kept marinating in my mind. This epiphany moment began to crystallize all my feelings about what it is that I do: why I act, why I entertain, what it is that a performer does, and why people all gather ’round to watch, this peculiar, mysterious transaction that human beings can’t do without. It’s such a stupidly simple question that we never ask it: Why do we need this? Because we really do need it—we can’t live without it, no culture can. Those thoughts, the memory of my time with my father, the desire to pay tribute to him—he really was a remarkable man—and this extraordinary thing, this P.G. Wodehouse story, and its incredible capacity to entertain people, I mixed all that up and came up with this solo one-man show called Stories By Heart, which I did at Lincoln Center in 2008, under the auspices of Andre Bishop, as a kind of two-night-a-week workshop. Word got around, it got wonderful press, it became the biggest little hit in town.
I had never written anything from my own experience to perform. This was the very first time. I got such a wonderful response from other people, book publishers, I got the proposal to write a memoir, and it sort of opened me up to the idea. I never wanted, or thought I was capable of writing a memoir, but because it came out of my show… When I set out writing this memoir, it became about, just as you say, the process of becoming an actor rather than the things I’m really well known for. I didn’t know how to write a book. I set out kind of like Columbus seeking the New World; I didn’t know where I was going. The process of writing it began to define what the book was. I began to see that it was, as the subtitle suggests, an actor’s education, all my experiences onstage and off that gradually turned me into both the actor and the person that I am by the mid-point in my life. I tried to make it entertaining as a piece of theater, entertaining as a piece of fiction, even though it is non-fiction, and hopefully, completely true. [Laughs.] So that’s the long answer to that short question.
AVC: In the book, laughter also is at the crux of you deciding to become an actor after previously thinking you wanted to do anything but go into the family business.
JL: It is true. The first line in the book is, the first time I acted was before I even remember, a little 2-year-old child, an extra in The Emperor’s New Clothes. I grew up acting all the time for my dad in his Shakespeare festivals in Ohio, but purely for the fun of it. I was much more interested in being an artist. I only determined absolutely to become an actor when I went to Harvard—you don’t go to Harvard to become a painter, God knows—but in fact, you do do a huge amount of acting there if you’re interested. I fell in immediately with the theater gang, and because by osmosis I was a very experienced actor and an accomplished actor, I became a campus star like that. Harvard is a unique place: If there’s some area in which you’re a star, that’s what you do, because it’s so competitive, and in every other area, I felt so inadequate.
I had this extraordinary experience my sophomore year in, of all things, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and an obscure one at that: Utopia Limited. The role of King Paramount. The Act II opening number of that show is a famous Gilbert and Sullivan show-stopper, famous to people who know their Gilbert and Sullivan, a tiny little group. Sure enough, I completely stopped the show as the main performer of a septet. It was a ridiculous patter song called “Society Has Quite Forsaken All Her Wicked Courses.” The refrain is [sings] “It really is surprising / that through all our Anglicizing / we have brought about—Utopia’s quite another land / In her enterprising movements, / she is England—with improvements / Which we dutifully offer to our motherland!” [Applauds.] For some reason, I completely stopped the show, and they applauded so long and so hard, the other six men left the stage, and they wouldn’t let me start the next scene. They just cheered and roared. The longer I stood there like an idiot, the louder they cheered. And I say in the book, it probably lasted only 20 seconds, but it felt like 10 minutes of applause. And it was in those 20 seconds that I decided to become an actor. If you hear enough applause and laughter at a young enough age, there’s no way you can avoid being an actor.
AVC: The audience reaction is unique to live performance. Do you miss it when you’re doing film or television?
JL: I do. But of course, this is comedy we’re talking about, and movie comedy is much more difficult than movie drama. That’s why so many comedies fall so flat. You don’t have the rigor of entertaining the audience. You don’t truly know what’s funny. That’s why movie comedies need so much test-marketing and test-screening, whereas onstage you hear immediately whether you’re funny. It was such a point of honor for us on 3rd Rock From The Sun, where we had a very supercharged studio audience, and we really entertained them, and really made them laugh. If you couldn’t make those guys laugh, you knew you weren’t funny. All sitcoms with a laugh track or where you hear laughter, there is some canned laughter sprinkled in to get you through the edits and things, but it was a point of honor for us that we kept the canned laughter to a minimum. We loved the sound of live laughter.
Of course, drama is something other, completely different from that, on film. But I think the same is true. An audience keeps the performance honest. Mainly what I prefer about the stage, as much as I love acting in movies and TV, what I prefer is that they’re with me. You’re telling a story and they’re experiencing it at the same time. In its way, it’s just as important to you onstage as it is for the people out there, and it all happens together. As an actor, you’re constantly waiting for these moments of electrical connection with the audience, and on camera, you can’t get that.
