John Lithgow is well known for his oddball roles. He’s played a trans-gender ex-football player, an extra-terrestrial professor, and a serial killer, among scores of other roles. What’s less known is his life before becoming a star of stage, film, and television. John Lithgow spent a childhood on the move as the son of an itinerant actor and director. After graduating from Harvard, he eventually found success in the theater worlds of New York and London. He says it was the trappings of that success that led him to finally face adulthood in his thirties. John Lithgow talks with Diane about his backstage history and what drives him to perform.

Guests

  • John Lithgow actor and author of eight books for children.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from “Drama” by John Lithgow. Copyright 2011 by John Lithgow. Excerpted here by permission of Harper Collins:

Transcript

  • 11:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Actor John Lithgow says his greatest performance was not on a Broadway stage or even behind the camera, it was while reading a bedtime story to his aging parents. The award-winning actor's new memoir reflects on his chaotic childhood and early career, how they shaped his identity and craft and why that evening with his parents changed his life.

  • 11:07:33

    MS. DIANE REHMHis new book is titled "Drama," and John Lithgow joins me in the studio. Of course, you are welcome to join us as well, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org, join us on Facebook or Twitter. How good to meet you.

  • 11:07:59

    MR. JOHN LITHGOWWonderful to meet you at last, Diane.

  • 11:08:01

    REHMThank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  • 11:08:03

    LITHGOWGreat to be here.

  • 11:08:05

    REHMTell me about that evening with your parents.

  • 11:08:10

    LITHGOWWell, it was -- my dad was 86, this was back in 2002, and he was in very poor health. He was -- he'd always been a very buoyant and healthy and happy and humorous man. But his health problems had just taken all that away. He was a shadow of himself and very depressed, and living alone with my mom with no one taking care of him. And I -- I just moved in with them for a month to fix up home care for them, and look after them.

  • 11:08:46

    LITHGOWBut my main task was to cheer him up. No matter what I did, it didn't work. But I hit on the idea of reading bedtime stories to him and my mom as he had read bedtime stories to us. I even found the book he used to read us stories from. It was called, "Tellers of Tales." And I -- when they were all tucked in at night, I surprised them with this book and told them to pick a story, and my father picked a story by P.G. Woodhouse called "Uncle Fred Flits By," which had been our favorite story when I was kid because it was the funniest, flat out hilarious story.

  • 11:09:28

    LITHGOWBut I had more or less forgotten it. But I set out to read "Uncle Fred Flits By" to him, and as I read, it all came back to me, and it was just a miraculously funny, glorious Woodhouse story, and halfway through, he started to laugh.

  • 11:09:45

    REHMAh.

  • 11:09:45

    LITHGOWAnd I honestly feel it was the moment when my father came back to life. And from that moment, I sort of extrapolated all my own thoughts and feelings about why I do what I do, why I perform, entertain, act, and tell stories, and why we all need them and want them and love them so much. From that came a one-man show, from the one-man show came this book, my own story.

  • 11:10:16

    LITHGOWIt was the first time I'd ever written anything from my own experience to perform for other people, and they responded to it warmly, and it was a successful show. So I was kind of emboldened to go right ahead and write a memoir.

  • 11:10:32

    REHMRead for us.

  • 11:10:33

    LITHGOWOh, okay. Actually, this is a sort of follow-on to what I've just told you. It's the conclusion of the preface to the book. Acting is nothing more than storytelling. An actor usually performs for a crowd, whether for a hundred people in an off-Broadway theater, or for millions of moviegoers all over the globe. Reading to my parents on that autumn evening in Amherst was something else again. It was acting in its simplest, purest, more rarified form.

  • 11:11:07

    LITHGOWMy father was listening to "Uncle Fred Flits By" as if his life depended on it, and indeed it did. The story was not just averting him, it was easing his pain, dissolving his fear, and leading him back from the brink of death. It was rejuvenating his atrophied soul. Lying next to him, my mother could sense that by some mysterious force, her husband was returning to her.

  • 11:11:37

    LITHGOWBefore he went to sleep, Dad thanked me for the story as if I had given him a treasured gift, but he'd given me a gift too, and it was the gift of a father's love. I was 56 years old and had known him all my life. In all those years, our relationship had changed kaleidoscopically. We had been up and down, happy and sad, close and distant. Our fortunes had risen and fallen, ebbed and flowed, rarely at the same time.

