October 15, 2021

John Lithgow

Actor, author and illustrator John Lithgow discusses his new collection of poems satirizing America’s “scoundrels,” his take on contemporary politics, and getting into character for his iconic roles from Winston Churchill to Roger Ailes.

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A legendary actor with a new act, this week on Firing Line.

Dick Solomon: Can anyone get your head to swivel to the rear?

You may know him as an alien… 

Others: No…

Dick Solomon: How are you supposed to lick your back?

…As the statesman who guided the United Kingdom through the Second World War… 

Churchill: Where there is heroism, there will always be hope.

…As the disgraced media executive controlling Fox News… 

Ailes: Go to the wide shot, I want to see her goddamn legs!

Or maybe even as one of the biggest villains in cinematic history…

Gingerbread man: You’re a monster!

Lord Farquaad: I’m not the monster here. You are.

Actor John Lithgow has collected Tonys, Emmys and Golden Globes for his wide-ranging roles on the stage and screen. He found a new muse in the Trump era…

Lithgow: Trumpty Dumpty wanted a crown, to make certain he never would have to step down.

…and is now a best-selling author and illustrator, using the power of poetry to take on the former president and all the scoundrels 

who came before him. So can comedy save us from tragedy? What does John Lithgow say now?

‘Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Fairweather Foundation, the Asness Family Foundation, and by The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation and Damon Button. Corporate funding is provided by Stephens Inc. 

HOOVER:  John Lithgow, welcome to Firing Line.

LITHGOW: Thank you so much, Margaret. I feel welcome.

HOOVER: You grew up around the stage. Your father was the director of Shakespeare festivals in Ohio growing up, and you have played an astonishing range of characters and you’re really a visionary master of both stage and screen. In this time of Trump, is it a time of comedy or tragedy?

LITHGOW: Well, it’s always a time of both. They mingle together. Good characters who do bad things, bad characters who do good things. That’s so much at the heart of comedy and tragedy. So you play a character like Roger Ailes, whom conventional wisdom has completely dismissed as a total two dimensional villain, and you look at the other side of him.

HOOVER: You’ve just published A Confederacy of Dumptys. This is your third book in a trilogy of original poems, and the first two took direct aim at the Trump administration. They were bestsellers and for this one, you’ve actually taken a step back at American history, and focused on portraits of the 25 worst American scoundrels of all time. What did you find?

LITHGOW: It was very exciting. Going on that journey. It was very much inspired by my wife, who is a historian. It really sparked my imagination because here was a chance to write with a certain degree of relief, hope, and even delight at the fact that as bad as things get in the modern day, things have always been worse before. And you only find that out when you go back and look, that’s what history is for.

HOOVER: What had you not fully appreciated about that–

LITHGOW: I think the middle of the 19th century completely astonished me. With last year’s contested election, there was an awful lot of talk about 1876 when they didn’t decide the winner of that presidential election until the day before Inauguration Day. And basically that year was the year that Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow started and the decision about who would be president was all about horse trading. And there’s a line in it where the ex confederates accepted the decision all aglow, ‘You can have your president if we can have Jim Crow.’ That was astonishing to me. That was discovering something about America I never knew.

HOOVER: You consulted your wife. You consulted other historians — known historians, especially to this audience — Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham, Walter Isaacson. How did you pick and choose? Who didn’t make the cut?

LITHGOW: That’s an interesting question. What is more interesting is the people I missed. I wish I’d been able to write about Andrew Johnson, for instance. I didn’t get around to him.

HOOVER: Would you be willing to read one of my favorites for us?

LITHGOW: Sure. You take your pick.

HOOVER: This is Boss Tweed. Perhaps at the end…

LITHGOW: Yes, this is called ‘Nasty Business: The Tale of Boss Tweed,’ and it’s about Boss Tweed and his opposite number Thomas Nast, the cartoonist who brought him down. A subject that was particularly dear to my heart since I–

HOOVER: –since you illustrate.

LITHGOW: Since I illustrated the book, too.

HOOVER: That’s exactly why I thought that was a perfect nexus.

LITHGOW:

We now introduce the aforesaid cartoonist

Who brought down the boss like a punctured balloonist.

The depictions of Tweed by the great Thomas Nast

were scathing, satiric, and destined to last.

Nast pictured a slob of Falstaffian bulk,

a baleful, beady-eyed, glowering hulk.

Tweed frantically raged at his impotent goons,

‘My people can’t read, but they see them cartoons.’

So what do we learn from Tweed’s gloomy demise?

What prudent perception to open our eyes?

A lesson to teach both defendant and jurist,

From youngest beginner right up to maturest.

You needn’t be kindest or cleanest or purest.

Just don’t ever rankle a caricaturist.

HOOVER: Boss Tweed is a wonderful scoundrel of American history. But you know, you write about the role of the satirical cartoonist, right? We might not have known of Tweed were it not for Nast.

