John Lithgow, Talking Shakespeare And His Father Twice nominated for an Oscar, the actor is notable for the breadth of his range: He's played a serial killer, a transgendered woman and an alien, and audiences have eaten it up every time. He joined Scott Simon for a conversation about getting started as the son of a producer -- and making it on his own.
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John Lithgow, Talking Shakespeare And His Father

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John Lithgow, Talking Shakespeare And His Father

John Lithgow, Talking Shakespeare And His Father

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You hear certain words when great actors talk about other great actors -presence, imagination, fearlessness, range. An actor's ability to convincingly portray characters who span sometimes a wild range - a creepy serial killer in one show...

(Soundbite of TV series, "Dexter")

Mr. JOHN LITHGOW (Actor): (as Trinity Killer/Arthur Miller) Hello, Dexter Morgan.

SIMON: A loopy, lovable alien in another...

(Soundbite of TV series, "3rd Rock from the Sun")

Mr. LITHGOW: (as Dr. Dick Solomon) The first time I saw Mary undress, I remember thinking, God, I hope this skylight holds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Or the bighearted transsexual...

(Soundbite of movie, "The World According to Garp")

Mr. LITHGOW (as Roberta Muldoon): You like football?

Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS (Actor): (as Garp) Oh, yeah. I used to watch it quite a bit.

Mr. LITHGOW (as Roberta Muldoon): Well, you might've seen me. I was the tight end with the Philadelphia Eagles. Number 90. Robert Muldoon.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (as Garp) Ooh. Oh.

Mr. LITHGOW (as Roberta Muldoon): I had a great pair of hands.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (as Garp) Yes, you did.

SIMON: These are just some of the characters played by John Lithgow. He's also a Harvard man, composer of children's books and songs, and a gifted painter. Talk about range.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. LITHGOW: Thanks so much...

SIMON: I had the pleasure of introducing John Lithgow to an audience in Cleveland earlier this week at a taping of the PBS TV show "Backstage With." He told us about his early days in theater, and his father, Arthur Lithgow, founding artistic director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival.

Mr. LITHGOW: My dad produced every single one of Shakespeare's plays between 1950 and 1960, and I was there too. I was even in some of them.

SIMON: There are roles for kids in Shakespeare.

Mr. LITHGOW: Oh yes. I was one of the fairies in "Midsummer Night's Dream," Mustardseed. In fact, I played Mustardseed in two different productions of "Midsummer Night's Dream."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: And I was the prince in the tower in "Richard III." I was the son who was killed by his father in "Henry VI Part III." I was a spear carrier and a soldier. I was a dead soldier once. I was a French soldier once.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: And I finally spoke a line when I was about 16, as the messenger from the envoy from France. My line was: Ambassadors from Harry, King of England, do crave admittance to your majesty. That was my first line.

SIMON: Did you bring down the house with that line?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: I don't think people could quite hear me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: I didn't have a very strong voice yet.

SIMON: Was it hard to work for your father as an actor?

Mr. LITHGOW: It was not really hard. He was a very easy man to work with. Working for him, I discovered that he wasn't quite the great theater manager I thought he was. He was too nice. He didn't have a strong streak of the son-of-a-bitch - which you just have to have if you're going to run a company of actors.

My father was a very sweet man. He always wanted to surround himself with sweet people, whether they were talented or not. And at a certain point I lost patience with that. You know, I always counterpoised my father with Joe Papp.

SIMON: At the Public Theater.

Mr. LITHGOW: At the Public Theater. He was the face of American Shakespeare. You know, the New York Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival. And Joe was an impossible man. He was mercurial and temperamental, and he could be a monster. But he was a great theater manager. He just made things happen. He wasn't even that good a director - but who cared? He hired good directors.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LITHGOW: My father was not like that at all. And God bless him for it. I mean he was just the sweetest man you could ever meet.

SIMON: Can you remember the first time you got applause on stage?

Mr. LITHGOW: Oh yes. I was the damsel in distress in a sort of old-time melodrama that we whipped together in about three hours for the final night of Boy Scout camp...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: ...when I was I think about 12 years old outside Yellow Springs, Ohio, in a place called Camp Birch. And you know, I wore a Boy Scout bandana and tied a towel around my middle and I...

SIMON: This is Boy Scout camp, so there was nobody else available to play the damsel.

Mr. LITHGOW: There were no girls. It was my first cross-dressing role.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: You were getting ready for "Garp."

Mr. LITHGOW: The first of many, yeah. For this one I was not nominated for an Oscar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: But you know, there was the hero and the villain and I was tied to the railroad tracks and I was saved at the last minute by the hero, an Eagle Scout named Larry Fogg.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Larry Fogg?

Mr. LITHGOW: I remember his name after all these years. It's the first time I've spoken it in about 50 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: And he hoisted me up into his arms and he fell on his ass because I was heavier than he expected. And all those boys, that whole hillside full of Boy Scouts, they screamed and yelled and laughed. It was like manna from heaven falling on me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: You know, I've always said that if you hear enough laughter and applause at a young enough age, you're doomed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: You're going to be an actor.

