Actor-writer John Lithgow

The award-winning actor and best-selling author discusses the creation of his memoir Drama: An Actor’s Education.

Known for his star vehicle 3rd Rock from the Sun, John Lithgow has been honing his craft for more than 20 years, with career honors that include two Tonys, five Emmys and multiple Oscar and Grammy nods. He's also released several children's albums and is a best-selling author of children's books. Born into a theatrical family, Lithgow debuted on stage at age 6. After finishing Harvard, the Fulbright scholar studied at London's Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. In his autobiography, Drama, he reflects on his evolution as both an actor and a man.


Tavis: Pleased to have John Lithgow back on this program. His stand-out career in film, television and theater includes five Emmy awards, two Oscar nominations and two Tonys. Sometime next year, we’re told, he’ll be back on Broadway in the new play, “The Columnist.” More on that in a moment.

For now, though, he’s out with a terrific new memoir. It’s called “Drama: An Actor’s Education.” John, good to have you back on this program.

John Lithgow: Wonderful to be back, Tavis.

Tavis: You been good?

Lithgow: Been really good.

Tavis: You’ve been busy, obviously.

Lithgow: Well, mainly traveling around telling people about this book.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Lithgow: I’ve never done book tours before.

Tavis: What do you make of it?

Lithgow: Hard work. (Laughter) I’ve come here to rest.

Tavis: Well, I will make this very easy for you.

Lithgow: You always do.

Tavis: And very painless, but hopefully a little fun. Tell me why the title, “Drama: An Actor’s Education,” for a book that is in part about your life. It’s a memoir, obviously.

Lithgow: It is a memoir, but it’s a memoir of the first half of my life, and about all the influences, both in and outside of theaters, onstage and offstage in my life, that basically turned me into the actor and the person I was when I arrived at about age 35 – the formative years. I called it “Drama,” it was kind of – actually, I think I was almost done with the book by the time I hit on the title. It is certainly nonfiction. In fact, it’s honest to a fault, this book.

But I decided to tell my story by telling stories. Almost think of it as fiction. Lend a little drama to my life; make it a series of mini-dramas, with me as the main character. Basically it’s anecdotal, but what all these anecdotes have in common is they’re all about acting, and about my acting – what I’ve learned stage by stage.

Tavis: How do you assess, how do you deconstruct that number, 35?

Lithgow: I don’t know. For me it was a huge, watershed year. It’s a year where a lot of things changed in my life. For one thing, I met my second wife, I moved to Los Angeles. Instead of being a theater actor who sometimes does movies I became a movie actor who sometimes does theater.

It was a logical intermission. If my life was a play, age 35 was my intermission. So that became – again, I didn’t plan it. I’d never written anything that long before. I’ve come here and talked about children’s books, which are about 27 pages long. So I just set out writing, and early on it occurred to me I’ve got to find a logical place to wrap this up, because I can’t tell the whole story.

Tavis: I don’t want to ask what surprised you, although the answer may be something that did, in fact, surprise you. But when you’re so busy living your life, you don’t have time to sit and process your life until you come to this moment, where you have to go back and come face-to-face with the life that you have lived, and hopefully the legacy that you have left. What did you learn about yourself when you were forced to look at yourself?

Lithgow: That’s a wonderful question. You do begin to look at the totality of your life and the major influences, and certainly the crucial moments, the really, truly formative moments – some of them triumphs and some of them traumas, and a lot of agony. You look at those moments that really affected you, and those people.

Primary among them is my dad, and early on I realized that this is almost a dual biography of me and my father. My father was a man of the theater. I grew up in a theater family. As a young man, as a boy, I gypsied around with my siblings and my parents to, like, eight different towns, went to eight different schools. All those things were extremely formative, and I think that’s what happens.

You sit down and you think, okay, what are the really important moments, almost as if you were constructing a piece of drama. It begins to get very clear. There’s almost a shape to it. I think the strand that runs most strongly through it is my relationship with my father.

It’s very interesting, I had an extremely intense experience with my dad in 2002, when he was an old man and very ill and I was taking care of him and my mother, and he was extremely depressed, virtually lost the will to live, and I realized my main job was cheering him up to save his life.

I hit on the idea of reading bedtime stories to him as he had read bedtime stories to me and my sibs when we were little children. I even found the book, called “Tellers of Tales,” that he used to read stories to us.

I surprised him with this book one night when he was all tucked in for sleep, and the story he picked was our favorite story from childhood, “Uncle Fred Flits By,” by PG Wodehouse, one of the funniest pieces of writing I’ve ever run across. I read that to him, it made him laugh and it brought him back to life.

Over the years after he’d passed away, that moment began to emerge as a really important epiphany for me. It began to represent to me everything that I – what it is I do for a living, why I perform, what performing, what telling stories really means to us. What it means to me and what it means to people who watch or listen. Out of that I spun a one-man show, which I did this year in Los Angeles, which made great use of the PG Wodehouse story, but it also basically tells the story I just told you, and it’s a meditation on storytelling.

Well, the one-man show is – the memoir grew right out of the one-man show. It was the first time I’d ever written anything from my own experience to perform for other people, and it sort of gave me the courage to go ahead and –

Tavis: Write the book.

Lithgow: – write the book, tell my story.

Tavis: When one reads the book, to your earlier point, John, and comes upon the relationship between you and your father, it’s hard for me to imagine, although I could be wrong, that you had a choice in life to do anything else. Did you have a choice, and if so, what might that have been?

Lithgow: Apparently, I did not have a choice, because growing up I didn’t want to be an actor. I sort of didn’t want to go into the family business; the main reason being there was something I wanted to do far more, which was be an artist.