  • 11:12:05

    LITHGOWBut in all those years, I'd never felt as close to him, nor ever felt as much love for him as I did that night. He had given me another gift too, although he never lived to see it bear fruit. The period I spent with my parents was one of the most significant in my life. In that memorable month, that Woodhouse story was the most memorable hour. I had spent my entire adult life acting in plays, movies, and television shows. I had told stories. I had had a gratifying, fun and prosperous career.

  • 11:12:42

    LITHGOWOnly infrequently had I paused to plum the mysteries of my peculiar occupation. That night, however, everything came into focus. Sitting at my parents' bedside and reading them a story, trying to help two old people feel better, came to seem like a distillation of everything my profession is about. In the years to come, my thoughts kept returning to that evening after my father was long gone. Finally, spurred on by the events of that night, I decided to write this book.

  • 11:13:19

    REHMJohn Lithgow. He's an award-winning actor who has starred on stage, film, and television. He's been reading to you from his new book titled, "Drama: An Actor's Education." That was so beautiful.

  • 11:13:40

    LITHGOWWell...

  • 11:13:40

    REHMAnd you were brought to tears as I was.

  • 11:13:46

    LITHGOWYou know, it's -- it was an extraordinarily moving moment, and, you know, I -- everybody should have the great privilege and luxury of really deeply connecting with their parents very late in life, and I write a good deal more about both my parents, but particularly my father, all through the book.

  • 11:14:09

    REHMAnd of course, his own career was part of what spurred you.

  • 11:14:16

    LITHGOWWell, sure. I grew up -- he was a producer of classical reparatory, almost exclusively Shakespeare, when I was a kid, Shakespeare festivals in Ohio, four different festivals. The last of them was the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival which lives on today as the Great Lakes Theater Festival in Cleveland, and I was -- it was just me and my three siblings. It was mother's milk to us that just hung around rehearsals, played tiny roles, all the kids' parts in Shakespeare plays.

  • 11:14:51

    LITHGOWI was Mustardseed and a spear carrier and a messenger. All of this is described in the book. The interesting fact of it was, in all those young years, I didn't want to be an actor.

  • 11:15:05

    REHMI was about to say, you sort of went the other way.

  • 11:15:09

    LITHGOWYes. Well, I was -- I wanted to be an artist, and I was -- I was quite passionate about that. I was convinced that that was my calling right up until my late teens. But then I went off to college and I was an experienced and good actor in spite of myself just from having all that exposure all those years.

  • 11:15:29

    REHMDid your family want you to be an actor?

  • 11:15:35

    LITHGOWWell, they never encouraged and never discouraged me. They -- I would say they -- in the whole are of art and painting, they always made sure I had wonderful painting supplies, art supplies, they arranged for terrific art instruction. I spent the last two years of high school going to the Art Students League of New York every Saturday morning, even though I didn't even live in New York, you know. I commuted in from Princeton, New Jersey.

  • 11:16:06

    LITHGOWAnd of course my father used me, he cast me constantly in his festival productions, and I worked as an apprentice and as a lighting technician. So it was like they put everything at my disposal almost offhandedly. When I finally decided to be an actor, I have to say, it seemed like a grave disappointment to my father.

  • 11:16:32

    REHMInteresting.

  • 11:16:34

    LITHGOWAnd it surprised me, but he was quite worried, and you would be. It's a terribly hard profession.

  • 11:16:43

    REHMYou say in the book that there was a minute-long span of time in 1964 December when you decided you were going to be an actor.

  • 11:16:56

    LITHGOWYes. Well, that -- it was a highly theatrical way of describing it, but it probably is true. I -- in my sophomore year at Harvard, I played the leading role of King Paramount in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta named "Utopia Limited," their most obscure. And I had a sensational success in this. It was the first time I had sung in a musical theatre production, and there was one number, the opening number of act two, which was a kind of septet with me as the central performer, it was this sort of English musical minstrel show where we all sing about how England has colonized this little Polynesian island and turned them into a little mini England.

  • 11:17:49

    LITHGOW(singing) It really is surprising what a thorough Anglicizing we have brought about -- Utopia's quite another land. In her enterprising movements, she is England -- with improvements, which we dutifully offer to our mother-land. Yeah. And the audience, at the end of this, gave us such an incredible response. Actually, we performed two encores, which we had planned, because we knew we were going to kill with this. But, you know, they were still applauding and we'd run out of encores. And I was alone on stage and they did not stop cheering, and I always said that did it.