AVC: When you’re on a sitcom for six years and 130-some episodes, how do you stay engaged in the character for that long?
JL: 3rd Rock was remarkable. I’ve tried another sitcom, and I knew it wasn’t going to work. A lot of it had to do with the fact that it was so theatrical. It was very high-energy, it was a bunch of theater actors, and we worked intensely with the writers, which was very, very exciting. It was a very creative experience every week, just inventing a 22-minute, one-act farce. It never got boring. Sometimes it got a little crazy, toward the end, but it never got boring. Imagine laughing for a living—that’s what we did.
AVC: You mocked your own performance on 3rd Rock somewhat when you picked up your third Emmy.
JL: I considered that my best acceptance speech. It was my third Emmy, and I thought, “This is getting ridiculous.” I got up and said, “Honestly, I don’t know why I’ve won this award. As far as I can see, every actor in Hollywood thinks what I do on 3rd Rock From The Sun is completely disgraceful. I mean, you saw it up there.” I even imitated myself, “‘Good for you!’ I’m embarrassed myself!” But in fact it was a joke, and I was extremely proud of 3rd Rock from start to finish. I thought it was a masterpiece that never got credit for what it actually was. The writers, for example, were never nominated for anything, and it was absolutely brilliant comedy writing. It was like George S. Kaufman never getting credit for writing for the Marx brothers, because everybody thought they were zany and were making it up, and they were a bunch of comedy anarchists. It was wonderful working with them, particularly Jane Curtin and Joey Gordon-Levitt, who’s become a marvelous big movie star, a source of great pride for all of us.
AVC: Growing up in a theater family would give you an appreciation of the art, but did being raised on a diet heavy in Shakespeare leave a particularly profound impression?
JL: Shakespeare is extremely demanding, especially as my father produced it. This was in the 1950s. I finally played substantial roles and really worked for him in ’63 and ’64, when I was about 18 and 19 years old. His festivals were out of doors with no amplification. You had to be so loud! You had to have so much strength, so much acting muscle. That was one element, and the second was the fact that, with Shakespeare, as Polonius says, “Pastoral, historical, comical, comical-historical, comical-pastoral”—Shakespeare wrote across the spectrum. The same person who wrote King Lear wrote Comedy Of Errors. He wrote tragedy, farce, and then these complex comedies: As You Like It, Twelfth Night, even more complex comedies, The Winter’s Tale, Tempest, these almost surrealistic fairytales like Cymbeline, Pericles, with astonishing characters. My dad produced summer festivals where there would be seven productions running in repertory, which means you’re playing a different role every night, and they’re extremely different. They’re painted in broad strokes, because you’re performing for people 40 yards away out of doors, and they’ve got to hear you.
So it’s made me a very big actor. It’s made me more of muscular actor, and it’s made me more of a theater actor than a film actor. There’s hardly been a film I’ve ever been in where the director hasn’t told me, “Just take it down a little.” I’m so accustomed to it now. In fact, that’s sort of become my modus operandi is just, give it all I got—like providing Michelangelo with a piece of granite and saying, “Okay, chip away, chip away.” I think that came out of Shakespeare. And believe me, Shakespeare was about it; it’s pretty much all I knew, not only of acting but theater at all. I remember seeing a production of Death Of A Salesman in New Jersey—I went with my dad because one of his actors was playing Willy Loman, and it was the first time I had seen a naturalistic play in my life. It was like, “Whoa! Theater can be this?” You can imagine a 14-year-old seeing Death Of A Salesman, anyway, but to grow up on a steady diet of theater and to see this completely different kind of theater, at such a young age, it was amazing.
AVC: There’s a point in the book where you’re filling out an application for a Fulbright fellowship, and you list your future ambitions as “American repertory theatre.”
JL: It was pretty unusual back then. It’s far more unusual now. The whole idea of a repertory company is very rare, but my father believed in it deeply. He sort of modeled his company on Shakespeare’s troupes. You can see, if you look at Shakespeare, there are lines of roles that were clearly written for one actor. The actor who played Iago probably played Iachimo in Cymbeline. The actor who played Hamlet probably played Orlando. So yes, there was that, growing up with that sense of what theater was. When I wrote “American repertory theater,” when I was heading off to England to study at LAMDA [London Academy Of Music And Dramatic Art] after Harvard, when I was ready to study acting in earnest, that’s really how I saw myself. I guess I saw myself doing what my father had done, working as an actor/manager in regional repertory theater. I certainly never imagined myself on Broadway, let alone in a movie, let alone on a sitcom, let alone even living in Los Angeles. To me, that was another profession altogether. So going to Broadway, being in a movie, being in a sitcom, winning Emmy awards—it’s like one thing after another has been a huge surprise to me. But I still think of theater as the taproot, and what my original intention was all along.