But having grown up in the theater family, having done a huge amount of acting from a very little boy to precocious teenager in Shakespeare festivals that my father produced, I went off to college and fell in with the theater gang. I was already an experienced actor. I became a kind of campus star. I heard all this applause and laughter.

It’s my theory that if you hear enough applause and laughter at a young enough age, you’re doomed. (Laughter) You’re going to be an actor. It was during my college years that I made that choice.

Tavis: Maybe I missed it; I don’t think so, but I don’t get the sense, even with the proper subtext, which is one of love and wanting to honor your father, I don’t get the sense that you ever felt in competition with your father, and there’s so much of that in the world today.

Again, even when the subtext is I want to make my father proud of me, but there’s still a sense of competition that’s at work here. I don’t sense that with you and your father.

Lithgow: Not at all. It’s funny. One of the things that gives me a lot of pleasure about both the solo show and the book is that it tells people about my dad. He really was an important man. He was a kind of pioneer of regional theater. He was the first American producer to ever produce all of Shakespeare plays.

I grew up so proud of him. It’s been a lovely thing to tell people about him and almost celebrate – in fact, this book has made him far well known than his own career did, and that gives me nothing but pleasure. For his part, even though my career took off just when his was beginning to diminish, he took nothing but pride in what I did.

I think that’s almost the strongest demonstration of what we meant to each other. It was a complex relationship, which I write about in detail. It goes through a very classic pattern of absolutely idolizing a parent and then discover that they’re not all that you thought they were, and then eventually honoring them and revering them in their old age.

Tavis: This book, of course, tells the journey that you have taken; at least the first half of your journey. It tells the journey that you have taken, but is there – are there elements to a proper education that you think an actor must be exposed to? Again, your way of doing it is your way of doing it, and the way you learned is not the way that others learn the craft. But are there elements of an education that you think a good actor must be exposed to?

Lithgow: No. I think there are all sorts of ways of turning into an actor, and there are a vast variety of different actors. You know, you interview plenty of actors and you know they come at it from a different direction and acting means different things to a lot of people.

I can only speak for my own experience, but I think I did everything right. I went to – I got a wonderful college education. I went to Harvard. In those four years I accumulated a lot of knowledge but I also created a kind of habit of learning that has stayed with me my whole life.

Simultaneously I was doing extracurricular acting and directing and designing of all sorts of things, just for the fun of it, for the pure joy of it. I think it was the last time that acting was nothing but joyful. You weren’t answering to anybody, you weren’t worrying about your reviews, nobody was supervising or even teaching you anything. You were just loving it.

Meantime, I was getting this fine education. After that I went to drama school in England and studied an extremely rigorous academic training, even though I was already a fairly accomplished actor, and then off I went. The first long chapter of my career was almost entirely theater, so that by the time I was 30, 35, I sort of knew who I was as an actor and I was gradually learning who I was as a human being. (Laughs)

I do think – I always tell that to young people – go to college, do theater, work with an audience. Don’t try to learn how to act in front of millions and millions of people. Don’t make that your first ambition, to be on a sitcom or get into the movies. Learn who you are as an actor, and the best way to do that is to do it in front of an audience.

Tavis: Here’s the exit question – I could talk to you for hours about your life, because I find your life and your work and you so fascinating. But if this is the first half of your life, and since this number 35 has come up a few times in this conversation, I come back to it because I recall some years ago now when I turned 35 giving a speech, and what I talked about in that speech, John, was that if, for those of us who have any kind of biblical appreciation, we are told that God gives us threescore and 10, as you know, so that’s 70 years. So at 35 years of age you are halfway there. At 35, you’ve lived half of your life.

So this book lays out the first half of your life. What is it that you learned in the first half that you knew that you didn’t want to repeat in the second half, and what is it about the first half that made you so excited about the second half? A two-part question. Is that strange?

Lithgow: Well, no, no, it’s a wonderful question. It’s a difficult question to answer. I do think that I was –

Tavis: Everything wasn’t perfect in the first half. There had to be something you said, “I do not want to do this the rest of my life, but this thing over here, I’m anxious now at this point in my life to do more of this.”

Lithgow: Well, the book tells of a crisis in my late thirties, the beginning of my thirties, where my life kind of fell apart. I grew up with this crazy upbringing of living many places and always being the new kid in town, not like a service brat where you’re always going to school with other new kids in town. I was constantly arriving in small towns and going to school with kids who’d been together since they were in kindergarten.

Tremendously difficult for a child to constantly be reinventing and adapting. It made me into this kind of strenuous good boy, immediately fit in, figure out how to be accepted. In a sense, it was a wonderful training as an actor, figuring out how to play an audience immediately. It takes its toll, because if you’re that intent on being good, you don’t really learn who you are.

You’re very, very hard on yourself if you’re anything less than a good boy. There’s a chapter in the book called “The Good Boy.” Well, you do things like postpone adolescence. You postpone those moments in your young life when you really do learn who you are. That all came crashing down on me at about age 32 and I transcended.

I really do feel that that was the – those were the years when I learned the most about myself, and you ask what I learned? Well, I learned my strengths and my weaknesses, and it’s far more important to learn about your weaknesses than your strengths.

Tavis: Mm-hmm, I agree. (Laughter)

Lithgow: I sort of prepared myself for the rest of my life. I’ve just felt more like an adult since then.

Tavis: It’s a fascinating read and we have just scratched the surface. It’s hard to do justice to a life so well lived in a 15-minute conversation, but hopefully your appetite has been whetted to read the text. The new book from John Lithgow is called “Drama: An Actor’s Education.” John, always delighted to have you on this program. You can come and talk about yourself here anytime.

Lithgow: (Laughs) Thank you, Tavis. You’re the best.

Tavis: Good to see you.

Lithgow: Great.

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Last modified: November 9, 2011 at 2:13 pm