  • 11:18:22

    REHMJohn Lithgow, and we're talking about his new book titled, "Drama: An Actor's Education."

  • 11:19:54

    REHMAnd we're back with John Lithgow. Of course an award-winning actor, he has starred in stage, film, television. He now has a new book. It's titled "Drama: An Actor's Education." And I've marked a couple of things in this book but one that particularly interests me, insecurity. Talk about insecurity and why you think maybe we never get over it.

  • 11:20:38

    LITHGOWWell, in the case of actors insecurity is sort of part and parcel of the process. Actors are -- we are kind of fragile creatures. We swing wildly between arrogance and horrific self doubt. Just because the thing we do, I think down deep we are always worried that it is...

  • 11:21:02

    REHMNot good enough.

  • 11:21:03

    LITHGOW...well, not good enough, but also frivolous and inessential. I mean, this is a serious world and we're not -- sometimes we feel that we're not in a serious business. It's an odd thing. You have to take it extremely seriously to do it well and yet there's always that insecurity that it need not be done at all. So I think that's at play. But also we deal in volatile chemicals. We deal in real emotions. We use real emotions to try to illuminate and give some truth to pretend emotions. And when you put your own emotions at work, you're very vulnerable. You sort of have to be.

  • 11:21:48

    LITHGOWI titled one of the chapters in the book "Induced Insecurity," which is what I deduced was kind of what movie acting is all about because the camera is so close. It's much harder to pretend. There has to be such truth because the camera betrays any untruth. And in order to do that, it's sort of -- when I first acted in a movie, I was terribly insecure. I was a theatre actor. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know the function of all the different crew members. I didn't know anything about covering a scene. And I was very worried that I was too theatrical and broad. So I was very insecure.

  • 11:22:33

    LITHGOWAnd then I had this sort of epiphany. That's exactly what you have to be. When you're acting in a movie, you have to induce your own insecurity. You have to just go ahead and be that vulnerable. It's why movie and TV actors can behave pretty crazy at times. I tend to be very forgiving both of myself and my colleagues at all kinds of bizarre behaviors, some of it verging on the diva.

  • 11:23:04

    REHMBut what about that first failure and how it may somehow remain -- it clearly remained long enough for you to include it in this book?

  • 11:23:19

    LITHGOWYou mean the great road players? That's another of the chapters in the book. Yes, at age 20 I attempted to create a theater company. I just -- by that time I'd already had a bunch of stunning successes. My life was almost my dislike. Everybody regarded me as this brilliant young talent, this young Orson Wells.

  • 11:23:45

    LITHGOWSo emboldened by everybody's high opinion of me, I started a summer theater workshop, which was an unmitigated catastrophe complete with company mutinying and having to fire the leading actor and cancelling the last two of four productions. I was completely miserable. And, well, it did sting me then and stayed with me, but I think it's just what I needed.

  • 11:24:19

    REHMWhat did you learn from it?

  • 11:24:21

    LITHGOWWell, that I was not Midas, you know, that I had plenty of weaknesses and that I was far younger and more inexperienced than I thought I was. I heard a wise man once said that he had his first great failure at age 30, which was far too late. Well, I had mine at age 20, which was right on schedule.

  • 11:24:44

    REHMBut, you know, you said you finally became an adult at age 36. What happened at age 36 that brought you there?

  • 11:24:58

    LITHGOWWell, I -- that you're referring to a chapter called "Adolescence," and I think I begin that chapter by saying we all have to go through adolescence. And if we're lucky, we go through it when we are actually in adolescence. My adolescence came late. I simply -- my life sort of flew apart and it had a lot to do with my first marriage failing. And with a kind of -- with a series of romantic entanglements that I just wasn't experienced or prepared for that just made me kind of wildly confused emotionally, all the things that you go through when you're 17, if you're lucky.

  • 11:25:47

    REHMAnd then, there's the question of your first appearing nude...

  • 11:25:54

    LITHGOWYes.

  • 11:25:55

    REHM...on stage.

  • 11:25:56

    LITHGOWYes.