SIMON: Can you remember a couple of your earlier auditions, what they were like?

Mr. LITHGOW: Oh boy. I when I was - you know, I worked for my dad initially.

SIMON: Did you have to audition for your father?

Mr. LITHGOW: No. I did not have to audition for my father. And it was a wonderful thing. It was a great head start in the profession when I finally joined the profession. But after working for him for a year, I decided I have to move on - I have to try this on my own. I have to be in a situation where I do have to audition, where I do have to win roles and compete. And I went without working for like two years. It was murder. And I auditioned for soap operas and commercials. I remember auditioning for Lays potato chips. And I never got the roles. I think they must have sensed my contempt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: It was a sort of "Mutiny on the Bounty" sketch, where Captain Bligh was torturing the crew by saying you can only have one Lays potato chip, and they all rise up, because you can't just have one. And I was auditioning for the Mr. Christian part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: The guy who challenges the captain.

Mr. LITHGOW: Yeah, who stands up to Captain Bligh. I didnt get the role, nor did they ever make the commercial.

SIMON: Well, undoubtedly 'cause they didnt hire you.

(Soundbite of laughter)


SIMON: Now, do you have to find something in that character that matches up with you, be it a serial killer, or for that matter, the first mate in a Lays potato chip commercial?

Mr. LITHGOW: Well, its very elusive, it's a mystery. It's a kind of alchemical process. some of it is you, and some of it is pure calculation. I mean, God knows, my most recent prominent role, the Trinity Killer on "Dexter," I hope he's nothing like me. I am not a serial killer. I insist on my innocence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: However, the whole thing about the Trinity Killer is that he had a mask. He was a very nice guy and a very good person, a good family man, a deacon of his church. He was a fine person, to all appearances. What was terrifying about him was that you got to see this horrifying other side.

Well, I'm a nice man and I act horrific parts. People have expectations from you - and the whole fun of acting is taking expectations and completely upending them. That's how you get laughs in comedy, and that's how you scare the daylights out of people in a horror film.

SIMON: Forgive me - have you ever had to play a love scene with someone you couldnt stand?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: But I'm not going to tell you about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But you both got through it?

Mr. LITHGOW: Well, you have to. You know, it's your job. Unfortunately, I've also played love scenes with people I've fallen in love with, and that gets you in real trouble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: I won't tell you about that either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So when as a father, as a loving father, when you watched your children in a theater production, could you just be a father?

Mr. LITHGOW: Oh, I always I always loved taking them to what I knew would be great theater experiences. It was wonderful to take them, for example, to see Savion Glover in "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk." I took my daughter to see Marcel Marceau late in his life because I wanted her to have the incredible experience of seeing one man making not a sound, commanding an entire audience if 2,000 people.

There is a real thrill seeing them captivated by theater the way I was captivated. Right here in Cleveland, in the year 1960, when I was 14 years old, I saw Bert Lahr play Bottom the Weaver in "Midsummer Nights Dream."

SIMON: Oh my God.

Mr. LITHGOW: And...

SIMON: Bert Lahr was a great comic, great vaudevillian who became a great classical actor.

Mr. LITHGOW: Yeah, best known as the Cowardly Lion in "Wizard of Oz." And I'll tell you a wonderful story about that. Bert Lahr's son, John Lahr, is a notable drama critic for The New Yorker. And I told him about seeing his father when I was a kid in "Midsummer Night's Dream." And he said yes, he loved playing that part, and I'll tell you why he wanted to play that role. There's a moment when Bottom draws his sword in the famous play within a play, playing Pyramus. He draws his sword. And when Bert Lahr drew his sword, his pants fell down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: And it absolutely stopped the show. John Lahr told me he wanted to play Bottom the Weaver because it gave him a chance to draw his sword and have his pants fall down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LITHGOW: And sure enough. I swear to God, I feel like it was yesterday. Amazing.

SIMON: Your father has been gone a few years now.

Mr. LITHGOW: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: Do you still hear his voice?

Mr. LITHGOW: You know, I hear his voice, and I see his body in myself. I'm so like him. It's genetic, of course - and, you know, the old folks who knew him, when they see me perform, they say, oh my god, when you put your glasses on, you look just like Arthur, you know? I had a real beautiful connection with my father late in his life when he really needed to be taken care of - he and my mom. He'd had a serious operation and he'd just given up on life.

And he needed he needed to be taken care of, but he also needed to be persuaded: Life is worth living, keep fighting. And I lived with my mom and dad for a month. There is no question in my mind that was the most important month of my life. Because I fell in love with my parents again.

You know, when I left them after that month, it was like leaving your children at summer camp, you know, on the first day of camp, and saying: It's going to be all right. They hated to see me go. I mean, what a beautiful memory. It's wonderful to be able to sort of knit that together at the last moment.

SIMON: John, thank you so much.

Mr. LITHGOW: It's just great to talk to you all.

SIMON: And thanks to our audience. Thanks, John Lithgow.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIMON: John Lithgow, speaking with us at the taping of the Public TV show "Backstage With."

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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