LITHGOW: Exactly, exactly. That’s why I’m so delighted that you picked this poem because it’s at the heart of this whole enterprise.

HOOVER: You have said, quote, “Yes, it’s true that satirists are preaching to the choir, but they’re emboldening the choir, and that’s why it’s important.”

LITHGOW: Yeah.

HOOVER: What service does emboldening the choir provide?

LITHGOW: Well, I don’t know, my own feeling is that this is a time when people really have to stand up and be counted, and they have to really examine their convictions and their beliefs in the American enterprise because it’s in trouble. I really feel like it’s in trouble. I don’t come anywhere near a policymaker. I would be terrible at the job. I’m an entertainer. But… I think policymakers have got to be challenged and brought up short, and they’ve got to hear people’s objections. I mean, I have never been a front foot political activist. I’ve never gone public. I think I’ve always felt very ambivalent about — to the degree I am a celebrity at all,  I just don’t feel right parlaying that into putting my opinions out there. Why should people listen to me rather than people who really know what they’re talking about? But these past few years have changed everything as far as I’m concerned. I really think it’s important to influence people, if you can.

HOOVER: Do you think that you are influencing new people with your satire? Are you winning new converts or are you preaching to the choir?

LITHGOW: I don’t know. I don’t think I’m changing anybody’s mind. I mean, that’s our current disease is people becoming so entrenched. But I think I’m tilling the soil a little bit.

HOOVER: I mean, as you know, many Trump supporters perceive Hollywood as full of coastal elites who are out of touch with them and don’t respect their values or their struggles. Does it concern you or does it give you pause that a satirical book about Trump might only further embolden them in their position?

LITHGOW: Maybe. Honestly, I don’t know the answers to these questions. Listen, I’m not a coastal elite. I’ve ended up on the two coasts, yes, because I’m in the entertainment business. But I’m from Ohio. My wife is from Montana. Some of my best friends are red staters with red state views. I just, what pains me the most, what makes me so sad, is the fact that we are a divided country again, and it just doesn’t need to happen. I think the thing that I hold Trump most responsible for is that he’s only ever played to his base. He’s never reached out to the other side, he’s never accommodated other points of view, and he’s never invited other opinions, brought other opinions to bear on policy.

HOOVER: On the topic of how to bring the country together, have you given any thought to how performing arts might begin to heal our divides?

LITHGOW: Well, I mean, when you talk about bringing people together, when there’s a hit show or a hit song or a hit movie that everybody loves or a sporting event that everybody thinks is really cool, it’s a moment when we are all together. And yes, I think the arts have a big role to play. Those moments when we can set aside our differences and sit in the same crowd and feel good about the same thing. Sadly, it’s the tragedies that have really brought us together. It’s those catastrophic moments when this country comes together. We had COVID. This country could have come together over COVID and it didn’t, and that had to do with leadership, I think.

HOOVER: I have heard you say that you write with a combination of contempt and empathy for the scoundrels that you’ve mentioned in your book, including Donald Trump. How do you manage to inhabit in the same place both empathy and disdain?

LITHGOW: Well, we’re all human beings. My heart goes out to Donald Trump on many occasions. I mean, I think he leads a miserable life. I mean, I’ve rarely seen a public figure so consumed with grievance and anger. It’s what drives him all the time. He strikes me as a man who is incapable of being happy. And honestly, I pity him, the thing that he likes to hear the least. But I wouldn’t be that man for anything.

HOOVER: How do you handle your personal opinion in your portrayal of characters? For example, I’ve heard you discuss how you went and visited with friends of Roger Ailes from the 70s to get a fuller understanding of who he was as a person.

LITHGOW: I found the process of playing Roger Ailes one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done. The most interesting challenge I’ve ever been given. And the process was remarkable.

MOVIE CLIP “BOMBSHELL”

Ailes: Stand up and give me a spin

Reporter: Really?

Ailes: Yeah, it’s a visual medium.

LITHGOW: And yes, the smartest thing I did was to find somebody who knew him and worked with him and liked him, a good friend of his. And he was very, very sad at what history had done to Roger Ailes. The inarguable evidence of Roger Ailes behavior appalled him. He found it despicable. But he also knew him as a man who was wonderful company, had a great sense of humor. In fact, he was very, very tough on his own conservative clients for being too conservative.

HOOVER: Yes, he was. As somebody who worked at Fox News, I can tell you…

LITHGOW: Yeah, I mean, a startling piece of information. None of us is perfect. My favorite line in Shakespeare is when Hamlet, who is most certainly Shakespeare’s voice, saying, “I am myself indifferent honest and yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better that my mother had never borne me.” We’re all capable of good and we’re all capable of evil, and it’s my job as an actor to explore all those gray areas.