  • 11:25:57

    REHMHow did you feel about that? I mean, talk about what could be the greatest self consciousness in the world and there you are on a stage.

  • 11:26:07

    LITHGOWYeah, it's the thing that all of us have had dreams about, you know...

  • 11:26:10

    REHMRight.

  • 11:26:10

    LITHGOW...showing up naked at -- in high school or whatever. Actually, I write about it with some thoughtfulness because I've thought a lot about it over the years. It was -- I was in this remarkable play called "The Changing Room" by David Storey, which we first did at Longworth Theatre and then was brought to Broadway intact. It was my Broadway debut and my first great success. It opened on March 7, 1973 and I won a Tony Award on March 25 at age 27.

  • 11:26:46

    LITHGOWSo it was a thrilling time. It happened to feature a long extended scene of me stark naked on stage so it turned me into an exhibitionist quite early.

  • 11:26:57

    REHMHow did you prepare for that?

  • 11:27:00

    LITHGOWRehearsed. You know, it was a play – to, just to explain this, it was a play about a semiprofessional rugby team in the north of England in their changing room. It was super realistic, almost documentary play. It almost didn't have a plot, it was so quoted in. It was just these guys on that day, a beautiful play, kind of mysterious and inexplicable the power of this play. But it was very powerful.

  • 11:27:28

    LITHGOWAnd in the course of the play in the change room -- I am injured up on the field and brought into the changing room and tended to, to the point where it's like the manager of the team has to take care of me like I'm a baby. I'm incapable of even washing or dressing myself. And it was a devastating scene. The only true self-consciousness any of us felt were the first one or two days in rehearsal when we first unveiled ourselves. But the director helped us through it.

  • 11:28:06

    LITHGOWWe -- very early on, we saw the power of this -- the theatrical power of this. I mean, when you think about it, theatre is all about exposing yourself metaphorically in all sorts of ways. Well, this was exposing yourself literally. Being nude on stage is the most startling thing you can do.

  • 11:28:28

    REHMAnd how did the audience react?

  • 11:28:31

    LITHGOWThey were -- well, first of all, it sort of happened before they were aware of it. They were watching 20 men on stage, 15 of them were changing out of street clothes and into uniforms. It's like, wait a minute.

  • 11:28:42

    REHMWhat's going on here?

  • 11:28:44

    LITHGOWThey're all in uniform. I missed it, you know. It was just so ordinary. Then this long and poignant scene came along and they were so disarmed by it. I mean, that's the beauty of the play is how -- the use that's made of it. I mean, nudity is -- it's either used well or badly. And if it's used badly, it's a total embarrassment for everybody involved. But this was exquisite. This was so terribly moving. And, you know, it's just made me a little more fearless I think over time.

  • 11:29:26

    REHMSpeaking of fearlessness, you have gotten into some political issues, one of which way back was the death of J. Edgar Hoover. And I found myself reading that and wanting to know much more about your attitude as you got into an opposition to the kind of accolades that came out after his death.

  • 11:30:09

    LITHGOWYes. It was the time when I was working in radio, just like you, Diane. But I was doing kind of gonzo satire on Pacifica radio in New York, WBAI. Real kinda radical ragamuffins we all were. And this was in 1971, I believe. And I was doing political satire along with -- we satirized everything. We just did kind of goon show stuff on the radio.

  • 11:30:41

    LITHGOWAnd I would write a few things and bring them in, but we would also check the Reuters teletype for whatever breaking news there was. And if there was something good, we would scrap what I'd written and immediately rip out some sort of sketch. It was like doing Saturday Night Live.

  • 11:30:57

    REHMActually, he died May 2, '72.

  • 11:31:02

    LITHGOW'72, that's right. Just toward the end of my time at BAI. And we saw over the teletype that he had died in the early hours of that morning. But already at 10:00 a.m., all these encomiums were coming in from all these statesmen and public figures about what a great patriotic American this had been. The conventional wisdom until that moment had been that he was despicable, terrifying, a blackmailer, you know. Just everybody was scared to death of him. Nobody said a word about J. Edgar Hoover 'cause they were afraid that he would come after him.

