JOHN LITHGOW

  
Of all the men in this book, John Lithgow is probably exactly representative of what we think of as a New York actor -- a hardworking, seasoned stage performer who has gradually achieved the level of respect and renown in film that he has had for years in the theater. His film career really picked up in 1982 when he moved to Los Angeles (his second wife, Mary Yeager, teaches economic history at UCLA), though he continued to work onstage in New York, both on Broadway (the short-lived revival of Requiem for a Heavyweight) and off (a one-man show about George S. Kaufman it the Perry- Street Theater). When we met in his publicistís office underneath a poster from the movie Footloose, John had just lost the lease on his Manhattan apartment and confessed to feeling strange about not having at least a pied-a-terre in New York, the scene of his early triumphs.

When I first came to New York, I would go breathlessly from one stage job to another, panting and sweating. There were five or six years when I always had another job by the time a job ended. It's like Lou Gehrig or Joe DiMaggio. They weren't all hits, but I was always working. Now I have this nice feeling of pulling back a little bit. The compulsion seems to have finally gone.

What made the difference?
Doing movies instead of plays. The difference is unbelievable in terms of how you're paid, how many people see your work, how you're sought after in both movies and theater. Theater is more substantial, and you have your feet on the ground while you're working in it -- theater is an island of sanity compared to the movie business. Still, youíre performing for thousands of people. In movies, you're performing for millions of people. It really changes your life.

How'd it change your life?
Oddly enough, acting is no longer the gravitational center of my life. My family is now. God knows, I can't really go very long without doing something. But I'm a less envious person now.

Were you always very envious before?
Secretly, I remember feeling Michael Moriarty had run away with everything. Ed Herrmann. Many of these people are good friends of mine. There's an awful quote, "It's not enough that I should succeed, but my best friends must fail." This business is so insidious in its way. It's never enough. You have a voracious appetite for the limelight.
Actors are kind of heliotropic -- we go for the light. This need to be emotionally spectacular onstage, the need to create some sort of sensation Ė itís a combination of a generous and a selfish activity. They go hand in hand.

Do you remember pulling away from the pack and discovering this way of taking the limelight?
My dad, Arthur Lithgow, was an actor, director, and producer in regional theater. He ran these summer Shakespeare festivals out in Ohio. When I was a teenager, I hung around all the time and eventually started acting for him. I pretty much have him to thank for my career.

One role was really the beginning for me. I played Master Pinch in Comedy of Errors, which my dad directed. Master Pinch is a one-scene part, a conjurer who works all sorts of mumbo-jumbo. I had this very tall black hat and a cloak that ran all the way to my feet. I was a real toothpick, very tall. Long white beard, white mustaches, big long nose, and saffron-colored face. It was a real clown act. Here I was, this seventeen-year-old kid, it was my first shot, and every single time I exited, there was applause. So first of all, I had this marvelous rush, anticipating my big moment every night, knowing it was going to work like gangbusters. Also, it was my first time working with a bunch of pros, older actors, many of whom Iíd known for years and worshiped. To hold my own on a stage with them and get that scene cooking for them every night . . . that was wonderful. Being up there onstage is this heightened consciousness. It's like this rush of adrenaline when it goes well. When it goes badly, I guess it's the same adrenaline, but it has a different effect. It's like going numb, suddenly being afraid you're going to die.

I remember playing Tartuffe at Harvard. I played him as a very comical character, a kind of stork, very over-the-top. The moment comes when Tartuffe is exposed and humiliated in front of everybody. The big comic character has finally come collapsing down, you think, and Orgon says, "Leave my house this instant." Tartuffe says, "No. I'm in charge here, and you must go.Ē Suddenly, this hilarious character has become evil, and he realizes it all in one word--"No." I had an epiphany there about building up an audience's expectations and jerking them hard -- an audience is thrilled by that. I look for those moments: just when they're expecting one thing, you throw them something else.

What was your first movie?
I did a film in 1971 called Dealing, one of these Easy Rider spinoffs. I thought it would be the making of me, but of course nobody went to see it. Quite a few years later I did Obsession -- well, three years later, in 1974.

