By Mark A. Newman
I’ve always found John Lithgow to be a wily sort of actor: self-possessed with patrician dignity but not too proud to turn himself into a braying jackass at a moment’s notice. I have also always thought of him as one of our country’s most underrated actors. Thankfully he’s not underused as well since he finds his way from TV (the murderous and conniving Arthur Mitchell in Dexter and his free-spirited know-it-all Dick Solomon on 3rd Rock from the Sun), to movies (his joyous and heartbreaking role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes), to the stage (his suave Lawrence in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and, most recently, as Joseph Alsop in The Columnist), all the while managing to deliver compelling, artful, and entertaining performances.
In Drama: An Actor’s Education, Lithgow takes us on an autobiographical road trip through his acting career from his nomadic childhood to his Oscar-nominated and Tony-winning triumphs. Rest assured, it is a bumpy ride; his father, Arthur, a stage director and actor in his own right, took his family from hither to yon in a seemingly never ending wild goose chase from one teaching job to another directing job around a good portion of the greater Midwest and Northeast.
While some adult children of dreamers often look back in anger on such an upbringing, Lithgow instead speaks of his father with glowing admiration and affection. As the family moved from town to town young John simply rolled with the punches and the affable youth soon blossomed from just filling a spot on the stage in his father’s productions to soon having his own commanding presence in productions both amateur and professional.
Lithgow doesn’t hold back on his own foibles either. He is brutally honest about his own marital infidelities in his first marriage and dumps all of the blame on himself. He apparently had the bad habit of getting into torrid affairs with his leading ladies…ALL of them, more or less. The most notorious was Liv Ullman while the two were in the Broadway revival of Anna Christie. This was the final straw for his first marriage and this relationship had more drama than the play itself with backstage tantrums and teary confessions.
As the thespian details his forays into motion pictures, you will log on to www.imdb.com to see exactly who he was talking about when he detailed working with an older leading man whose glory days were well behind him. You have to respect Lithgow for not naming the Oscar-winner’s name. This is a “tell all” with certain limitations.
At the heart of this book is a father and son story. Arthur Lithgow was a dreamer and he longed for bigger and better things for himself and his family. The elder Lithgow touched many fledgling actors’ lives throughout a career that was both tempestuous and triumphant. He no doubt had a vast impact on his son’s life; had he not been such a theatrical maven, young John would’ve no doubt pursued his earlier career leanings of being an artist. After seeing Lithgow recently in his Tony-nominated role as Joseph Alsop in The Columnist on Broadway, I for one am grateful for the senior Lithgow’s influence on his son.
Note: I actually listened to the audio version of Drama: An Actor’s Education while on a multi-state road trip. Read by the author, I really got the feel for his younger years as he, too, was on a never ending road trip as his father moved the family from one quixotic adventure to another!