  • 11:31:44

    LITHGOWAnd suddenly, he was everyone's great hero. Well, hypocrisy is like red meat to a tiger for satirists. That's what they go after. And so we went after these hypocrites. We did a parody of a sort of 1940s newsreel, News on the March. We called it "J. Edgar: A Desecration of the Memory of J. Edgar Hoover." And it was -- you know, we scoured the newsroom. They had all this unbelievable dirt on J. Edgar Hoover, which none of us had known about. But nobody had -- everybody had been scared to use it over the years. Well, by God, we used it and we turned it -- we did one episode after another from his life. And we really defamed him.

  • 11:32:37

    LITHGOWAnd, of course, at BAI they thought this was great so they put it on the air at 6:25, this five-minute-long satirical sketch, just before their 6:30 news. And of course, their 6:30 news led to the death of J. Edgar Hoover. And it -- of course, the voice was just about the same. It was me, you know, announcing at last America grieves today the death of crusty patriot J. Edgar Hoover. And then, off they went into the real news. And we actually scandalized the WBAI listenership, which was the most lefty radical gang in New York. They were appalled. We just lit up the...

  • 11:33:23

    REHMBoard.

  • 11:33:23

    LITHGOW...the board downstairs. Calls, cancellations of subscriptions -- everything, the works. And we thought, yes.

  • 11:33:32

    REHMWe did it.

  • 11:33:33

    LITHGOWA triumph. We celebrated.

  • 11:33:37

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show" with John Lithgow. And we're talking about the events of his early career. His new book is titled "Drama: An Actor's Education." We're going to open the phones now and take some calls, 800-433-8850. First to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Laura, you're on the air.

  • 11:34:10

    LAURAGood morning. Thank you, Diane. You know, John Lithgow, you were just one of my favorite actors and just for your pure brains of the comedic to the murderous. And I know a lot of actors take from their personal lives to put into their characters. My question, do you ever take anything from your characters and use it in your personal life?

  • 11:34:35

    LITHGOWThat's a good question. And thanks for your nice words. I would say no. I'm kind of -- I sort of believe in leaving my work at the office. To me, it definitely goes the other way. Almost anything I play I use something of myself. And this includes The Trinity Killer, if you can believe that, trying to find something in me that identifies with and sympathizes with a character.

  • 11:35:07

    LITHGOWBut as far as it affecting me when I go home, I would say it only affects me to the extent that if I love the work and if it's very exciting what I'm doing, if I'm rehearsing or performing or if I've shot something in a film that I really thought was great, then I go home and I can't sleep, it's just so exciting. But I certainly don't go home and -- with murderous thoughts. And I don't go home and get...

  • 11:35:37

    REHMI hope not.

  • 11:35:37

    LITHGOW...kill anybody.

  • 11:35:40

    REHMAnd here's an email from Joyce in New Hampshire. "You have yet to mention how I always think of John Lithgow as a singer of children's song. My family listened to the 'Singing in the Bathtub' CD when my children were little."

  • 11:37:14

    LITHGOWThat was great.

  • 11:37:15

    REHMDo you love that?

  • 11:37:17

    LITHGOWI love it. I haven't heard that in years. That sounded wonderful.

  • 11:37:21

    REHMWell, I'm so glad.

  • 11:37:22

    LITHGOWThanks for playing that.

  • 11:37:22

    REHMAnd Joyce goes on to say, "We still pop it in every once in a while, even though my kids are 16, 14 and 10. We sing loudly with smiles." You and I could've gotten up and danced.

  • 11:37:40

    LITHGOWI loved that.

  • 11:37:41

    REHMShort break. We'll be right back.

  • 11:40:03

    REHMAnd welcome back. Of course, John Lithgow, the Emmy and Tony Award winning actor is with me. His new book titled, "Drama: An Actor's Education." And he's just heard a song he hadn't heard in years. I love surprises. All right. Let's go to Belmont, New Hampshire, good morning, Ed.

  • 11:40:32

    EDYes, good morning, Diane. Always nice to listen to you.

  • 11:40:35

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:40:36

    EDAnd I hope you're doing well.

  • 11:40:37

    REHMThank you. I am, indeed.

  • 11:40:40

    EDOkay, and thank you, Mr. Lithgow, for joining Diane this morning.

  • 11:40:43

    LITHGOWThank you. How's things in New Hampshire?

  • 11:40:46

    EDOh, it's actually (word?) up here today, but -- but, listen, I just want to describe an experience. I saw you on an interview on public television with Bill Moyers a few years back.

  • 11:40:57

    LITHGOWYes.