And about 400 plays in between.
Yeah, always lots of plays. But I hadn't yet acted in New York. I was doing a lot of stage directing. After Harvard, I studied acting at LAMDA, and when I came back from England, I worked for my dad at the McCarter Theater in Princeton. After one season in which I was acting, directing, and designing these big English classical productions, Dad wanted me to be his associate artistic director, but it was time to go to New York. It was very difficult to get anywhere. My directing credits got me much further than my acting credits. I was just about to take a job as associate artistic director at Baltimoreís Center
Stage when Long Wharf offered me a season as an actor. That was my big Rubicon: do I become a director now, or do I become an actor? I decided I'd better give acting a chance. So I went to Long Wharf, and the second show I did was The Changing Room. That production moved to New York intact in March of '77, opened March 6, and I won the Tony March 25. After that, I was really an actor. I did still direct a few things, but year by year, acting really did take over. I still intend to direct. I haven't worked with many directors who are better than me.

Does that cause problems?
No, I'm a good boy as an actor. I really like a good director. Whatever director there is, I tend to hang on his every word I try to suspend all my directorial instincts while I'm acting. Sometimes it's hard. I came back from LAMDA with this fruity English accent that I had never intended to acquire, and I did Star-Spangled Girl by Neil Simon in summer stock with some dreary director who had a little bell on his desk. Every time I gave a Neil Simon line an English inflection, he would ring the bell. It drove me crazy. He was ringing the bell every thirty seconds, but he showed me just how English I'd become.

Movie directors tend not to direct you much at all. They're much more into staging and the camerawork. More often than not, you arrive, and you're expected to start acting immediately. The director hardly has a word to say to you. You'd be amazed. Some of them are very candid about it. I worked with Peter Hyams on 2010, and he said, "Boy, these guys who direct plays, and they have four weeks of rehearsal? I wouldn't know what to do." And he doesn't. You arrive, the camera rolls, and you start acting. It's as simple as that. The other extreme is someone like Herbert Ross, who is a stage director also, who wants two weeks of very attentive rehearsal. He really breaks down the script, stands people up, moves them around on taped diagrams. In movies, an actor has to do a great deal more, because directors aren't accustomed to worrying about it, and their ideas are usually not very concrete. So especially if you're going to do anything sort of unusual -- use an accent or prosthetic makeup or something like that -- I feel much better if I get a big head start. For instance, for Buckaroo Banzai I got these rotting pale green teeth and this shocking wig of bright red hair that I went around astonishing my friends with, and I got together with this very sweet little tailor in the MGM costume department with this fabulous thick Sicilian accent. I sat and talked with him for an hour and tape-recorded the conversation to get his accent down. In Santa Claus, I got a wonderful set of shiny, sort of used-car-salesman teeth -- great big phony smile. In both cases, I talked to the directors on the phone beforehand, basically asking them, "Will you pay for these items if I get them?" Usually the directors are surprised and delighted.

When I did Footloose, I went to a Baptist minister in Provo, Utah, where we were shooting, and pretended to be in a terrible spiritual crisis just so I could hear someone talk in earnest about being saved, someone who really believed it. I felt like a real hypocrite, needless to say, but it was very useful. I'm not like Dustin Hoffman, though, or these people who really dive in and live that way. When I played Roberta Muldoon in Garp, I'd never met a transsexual before. I'm not that exhaustive a researcher. Maybe Iím just lazy. But I certainly know what I'm going to do by the time I get to the set.

At a certain point you changed from being primarily a stage actor to being primarily a film actor. How did that happen?
It was a combination of things. I got married and moved to Los Angeles because my wife was teaching at UCLA. There I was, just at the time they released Garp, by far the showiest role I'd ever done. All you need is one of those, that extraordinary little moment in a little part where people say, "God, nobody could do that as well as this fellow, he's something." The Changing Room did it for me in theater, and Garp in film.

A few months later, there came a flood of things -- Footloose, Terms of Endearment, Buckaroo Banzai, 2010, Santa Claus, Manhattan Project ... eight or nine movie projects, and I was different in all of them. So I began to get that reputation as this guy who has a character talent and is not afraid to use it.

I never thought I'd be in a movie. Not ever. I never even thought I'd be on Broadway. I thought I'd be like my dad, working at Arena Stage and Long Wharf and the Guthrie, that this would be my life. All these things have cone along and astonished me.

from Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face, a collaboration with photographer Susan Shacter