“It was laughing for a living,” said actor John Lithgow of his six years on the Emmy-award winning sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. “I figure I may have an extra eight or nine years in my life from that show,” he continued with a chuckle.
On 3rd Rock Lithgow proved his chops for humor with impeccable timing and brilliant physical comedy, but by the time he became the High Commander, he already had an extensive and varied resume—from the cross-dressing Roberta in The World According to Garp to the vengeful criminal in Richocet to the buttoned-up preacher in Footloose. “I am very lucky in that early on I became known for flexibility,” Lithgow said of the myriad characters he’s played. “So that I do get asked to do very different things. People have a memory of both 3rd Rock From the Sun and Cliffhanger.”
In 2009, Lithgow returned to television with a recurring role in the noir series Dexter, in which he plays serial killer Arthur Mitchell (aka the Trinity Killer)—one of the creepiest roles scripted for TV. The part garnered him a Golden Globe and an Emmy. In addition to television and film, Lithgow is also a stage actor and is currently touring his one-man show Stories By Heart in selected cities across the U.S. Gracious and funny, I spoke via phone with Lithgow about the inspiration for Stories, his role in Dexter, and how he juggles his busy schedule.
How did your one-man show Stories by Heart come about? It had a very interesting organic life, this show. It all began with an incident in 2002 between me and my parents. I read to my parents the way my father had read to me when I was a child and it had a lot of personal resonance for me…I discovered this fantastic piece of material [from] my father, this PG Wodehouse story, and I realized all I have to do is memorize this and I have a great, great piece of entertainment that is very unfamiliar and new to people. So that’s what I did. I simply memorized “Uncle Fred Flits By” by P.G. Wodehouse….So that was the beginnings of it and it’s become so important to me, and it connects so much with audiences; I just feel like I have my—what a vaudvillian would call his—Trunk Show. I can do this whenever I want for the rest of my acting life.
How do you find time to squeeze it in with all of your projects? Well those projects are kind of time-intensive. I did Dexter and that was three solid months of work but on either side I had weeks and weeks to do whatever I wanted. And during those weeks, I’ve done this show in different settings. Right now I’m calling you from Austin, Texas, where I’m touring it all over the country. But even so I’m only doing it for three-and-a-half-week periods at a time.
So a short run. Yeah. I will do the show in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum for a two-month run but that’s not until January. So Santa Barbara is getting a jump on that.
I can’t wait to see it. All the reviews have been so great. Plus I’m a big fan of your work. Oh that’s good.
For example, 3rd Rock from the Sun. People probably tell you that all the time. Well, yes they do, but never enough. We actors are very needy. [laughs]
In World According to Garp you play a serious role. Then in 3rd Rock you’re so funny. So crazy funny. And then there’s your serial killer character in Dexter. How do you get into those different roles? Do you have all those personalities in you itching to get out? It’s not a matter of personalities in you it’s just different kind of roles. You do the same [technique] for each role. It’s like playing different sports.
But not everybody has an aptitude for comedy and musicals and serious drama. Well you also have to be lucky. The work you get and the people who hire you and want you to do…I am very lucky in that early on I became known for flexibility. Flexibility became my watch word. So that I do get asked to do very different things. People have a memory of both 3rd Rock From the Sun and Cliffhanger, or something like that.
That must be nice for you. It’s very nice. It gives you a long, a wide range of things, not to mention that fact that I work in all three main medias: theater, television, and film. And books. And children’s stuff, yeah, that too.
How did you get started with the children’s books? Well, I would say I got started by having a sister 10 years younger than me. And then having my own children. I just have always entertained children. It’s such a delightful thing to do. I do it because it’s a good thing to do of course it’s good to entertain children and give them good entertainment, but I also just love doing it.
Is there any project you’re interested in doing that you haven’t done yet? Well, I’m near the end of the first draft of a big fat book, which is a memoir. That’s a very new experience for me and not an easy one at all. It’s very difficult, the writing process…The memories are all vivid it’s just the mechanics of it. Performing is such a free-wheeling kind of delightful thing to do. Writing is drudgery and its lonely and it takes forever. I think I’m on my second year writing this thing. You ask what’s new, well that’s what’s new [laughs].