  • 11:40:58

    EDAnd (unintelligible) very similar to today's show, you were just describing (unintelligible) quite fascinating and actually you were speaking of the time when you were near your dad's death and you were reading to him, et cetera, and at the conclusion of that interview you read a poem that you said that you had read to your dad by Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."

  • 11:41:21

    LITHGOWUm-hum.

  • 11:41:23

    EDAnd it was a very penetrating (unintelligible) experience and I just wanted to thank you for that. It really hit home and it actually inspired me to write a version of that poem a few years after that all about the financial crisis of 2009.

  • 11:41:39

    REHMInteresting.

  • 11:41:40

    LITHGOWThat's an important subject to write a dirge about.

  • 11:41:44

    REHMDo you remember reading or reciting that poem on the air?

  • 11:41:50

    LITHGOWYes, of course. That was a wonderful interview with Bill Moyers. He's actually a neighbor of mine in New York and we're good friends, although that was at the very beginning of our friendship. And he's a remarkable man. He's just interested in everything and he loves the spoken word so -- and the intersection of beautiful words and strong emotions. It was great.

  • 11:42:15

    REHMHow long after you read to your father and mother did your father pass away?

  • 11:42:23

    LITHGOWHe lived another year and a half.

  • 11:42:25

    REHMAh.

  • 11:42:26

    LITHGOWBut at that time, we all felt he was going to die soon. I mean, that's why it was - it was so wonderful when he -- when his good humor came back because it saved him.

  • 11:42:38

    REHMAnd your mother?

  • 11:42:40

    LITHGOWShe's still with us.

  • 11:42:42

    REHMAh, how wonderful.

  • 11:42:42

    LITHGOWHer birthday -- her 94th birthday is in about 10 days. God bless her.

  • 11:42:47

    REHMWow. Oh, that's wonderful. All right, and let's go now to Jacksonville, Fla., good morning, Scott.

  • 11:42:58

    SCOTTHi, good morning, thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:43:00

    REHMSure.

  • 11:43:01

    SCOTTI was wondering -- I recently recommended "Dexter" to somebody and, actually, an author friend of mine in Gainesville and he had a very difficult time with the character because he just couldn't relate to the character even though he really enjoyed the writing and the style of the TV series. So I'm actually getting ready to move to south Florida to start an acting career and I'm wondering how do you deal with a character that you have to portray when you cannot relate to that character or can't relate to that character at all?

  • 11:43:35

    LITHGOWWell, I don't -- I'm not surprised he couldn't relate to the trinity killer, but my job is to play the trinity killer, to impersonate the trinity killer, to become the trinity killer. And I found it a wonderfully written part and a very compelling story. And what was good about the part is the character was very tormented. He did horrible things, but he didn't want to do them.

  • 11:44:07

    LITHGOWHe -- it tormented him that he was compelled to kill. And that's what I went for. I went for the agony of it. I just tried to imagine myself being in a situation where I absolutely had to do something that I hated myself for -- deeply hated myself for. If you look at that, it's a hard, hard series to watch twice that season, but if you ever look at it again, look for those moments of deep sympathy for that character because I -- that's how I approached it. To me, that's the fascinating thing about any villain. No villain thinks he's a villain.

  • 11:44:49

    REHMAnd, you know, in the book you've written about a secret moment of shame.

  • 11:44:58

    LITHGOWUm-hum.

  • 11:44:59

    REHMAnd one of those had to do with an unpopular girl in high school.

  • 11:45:09

    LITHGOWUm-hum, yes. It was -- oh, it was so painful. It was a curious situation where I was -- my folks taught at a private school and I lived on the campus, but I was a year younger than the youngest class. But I was very much a part of the community of that school because it was a boarding school community.

  • 11:45:32

    LITHGOWAnd I was very eager to be included, to be asked to join kids a year older than I. And one of them was this homely and heavy girl who had become a total pariah in the cruel way that the young people sometimes have. They'd even devised a nickname for her, Fau, which stood for fat and ugly.

  • 11:45:58

    REHMF-A-U.

  • 11:45:59

    LITHGOWYes. And it -- and this girl, because nobody in the school would befriend her, she befriended me. And to my shame, I was embarrassed by this, even though I indulged her. I was nice to her and courteous to her. And at a certain point, in a sense, I rejected her very cruelly and I even called her by that awful name. And I just knew that she knew what that name meant. And I said this sentence to her, forget it, Fau.

