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An Actor Educates

Updated: Dec 2, 2020


There are precious few silver linings to this quarantine, but for those of us without young children, one of them is a little extra time on our hands. For me, that might mean improving my movie IQ — for example, I’d never seen Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came To Dinner, so memorably featured in Rich Barber’s first piece for the Chronicles; Turner Classic Movies is a shut-in’s treasure — or thumbing a dusty spine off the shelf and finally diving into a book that I’d planned to read when I got, as they used to say, a Round Tuit.

Thus it was that I recently enjoyed a beauty by John Lithgow which was published almost a decade ago, and it hasn’t aged a whit. I heartily recommend Drama: An Actor’s Education to anyone with an interest in the theatre, especially if that interest has blossomed into love.

Lithgow and theatre came together by nurture as well as nature, and most of this fine book is about becoming, not being, an actor. His father Arthur was a producer, director and performer who spent much of his life inaugurating and perpetuating special festivals, the first one in 1951 at his alma mater, Antioch College, where he taught English and drama. Young John appeared onstage more than once, but many of his earliest memories were of the actors flowing through “Shakespeare Under The Stars,” as the annual Antioch Shakespeare Festival was known for seven seasons.

The Lithgow clan was so peripatetic that John attended eight different secondary schools. Arthur created and nurtured ragtag festivals throughout the East, with John learning the realities of the art form as a bit player and crew member. When he got to Harvard he dove into undergraduate drama, “the most active and creative [years] of my life…It was the last time I worked in the theater for the pure, unfettered joy of it.” He was the new kid in town but his father had already stuffed him with years of experience, a fortunate thing because “As a student, let’s just say I was a very good actor.” He can remember the very second — onstage in a Gilbert & Sullivan piece at the Loeb Drama Center — when he decided to become a professional. A Fulbright grant to study in London set him on his way, and “I came home with a fruity British accent that I didn’t even realize I had acquired.”

An actor’s life is one of triumphs and disappointments, and Lithgow — who soon acquired a young wife — is candid about struggling in his father’s companies and at endless New York auditions, “chasing my tail in a parody of the clueless neophyte New York actor.” He actually got a movie first, a nice role in an obscure 1972 picture called Dealing, which brought him to the attention of people in Hollywood who flew him out for some meetings, including one hilarious one with director Terrence Malick, casting legend Lynn Stalmaster, and a canine. Great theatre roles came later; Lithgow’s best audition story isn’t even about himself, but “a pale, wispy girl with long, straight, cornsilk hair.” When it’s over, he reports: “It was the last time Meryl Streep had to audition for anything.”

Lithgow has always struck me as a courtly, courteous, reserved fellow, so it’s especially interesting to see him let down his hair, to read about being in college during the tumultuous late Sixties, feel the pain of the torrid affair with Liv Ullmann that wrecked his marriage, and savor his droll takedowns of some true rascals of the entertainment business. I was startled to see him reference his great screwball turn as Dr. Emilio Lizardo (“Laugh-a while you can, monkey boy!”) in The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai as “far and away my most outrageous screen performance, and, secretly, one of my favorites." Me too, sir, but I had no idea you could be so informal.

Drama is, er, bookended by memories of Arthur reading to his young children from a weathered 1939 volume, Tellers Of Tales, one hundred great short stories collected by Somerset Maugham; and, fifty years later, of John reading his father’s favorite story from that same volume as the 86-year-old man convalesces from serious abdominal surgery. This was P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.” I was lucky enough to see Lithgow masterfully perform this hysterically funny story from memory, along with Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” about two years ago in his one-man show John Lithgow: Stories By Heart. The personal way the evening was framed — a man, his father, and the very copy of the very book that bound them together — gave me a heartwarming glimpse into one actor’s life. This book is even more affecting, and maintains its emotional power no matter how long its owner might dally over picking it up.

Tom Dupree has been a professional newsman, adman, critic and editor, and an actor and director at the college and community level. His personal blog is at If he ever gets to meet Lithgow, he won't be shy about bringing up Buckaroo Banzai.


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