You must spend every second you have to spare writing. I should be writing diligently for three or four hours every day, but days go by when I don’t have a chance to do anything, and that’s very frustrating. It also feels a constant pressure. Whenever you’re doing something fun [laughs] the fun is diluted by the fact you’re not doing what you should be doing [laughs].
Is there a due date for the book or just when ever you finish it? Yeah, there are due dates. A couple of them have shot past me. Who was it [Douglas Adams] that said something like yes, I love deadlines because of the whooshing sound as they speed by. [hearty laugh].
You have a new film coming out soon called Rise of the Apes. Is it a remake of Planet of the Apes and are you an ape in it? No and no. It’s a prequel to Planet of the Apes and it’s very much an Earth bound movie. It’s a sci-fi film the way E.T. is a sci-fi film. It’s very much of our world. I don’t play an ape. I play James Franco’s [character Will Rodman] father. And he’s a kind of neurobiological researcher working on a cure for Alzhimers. Of course this gets out of control. The movie answers the question of how the apes end up running the world. And I play his father stricken with Alzhimer’s so it’s quite a compelling role. I had a wonderful time making the movie. I think it’s going to be that rarity, I mean a really really good science fiction film, as E.T. was.
Do you have a favorite character from all the people who you’ve played? Not really a favorite. I take great pleasure in the large number and variety of them. I have a sort of imaginary rogues gallery in my mind of all the different characters. But I mean certainly Garp and a lot of things on stage, M. Butterfly or the fun of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and actually my solo show is right up there now. I just love doing it. It’s pretty much every thing I can do is up there on stage.
Is it daunting to be up there all on your own? No. You know, you’re working with your favorite actor [laughs]…If it doesn’t work, it’s pretty frustrating, and there are evenings when it just doesn’t work. Recently I was in an opera house in a city in Texas and the sound system was not good. So people really couldn’t understand and this was for a huge audience of over a thousand people. And it’s a very very language heavy evening. The language is absolutely delicious but you’ve got to understand every syllable and the sound system betrayed me. And it was Texas, after all; they weren’t accustomed to P.G. Wodehouse, this very dense idiosyncratic language. So at the end of the evening I was just beside myself and my road producer said, “You know, they couldn’t understand a word you said. [laughs] So I guess it was a relief. But mostly it’s a wonderful evening.
You played the High Commander for six years. You must like that character a lot. I love that character. That was six years of just so much fun.
Did you guys laugh your heads off? All the time. It was laughing for a living. I figure I may have an extra eight or nine years in my life from that show. Laughter prolongs your life. [laughing]. 3rd Rock was lightening in a bottle. I don’t think it could be recaptured. In fact I tried a sitcom again and it was not nearly as fun, and it failed.
And you had a great group working with you. They are just amazingly talented people. And so innately funny. And look at Joey Gordon-Levitt turning into a movie star. How about that!
Do you keep up with your co-stars? Yeah, particularly Joey and Jane Curtain. Kristen Johnston too. Never enough but we call each other on birthdays and things. My best friends are Bonnie and Terry Turner. I see them all the time. In fact I’m doing a show in Peekskill, New York, in a couple of days and they will be there in the audience.
What are they up to these days? Absolutely nothing. They don’t have to do anything anymore. [laughs]
Well that’s nice. They gave us a lot of good stuff so…And they are just loving their lives so that’s great.
Your Dexter role is so creepy. I think it might be your creepiest one yet. Do you think it’s your creepiest role? I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard the word creepy in the last year. Creepy is just what it was. Very, very unsettling but it made for a really amazing season on Dexter. Episode by episode your sort of couldn’t stop [watching]. It had the interesting effect of making Dexter a much more appealing protagonist [laughs]. He was the good serial killer.
How did you get that role? They pitched it to me and had me on the edge of my seat. Talk about story telling.
You channeled creepy very well. I’m quite impressed. Well, thank you I guess [laughs].
John Lithgow perfoms, Monday, October 25, 8 p.m., at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State St.. Tickets: Granada box office, 899-2222; UCSB Arts & Lectures ticket office, 893-3535; or online at artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.