HOOVER: You’ve also played Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who I heard you describe– You said you learned of FDR that, quote, ‘He had many slippery qualities. In a way, events turned him into a sort of great, unwitting hero.’ As a descendant of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s chief political punching bag, I fully agree with your characterization, but wonder, what did you find that was slippery about him?

LITHGOW: Well, he was so crafty. I guess the great truism I came up against playing Roosevelt is that every politician has got to be dishonest on some level.

HOOVER: Not always, they’re just not popular if they aren’t.

LITHGOW: Well, maybe, but you got to be popular in order to get your way…

HOOVER: So Hoover doesn’t follow that formula.

LITHGOW: …and everything can be taken to crazy excess. I also think–

HOOVER: I push back only because Hoover, who I know you’ve had a chance to look at a little bit, really didn’t subscribe to any of that. And perhaps maybe that…

LITHGOW: That’s right.

HOOVER: …perhaps that, you know, maybe has something to do with his lack of political success with the presidency.

LITHGOW: And you’ll be glad to know that my wife is a great defender of Hoover. She’s an economic historian. She knew him as a great engineer, a man who really did believe that government could be used, put to work on behalf of the people. And she notes the fact that when Bobby Kennedy was asked who he thought was the greatest president, he said, Herbert Hoover.

HOOVER: Your wife has taught you so much.

LITHGOW: Yes, whenever I come to her with some fabulous thing that I’ve found out, she said, John, all you had to do was come to my lecture on the subject.

HOOVER: I’d like to tell you about my favorite role that you played.

MOVIE CLIP, “THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP”

Garp: Pardon me. I hate to use a corny line like this, but haven’t I seen you before?

Roberta: You like football?

Garp: Oh yes. I used to watch it quite a bit.

Roberta: Oh well you might have seen me. I was a tight end with the Philadelphia Eagles, #90. Robert Muldoon. I had a great pair of hands.

Garp: Yes, you did.

HOOVER: It’s Roberta Muldoon, the first role for which you were nominated for an Academy Award. It was 1982 and a transgender theater critic favorably reviewed that character, and she said, quote, ‘Roberta is not a victim, she is not a prostitute, and she is not a punch line, and she is not a psychopath. She rings true as a human being rather than as a stereotype.’ And of course, we know those are the ways that, trans women and trans people were actually portrayed in 1982.

LITHGOW: Absolutely.

HOOVER: And to me it was remarkable  that you took on this role to humanize a trans woman, a full three decades before Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura in Transparent. What inspired you to portray a trans woman in the most humanizing and respectful way in 1982?

LITHGOW: Well, John Irving inspired me by creating that character. It was a great honor to play the role. I really had a wonderful time doing it, and the response I got from transgendered men and women, it was so moving. And it was exactly what you just said. I got a letter saying, you have no idea what it’s like to see someone play a role of a person like me who is not a psychopath, not a serial killer, not a deviant, but just like everybody’s best friend.

HOOVER: She was the most well centered, balanced character of the whole cast.

LITHGOW: Yeah, that’s right.

HOOVER: Today, there’s a belief on Broadway and in Hollywood that trans characters should only be played by trans actors. And I understand there are a lot of reasons for this. But on some level do you think we lose something by not– Do you lose something in art when certain people can only play certain characters?

LITHGOW: Well that’s a very penetrating question. But I think– Yes, you do lose something but you gain much more.

HOOVER: What do you gain?

LITHGOW: You gain some sense of reality and a sense of an actor’s courage, I think. I mean, I leaped at the chance to play Roberta Muldoon. But think what it’s like for a trans actor to be given that opportunity now, to express himself or herself. Same thing happened among gay actors. Neil Patrick Harris, Ian McKellen, these people have really changed our sensibility. So it wasn’t even a matter of courage, it was almost a matter of, ‘Enough already. Let me be who I am. Let me be the one to tell my story rather than, you know, Bill Hurt being given an Oscar for it.’

HOOVER: You briefly played Donald Trump in a live stream.

LITHGOW: Yeah.

HOOVER: Sounds like you’re on the fence about whether you’d play him again.

LITHGOW: You know, I’ve been asked to play a couple of times in dramas and I’ve turned it down. To me, it’s too early. It’s almost better to play him satirically than for real at the moment. I’m not exactly sure why, I just– for one thing, I wish we’d just leave him alone.

HOOVER: Well, he’s not leaving us alone.

LITHGOW: He’s not leaving us alone. But I wish we would deliberately ignore him for a while. I can feel it happening all over again. The coverage of Trump is beginning to kick in, and that really alarms me because he capitalizes on that politically and he becomes a fierce, fearsome political force.

HOOVER: In 1976 William F. Buckley Jr. welcomed one of your scoundrels, Roy Cohn, to this program along with Mark Felt, who of course later outed himself as being Deep Throat in the Watergate affair. And they were discussing  J. Edgar Hoover.