AVC: There are many stories in the book of you working opposite great actors and directors, from Tommy Lee Jones to Bob Fosse to Meryl Streep. What have you learned from bad actors?
JL: There’s an entire chapter devoted to working with a bad actor. I use a pseudonym. It’s called “Mr. Pleasant,” which was the name that the movie crew came up with for him. To all appearances, he was such a sweet guy, but in fact he was running everything, my first experience with a true diva. You do learn plenty from bad actors—you probably learn most of all from bad writing, because that’s how you learn to save your ass. But certainly the best directors and the best actors are who you learn the most from. Good examples are better than bad examples.
AVC: You mentioned starting with a big performance and letting the director whittle it down. You write that Buckaroo Banzai is the one time you were able to stay at the high level, and that it’s secretly one of your favorites.
JL: It was the most extravagant performing I’ve done on film. There are two performances on film that are virtually theater performances. One is that, and the other is the Twilight Zone episode. The Twilight Zone episode came first, and to me, that was my big breakthrough, because it was directed by George Miller, the fantastic Australian film director, fresh from Mad Max and The Road Warrior. Actually a brilliant director, he just won an Oscar a few years ago for directing Happy Feet, of all things. But I loved working with George, and George was the first director who did not go, [whispers] “Take it down.” He’d go, “More! More!” He always wanted more. He’s say things like “I want to see your face crack.” [Laughs.]
There’s one amazing story about him—it’s a longish story, but it’s worth it. At the moment when I first saw the monster on the airplane [in the Twilight Zone movie], 10 inches from my face, through the glass on the window, he wanted my eyes to expand to the size of tennis balls, and he decided to help me achieve that effect. He had this prosthetic makeup genius create a fake face for me, with two pneumatic eyes and a bladder in the back so that at that moment, he had the camera all set up, I had to sit around for five hours completely blind, with this weird, fixed look on my face. Then he just set up the cameras for this one moment, and they roll the camera, and they squeeze the bladders, and my eyes went [exploding noise]. Everybody went, “Okay, that’s enough of that. Thank God that’s over with.” The whole crew thought he was nuts. He looked at it in dailies and came back the next day and said, “It was great! It was great! The only trouble was, [they didn’t expand] at the same time, we have to do it again.” Literally, we spent a whole half-day on this. If you watch it on VCR, just pause it at this point, and you’ll see three frames of film where my eyes were that big. That’s the kind of director for me! [Laughs.]
That’s what he wanted from my whole performance. It’s fabulous to do that and yet completely inhabit it, make it that big and that real. I think only a theater actor can achieve that. You’ve always looking to play some part you feel you can be better than anybody. Like, “Go ahead, break the mold. I’ve already done it.” That’s how I felt about The World According To Garp. I feel that that one, I own. I think that’s how I feel about a lot of acting in film. I know perfectly well that a lot of people think of me as an over-the-top actor. That’s their default impression of me, and that’s why I end up cast in so many bizarre and over-the-top roles. I feel like, “Fine. That’s what I bring to the party.”
AVC: You worked with Brian De Palma on a number of occasions, and he played a key role into getting you into film in the first place. What’s special about that relationship?
JL: Funny you should ask. I got a call from him a couple of days ago. I was in San Francisco—this has been a crazy couple of weeks, let me tell you—and Brian had read my book. He was just thrilled, because I write a lot about him in the book, and I asked him how accurate I was, and he said, “Absolutely! You got everything right!” He was amazed how much I remembered. A lot of it, I wasn’t even there. He described it to me, and I remembered his description. Brian was fantastic. Was and is. He was so Hitchcockian, in a way, not just because he was into macabre, psychological suspense thrillers—his entire demeanor was Hitchcockian. He had the same Hitchcock process of completely designing, almost overdesigning his films. He could show you his film on the computer with stick figures before you even started shooting. Long before people were doing this very, very sophisticated computer storyboarding, Brian was way ahead of the game. This was 1989, when we did Raising Cain. He showed me entire sequences of stick figures, and then he would just sit back and watch us act them out. As Hitchcock always said, the shooting period of a film is a necessary evil, and Brian was very like that. He would just sit there with earbuds, listening to music between takes, like, “Oh, when is this going to be over with?” And yet he hired the best people. He was a very good friend of mine. I was always his best friend on the set, because everyone was so scared of him, but we’d been friends before I ever worked with him. We were friends at age 22 or so. He’s great.