  • 11:46:38

    LITHGOWIt's astonishing how things like that stay with you and I'm sure it stayed with her all these years. I use a pseudonym because, who knows, she may read that, but I included it in the book. Every chapter in the book has some point to it in terms of what it's meant to my actor's education. That was the first, most powerful realization that we are capable of anything.

  • 11:47:07

    LITHGOWGood people are capable of terrible things, terrible people are capable of unexpected goodness. I was trying so hard to be a good boy, to fit in and, yet, I did that terribly, terribly cruel thing.

  • 11:47:21

    REHMIt's, of course, it reminds us of the extent to which cruelty in the form of bullying, physical bullying, as well, as verbal bullying, has even caused young people to go to the length of suicide.

  • 11:47:47

    LITHGOWUm-hum.

  • 11:47:48

    REHMAnd strikes me that it's a wonderful teaching moment for an awful lot of young people.

  • 11:47:59

    LITHGOWYeah. One of the people who worked in the Harper Collins staff confided to me that that passage had really been powerful for her because she had been a fat girl. This is a woman who weighed about 120 pounds, you know, beautiful, slender woman. And she just told me the torment of being a fat girl as a kid.

  • 11:48:24

    LITHGOWYou know, I'm in the business of representing, you know, putting myself forward as a point of identification for people. Ordinarily, that's playing parts, doing it through fiction, you know, through performance. This was a case of doing it with an experience from my own life. It's hard to include something like that, but I decided early on I had the choice of writing an honest book or a dishonest book. And I chose to write an honest one so there's a lot of shame in it.

  • 11:48:57

    REHMHow active are you politically?

  • 11:49:01

    LITHGOWNot very. I'm certainly engaged politically. I follow politics very closely, as everybody does and particularly, in this day and age. And I'm a huge -- I'm a democrat and I was a huge Obama supporter. I'm still an Obama supporter. I feel this man has been dealt the hardest hand and people are forgetting what an astonishing achievement it was for him to even get elected.

  • 11:49:31

    LITHGOWAnd to pass -- get as much legislation passed as he did. So many people are trying to take all that away from him and defame him for it. I'm -- I'll support him no matter who opposes him next year. So, to that extent, I'm political, but I've just spoken openly about politics more than I have put it all together in the last five years. It's time that I spoke out more, I think, because the country needs it from everybody.

  • 11:50:02

    REHMYou were on the "Colbert Report." And here's how you spoke out.

  • 11:50:13

    LITHGOWThe firefight started when the cowardly sensed weakness. They fired timidly at first, then the sheep, not wanting to be dropped from the establishment's cocktail party invite list, unloaded their entire clip, firing without taking aim, their distortions and falsehoods. Now, they are left exposed by their bylines and handles, but surely they had killed him off. This is the way it always worked. A lesser person could not survived the first few minutes of the onslaught. But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia, emerged Gingrich.

  • 11:51:27

    REHMTell me about that.

  • 11:51:29

    LITHGOWOh, poor Newt. That was a press release that the Gingrich's campaign released a few days after he'd totally stepped on his own, well, his own tongue. And I got a call at about 2:00 in the afternoon from the "Colbert Report" will you come down and do a dramatic reading of this completely over the top press release. So I did my best Shakespearean rendition.

  • 11:52:00

    REHMDid you enjoy it?

  • 11:52:01

    LITHGOWIt was a -- it was a huge success and you'll notice poor Newt is not one of the front runners today. It was my -- I mean, that was a case of just being outrageous on the side of the angels, politically.

  • 11:52:17

    REHMAll right. Let's go back to the phones to Andrew, who's here in Washington. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:52:30

    ANDREWGood morning, Mr. Lithgow.

  • 11:52:32

    LITHGOWAndrew, how are you?

  • 11:52:34

    ANDREWI've been calling all morning. I just wanted a chance to tell you that I didn't come from the best family growing up and our only escape as kids was television. And me and my sister got addicted to -- it was probably -- I don't know if it was one of your favorite roles or not, but "Third Rock From the Sun."