Take a look at this:

BUCKLEY: Here you disagree with Mr. Felt, who believes that Mr. Hoover should have been retired earlier.

COHN: I don’t, I wish Mr. Hoover were still here.

FELT: Well, what I said was that I thought he should have retired while he was still champ, and I feel terribly bad about what’s being done to him, he’s being pilloried.

COHN: Well, I think he’s a champ to me. And I think he’s a champ to millions of people around this country. And I think for the American people Mr. J Edgar Hoover is still a pretty darn good name.

LITHGOW: Wow.

HOOVER: Isn’t that amazing?  All right. So, one of your top 25 scoundrels in American history. You write about him in the poem The Wonder Boy. Forty five years later, Roy Cohn’s reputation has plummeted. J. Edgar Hoover’s isn’t much better. Mark Felt’s has improved dramatically.

LITHGOW: Yeah.

HOOVER: How long does it take for history and our understanding of people and the perspective we have on them to work itself out?

LITHGOW: Well, sometimes it takes forever, and sometimes it never happens at all. Actually, one of my favorite little couplets, I don’t know it by heart. It’s at the end of the long poem about George Armstrong Custer, about what a showman and a self-promoter and a reckless military figure he was. And yet his wife, who was virtually his press agent, spent the next 50 years burnishing his reputation and turning him into a great American legend. A very good historian of the American West, Stephen Aron of UCLA, he’s the one who told me, ‘Pay attention to George Armstrong Custer.’ He’s more Trumpian than anybody you’ll find. I’ll read you the last stanza.

We shucked our misgivings and struck up the band

For the spurious fable of Custer’s last stand.

But today, Custer’s epic has grown cautionary,

A timely reminder to warn the unwary.

When a scoundrel from history exits the stage,

Fictions will turn into facts as they age.

History’s tricky.

HOOVER: It is tricky.

LITHGOW: It sets some things right, and it gets some things wrong.

HOOVER: The final poem of book Dumpty’s Dream is a 43 stanza recounting of the January sixth insurrection. The last two stanzas I’d like to ask you about.

LITHGOW: Okay.

HOOVER: Do you want to read them first?

LITHGOW: I’ll read them and then we’ll talk about it.

HOOVER: And then we’ll discuss.

LITHGOW:

He dreamed that he’d fall silent in his 10 years aftermath,

Lying low at Mar a Lago to devise his future path.

With a keynote speech at C-PAC, he’d regain his strident voice

And prove that he remained his party’s overwhelming choice.

He dreamed of three combative years a struggle for survival,

Stirring anger, stoking fears, and smashing every rival.

He dreamed that in the end, he would ascend to seventh heaven.

He’d win the White House once again, as POTUS 47.

Take a breath and contemplate the 6th of January,

A traumatizing memory, impossible to bury.

A wound that left us reeling from a feral public breach.

The catastrophic consequence of one despotic speech.

A sunny dream for Dumpty is a nightmare for the rest of us.

The health of our democracy demands the very best of us.

For years, our body politic was beaten black and blue.

The cure is making sure

that Dumpty’s dream does not come true.

HOOVER: In the prologue of your book, you write of Trump, quote, ‘We’ve seen worse. I am convinced that no matter how hard he struggles to regain power, Dumpty will eventually drop into the scorned ranks of history’s villains, and we will survive him.’ That is an enormously hopeful note, but those last lines while intended as satire, I fear, may be prophetic.

LITHGOW: Fear is the operative word. I really do think that we are, if not in trouble, we’re at a tipping point as a nation, as a culture, as a political organization. I wrote those hopeful words, in fact, I wrote those stanzas months ago and a lot has happened since then. You know, Biden has steered into some very, very rocky shoals, and Trump is showing himself to have incredible tenacity. So it’s a dangerous moment.

HOOVER: So you’re not so sure that the rest of the dream doesn’t come true.

LITHGOW: No, I’m not sure. I’m not, I can’t, I don’t think it is guaranteed. I’m a lot less hopeful than I was last fall.

HOOVER: John Lithgow. Thank you.

LITHGOW: It’s so good to talk to you, Margaret.

HOOVER: Thank you very much for joining me here on Firing Line

LITHGOW: Of course.

HOOVER: Thank you for lifting our spirits.

LITHGOW: Thank you.

HOOVER: Thank you.

 

LITHGOW:

Herbert Hoover’s astute great granddaughter

Uses everything history has taught her.

She rekindled the flame

Of her family name

When Firing Line sought her and caught her.

That’s for you.

HOOVER: So good. Oh my gosh. Wow!

‘Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Fairweather Foundation, the Asness Family Foundation, and by The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation and Damon Button. Corporate funding is provided by Stephens Inc.