AVC: It seems like an actor coming from a theatrical background would see more eye-to-eye with him, where it’s more about constructing parts that fit into a larger whole than having a subjective experience on the set, or waiting for your close-up.
JL: And he relies on you completely to deliver. It’s just our job. He’s very cut-and-dried about it. The other filmmaker much like that was George Roy Hill, who did The World According To Garp. He wasn’t quite so much of a Gloomy Gus, but he was also tremendously well-prepared. We rehearsed for two weeks. We even did run-throughs of The World According To Garp. A run-through of a movie script, on our feet, in a rehearsal room. Unheard of. It’s because he came out of live television in the 1950s. He, Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, people like that. Great old timers, and we’ll never see their like again.
AVC: What was your experience like on Dexter?
JL: I actually was very proud of Dexter, and had a wonderful time doing it, which must make me an extremely weird person. I mean, it was a diabolical character. It was the ultimate villain, but what made it such a pleasure was the complexity of the role, the fact that he was a killer who was so deeply compelled to kill, but hated himself for it, didn’t want to do this, like, “Stop me, somebody, stop me.” He even pushed people into apprehending him and stopping him. So when Dexter finally kills him—I guess I’m past the moment of a spoiler alert—he lay there relieved that it was going to finally happen. To me, it gave so much color to the character, to even attempt to elicit the audience’s sympathy, sympathy for the devil—it just made it such a complex role. There are two roles that I’ve done on television, very notable and noticeable—Dick Solomon from 3rd Rock From The Sun, and the Trinity Killer on Dexter, and the Trinity Killer came second, so people’s reflexive reaction to me was as this kind of doofus, this clueless, foolish, zany comic. To make use of those expectations, to play a character who presented himself to the world as a very innocuous, good man and good citizen to hide the fact that he had this horrific self-loathing and this terrifying other life. To me, the tension between the two, and upending people’s expectations from what they already knew of me as an actor, it was great. I had the opportunity to just scare the hell out of people.
AVC: How was it for you to come into a series in its fourth season, where the regular cast and crew already had solid relationships in place, especially since for the first several episodes, you don’t interact with any of them?
JL: It was fascinating. It was beautifully constructed, an amazing, unfolding puzzle, the way the shoe kept dropping and there were all these astonishing surprises on the way. It was a very small role for the first five or six episodes, although that first scene made it terrifying whenever I showed up. The first scene when I meet Dexter and the two of us become these unlikely friends without either of us knowing where the other one came from, that became the fascinating psychological puzzle. I didn’t know he was lying to me, and he couldn’t figure out what I was doing.
AVC: What about M. Butterfly?
JL: M. Butterfly was an amazing experience. It arrived after the statute of limitations on my memoir—that was in ’88, and my memoir ends in ’81 or ’82. M. Butterfly is usually the answer to the question, “What has been your favorite experience?” The reason being, it is an astonishing play. David Henry Hwang, it is his great play. He’s written many wonderful plays before and after, but that one is his statement. It’s a ringing, passionate statement from an Asian-American writer, an Asian-American male. I would say that of everything I have done, I have never done anything that has had such a powerful intersection between complex ideas and complex human emotions. The ideas had to do with the West’s misperception of the East, men’s misperception of women, Western males’ misperception of Eastern females, David Hwang’s own experience as an Asian-American man in American society, the U.S.’s misguided policy toward the rest of the world, particularly in the East and in Vietnam, all these interesting and challenging ideas, all them from a brand-new point of view. Nobody had seen a play on Broadway or practically anywhere else written by an Asian-American with an Asian-American’s point of view. So for so many people, there was this extraordinary implication, like, “Oh my God, yes. That is my prejudice, and I didn’t even know I had it.”
It was about a French diplomat who fell in love with a Chinese opera star and carried on a 20-year-long affair with her, without learning that she was, No. 1, a spy, and No. 2, a man dressed as a woman. Based on a true story, but David just extracted what he wanted from the story. He never asked the question too deeply, “How could this have happened?” He just took it at face value, but it was written with such passion, and we played it with such passion, a man completely devastated from this revelation, that the woman he loved had actually deceived him on a political and the most primal, personal level. That realization on the part of both characters was completely devastating, emotionally devastating to the audience. Amazingly, though everybody knew what M. Butterfly was about, as far as we knew, half the audience was taken completely by surprise in the last 10 minutes of the play when they found out the truth. I have never had an impact on the audience like that. John Dexter’s enthralling production was so wildly theatrical, with its use of music and dance and movement and lighting and setting. It was just extraordinary.