  • 11:53:02

    ANDREWAnd we fell in love with the show. I fell in love with your character and I just started following after that. In fact, my senior year, we all took a trip up to New York and we went -- and there were two Broadway shows that we had to go see. And we looked at the list and I derailed my entire creative writing class into -- you know, I don't care what the other one is going to be, but we have to go see "Dirty Rotten Scoundrel," with John Lithgow. And all I was calling for is there is no amount of thank you I can give you for your comedy through a lot of really rough times.

  • 11:53:41

    LITHGOWAndrew, Andrew.

  • 11:53:42

    REHMOh.

  • 11:53:43

    LITHGOWI want you to take very good care of yourself because you are my best fan.

  • 11:53:49

    REHMOh, is that terrific.

  • 11:53:50

    LITHGOWWhat a sweet thing for you to say. I have to tell you I adored doing "Third Rock From the Sun." It was six years of laughter and happiness as far as I'm concerned. And it's being syndicated again on reels.tv in New York. I'm watching it every night.

  • 11:54:07

    REHMIsn't that fun?

  • 11:54:08

    LITHGOWIt's my guilty pleasure.

  • 11:54:09

    REHMIsn't that fun?

  • 11:54:10

    LITHGOWI think I'm just hilarious.

  • 11:54:12

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Finally, to Indianapolis, good morning, Matt.

  • 11:54:21

    MATTHi, Diane and Mr. Lithgow.

  • 11:54:22

    REHMHi.

  • 11:54:23

    LITHGOWHi, how are you?

  • 11:54:24

    MATTThanks for taking my call. I wanted to ask you, specifically, about -- one of my favorite films has always been "Blow Out." And I just wanted to see if you could talk a little bit about your work with Brian De Palma.

  • 11:54:36

    LITHGOWUm-hum.

  • 11:54:37

    MATTAnd how you prepare -- I know you talked a little bit earlier about the "Dexter" episodes, but do you just go and do this kind of thing or is there a lot of preparation for these -- you just play these great villainous characters.

  • 11:54:47

    LITHGOWYeah.

  • 11:54:48

    MATTAnd how you work up to that -- to that level to execute it and if you could, talk about your work with Brian De Palma.

  • 11:54:54

    LITHGOWYeah, well, Brian is a very good friend of mine. I did three movies for Brian, always the villain. He -- there's a sort of template for De Palma villains. They tend to be nice guys who -- the least -- the person you would least suspect of being a diabolical villain. If you think of Michael Caine in "Dressed to Kill," or Gary Sinise. And every -- three times I did it for him.

  • 11:55:23

    LITHGOWHe's a wonderful man to work with, a kind of brooding character on a sound stage or a location. He -- I suppose he's very much in the mode of Alfred Hitchcock who was his kind of hero. Hitchcock regarded actually shooting a film as a necessary evil. He loved writing and preparing them. And he was so completely prepared that making the film itself as a kind of connecting the dots.

  • 11:55:53

    LITHGOWYou sort of did your own preparation. Brian did rehearse and he directed to the extent that he needed to direct it, but you were really -- you really knew exactly what you were going to do on the very first day of shooting. There was very little improvisation involved.

  • 11:56:09

    REHMIs there anyone you have worked with who wasn't prepared?

  • 11:56:15

    LITHGOWOh, yes. Oh, my God, oh, my God, of course, I'm not going to tell you about it.

  • 11:56:21

    REHMI understand. I didn't think you would.

  • 11:56:25

    LITHGOWI'll tell you I've just had a fantastic movie making experience with Judd Apatow, the great comedy director of the moment, who is -- he's prepared, but he also absolutely relies on his actors to improvise far, far afield with the cameras running. You know, the -- this new technology you don't have to worry about film stock. The cameras run for 15 minutes and you just go. And then he puts it all together afterwards -- a completely different way of working. And I loved it.

  • 11:56:59

    REHMJohn Lithgow, his new book is titled "Drama: The Actor's Education;" Such a pleasure to talk with you.

  • 11:57:09

    LITHGOWOh, it was wonderful, Diane. You're really good at this.

  • 11:57:12

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:57:13

    LITHGOWYou should consider this for a living.

  • 11:57:16

    REHMYou know, I'm going on vacation tomorrow. I will be back on October 17. I'll look forward to being with all of you again. And once again, I've enjoyed this so much.

  • 11:57:31

    LITHGOWI loved it. I've just loved it.

  • 11:57:33

    REHMThank you. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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