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John Lithgow brings the magic of the bedtime story to Broadway

When John Lithgow was a child, his father would act out his bedtime stories, a tradition he carried on when his father grew ill later in life. Now Lithgow brings his own tradition of storytelling to a one-man show on Broadway, called “Stories by Heart.” Jeffrey Brown talks to the actor about our human need to tell tales and his career in theater and film.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, a master class in the art of storytelling.

    Jeffrey Brown recently traveled to New York for a talk with actor John Lithgow.

  • John Lithgow:

    I recognized all those things that we thought were so damn funny all those years ago.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The power of storytelling, the magic of theater- on display in John Lithgow’s solo Broadway show “Stories By Heart.”

  • John Lithgow:

    How a good storyteller can make you laugh, make you cry, keep you on the edge of your seats.

    One of the first lines in my evening is, all theater is stories, and all actors are storytellers. We’re part of the process. We’re putting on a fiction, which hopefully reaches out and touches an audience, gives them emotional exercise, attempts to create a brief suspension of disbelief. That’s what I do.

    You will hear a lot more about that in a little while.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Lithgow has been presenting versions of “Stories By Heart” around the country since 2008.

    Now on Broadway in a production directed by Daniel Sullivan, he tells part of his own story of a young boy whose father introduced him to a world of storytelling and theater.

  • John Lithgow:

    We would pick the stories, and he would read them out loud, performing all the parts full-out. When I hold it in my hands now, my father comes back.

    I try to recreate the sort of period of discovery that I went through as a boy with my siblings, just listening to my father read great stories. It was probably the closest we ever felt to my father, was bedtime stories with this big, fat book.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Are you worried that it’s lost, that art of storytelling?

  • John Lithgow:

    Yes, I am worried about that. I mean, there’s a certain missionary zeal to what I’m doing here.

    You see, the concern he’d been working for sold canned goods.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In the show, Lithgow performs two of the stories he heard as a child, playing all the roles, including a small-town barber with a whopper of a tale in Ring Lardner’s story “Haircut.”

  • John Lithgow:

    It was a Saturday, and the shop was full. And Jim got up out of that chair and said, gentlemen, I got an important announcement to make. I been fired from my job.

    The evening is a meditation on, why do all of us need stories, want, need and love stories? And there’s no question we all do.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Now 72, Lithgow has had a varied, enduring, and much honored career.

  • John Lithgow:

    I have got to see. Oh, my God, I’m gorgeous!

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    His best-known role, for which he won three Emmy Awards, may be from the hit TV comedy series “3rd Rock From the Sun,” in which he played the commander of an alien expedition come to Earth.

    Just last year, he won another Emmy for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in the Netflix drama “The Crown.”

  • Actress:

    It is said you can be difficult.

  • John Lithgow:

    I can be a monster. Did they say that?

  • Actress:

    Yes, sir.

  • John Lithgow:

    It’s true. But you need to be a monster to defeat Hitler.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He received an Oscar nomination for the 1982 film “The World According to Garp,” where he played a transgender woman.

  • John Lithgow:

    You like football?

  • Robin Wlliams:

    Oh, yes, I used to watch it quite a bit.

  • John Lithgow:

    Well, you might have seen me. I was a tight end with the Philadelphia Eagles.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And has appeared in more than 50 other movies, including last year’s “Beatriz at Dinner.”

  • Actress:

    When I first came to the United States a long time ago.

  • John Lithgow:

    Did you come legally?

  • Actress:

    Yes.

  • Actress:

    Oh, this tenderloin was amazing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But theater has been there from the start, the very start, in fact. In this 1947 photo, 2-year-old John Lithgow is seen making his on-stage debut in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” at a theater in Ohio. And that man holding his hand, that’s his father, Arthur Lithgow, an actor and producer of Shakespeare festivals and much else at regional theaters around the country.

  • John Lithgow:

    My father produced a lot of these plays multiple times, directing several of them, and acting in several with a kind of exuberant flamboyance that you might have recognized from someone else in the room.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Lithgow:

    This is my unusually nice Broadway dressing room.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This is as good as it gets?

  • John Lithgow:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Arthur Lithgow read to his children from a book called “Tellers of Tales.” Many years later, the book serves as John Lithgow’s one prop.

  • John Lithgow:

    Yes, this is “Tellers of Tales,” which this is the actual book, which is why it looks so old and ratty.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One of the stories here, Ring Lardner’s “Haircut.”

  • John Lithgow:

    Chatting, chatting, just chatting. He can’t stop. He’s a chatty barber. And I mime absolutely every detail of an old-time shave and a haircut.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And so too is the other story Lithgow performs in “Stories By Heart,” a hilarious rollick by P.G. Wodehouse called “Uncle Fred Flits By,” in which Lithgow plays 11 different characters.

  • John Lithgow:

    A letter from a young man. I found to my horror that a young man of whom I knew nothing was arranging to marry my daughter. I sent for him immediately, and found him to be quite impossible. He jellies eels!

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And there is more to this story. When Arthur Lithgow was ill and grew depressed late in life, John spent a month caring for him and his mother, Sarah, and turned the storytelling tables.

  • John Lithgow:

    I surprised them with the book when I got this idea. They were all in bed — and told them to pick a story. And nobody can make you laugh with just simple prose more than P.G. Wodehouse.

    And they picked P.G. Wodehouse. And, by God, I made my father laugh. He hadn’t been laughing at all. And this was a man who laughed all his life.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It sounds like, at the end, at different times, he felt like he had not succeeded.

  • John Lithgow:

    I don’t think any actor or director, anybody who creates theater, feels they have succeeded at the end of their lives.

    What we do is — it’s not indispensable. We entertain people. We create little moments that are then gone.

    Never let them see the real Elizabeth Windsor.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But Lithgow says, in his case, growing older has its perks.

  • John Lithgow:

    I’m an old actor, no question about it. Turns out being an old actor is tremendous.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Lithgow:

    I think all my competition has fallen away.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Lithgow:

    I’m very aware of how lucky I am to be this viable at this age. And I’m just grabbing for all the gusto I can get.

    I have been selling canned goods, and now I’m canned goods myself.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Arthur Lithgow died in 2004. His son John performs “Stories By Heart” on Broadway through early March.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown from New York.

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