The Magazine

Act Three

The midlife monologue of John Lithgow.

Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By VICTORIA ORDIN
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Show business memoirs, at least in the present age, tend to fall into one of two categories: confessional stories of addiction and rehab, to which creative endeavor is at best peripheral; or uneven and occasionally amusing glosses on the artist’s entry in IMDb. 

Photo of John Lithgow in 1996

John Lithgow (1996)

Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

John Lithgow’s memoir manages not only to avoid these common pitfalls but reveal the fierce and almost frenetic creativity that has lived within him from his earliest days as the son of Arthur Lithgow, an English teacher and Shakespeare director in regional theater and university and elite secondary-school settings. (His mother had been a performer as well but relinquished her career to act as “den mother” for four precocious children.)

Drama begins with Lithgow’s recollection of the summer of 2002, when he moved back east for a month to care for his hitherto youthful, healthy, and genial 86-year-old father after a risky and painful operation. The surgery claimed his father’s spirit, and the loving son’s attempts to restore his father’s will to live seemed to have failed. One evening, however, it occurred to Lithgow to read aloud to his father, as his father had read to him and his siblings during “story hour [which had] all the gravity of a sacred rite.” So he picked a family favorite—P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By”—and that evening his father came back to life. Lithgow calls the succeeding 18 months before his father’s death one of the most significant periods of his life.

Lithgow and his devoted but often-preoccupied father were close, working together frequently until Lithgow went his own way. They had their ups and downs, as fathers and sons do; but Professor Lithgow was proud of the son who surpassed his own professional success. And while Lithgow’s childhood—beginning in Ohio and cutting, like scenes in a play, to Martha’s Vineyard, back to Ohio, then to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and finally, Princeton—may strike readers as peripatetic and unstable, as a result of his father’s uneven professional life, they were hardly steeped in anxiety. Playing the role of new kid in town did not come effortlessly, nor was it without its trials; but he performed the role successfully, proving early on that he was a master at the artist’s stock in trade: “faking it.”

Lithgow’s early childhood in a liberal Ohio college town sounds the way a Norman Rockwell painting looks. (He met the famous illustrator in the fifth grade on one of his father’s theater sojourns in Manhattan.) And it was Rockwell—not Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, or Willem de Kooning who, as Lithgow notes, were transforming American art—who was Lithgow’s idol. So it is fitting that his first celebrity encounter was with an artist, and not an actor, given that he didn’t choose acting over art as a career until he went to Harvard.

The seeds of that career were planted early. Lithgow recalls the intoxicating sound of an audience’s laughter at Boy Scout camp, as well as his father’s professional collaboration with Donald Moffat (a great stage actor best known for playing a real president, Lyndon Johnson, in The Right Stuff and a fictional one in Clear and Present Danger). Indeed, the astonishing lists of actors, writers, directors, and assorted celebrities who appear throughout Drama—from Moffatt to Mike Nichols, Meryl Streep, Terrence Malick, Nancy Marchand, Tom Werner, Lynn Redgrave, Trevor Griffiths, Alan Ayckbourn, Bob Fosse, Joe Papp, Liv Ullmann, and so on—never seem like name-dropping. Lithgow was simply fortunate from an early age to be surrounded by talent, including at Harvard, where his roommate David Ansen, Newsweek’s film critic for three decades, became (and remains) Lithgow’s best friend.

In one surprising and brutally honest chapter, Lithgow describes how he avoided the Vietnam war by way of a 4-F draft classification (“the Holy Grail of the antiwar generation”) with his performance on the physical and psychiatric evaluation, tracing his shame not so much to cowardice but to what he saw (then and now) as an “abuse” of the art of acting, which depends upon a compact between actor and audience in which the “lie” is willingly accepted by both parties. “I didn’t get out of the war by acting,” he writes, “I got out by lying. There is a difference.”

Of his academic career Lithgow notes that he was “crafty” and “a very good actor [with] frenzied extracurricular exploits” but a “plodding intellectual slowpoke.” This is somewhat disingenuous, as Lithgow was a student of Romantic poetry with W. Jackson Bate, Homeric epics with John Finley, and psychology with Erik Erickson. And he reports feeling as though he “got away with murder” when he graduated Phi Beta Kappa/magna cum laude.