Star Power

John Lithgow Visits Ringling College of Art and Design

Lithgow shared stories from his long career on stage and screen (and also sang a song about manatees).

By Kay Kipling and Megan McDonald March 7, 2018

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Actor, author and singer John Lithgow entertained an audience of Ringling College of Art and Design supporters and admirers—along with some of the college’s film students—during his appearance Tuesday evening in the Studio Lab series, held in one of the soundstage buildings on the campus in association with Semkhor Productions.

“My head is about to explode!” Lithgow exclaimed, when asked about his day on campus. “This place is fantastic. I knew that there was a Ringling College of Art and Design, but it’s jaw-dropping, this place. I think these kids are very lucky to be here.”

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In fact, Lithgow, 72, dreamed of a career as a visual artist while growing up, he told his interviewer for the evening, film program head Brad Battersby. Lithgow said he was “excited and almost wistful” at the thought of studying at a school like Ringling.

But, in the end, Harvard and a theatrical career beckoned. Lithgow had already spent his youth in the world of the theater, as his father had run both a Shakespeare festival in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. Lithgow’s just-closed one-man Broadway show, Stories by Heart, owes its creation, he said, to “reading a story for my dad when he was near death.” Memories of his father play a role in the show, and also in Lithgow’s memoir Drama, which he has recorded as an audio book.

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Lithgow shared more stories from his long career Tuesday evening, from his recent Emmy win for portraying Winston Churchill in the series The Crown to earlier work in both theater and film, including several roles working for film director Brian de Palma. For some reason, Lithgow said, De Palma saw this “bland, benign Wasp and liked the idea of me as the villain of the piece,” whether it was in Obsession or Raising Cain.

Lithgow also revealed that he thought Oscar winner Gary Oldman did a great job of playing Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour, but that he preferred his own series, The Crown, to the film, because The Crown focused on people and relationships, and not just history. “You really care about these people,” he said of the royal family depicted in the series. “The Crown is probably the classiest soap opera ever made, and I mean that in the best way. I would never have cast myself as Winston Churchill, but somebody knew what he was doing.” 

A few other takeaways from Lithgow’s talk:

For him, entertainment is all about creating community. “It’s a matter of connecting with people, in which we all share emotion.”

Despite his impressive resume, he’s grateful to still be offered roles. “There’s less choice than you think,” he said. “I just say yes reflexively when it’s a good piece of material with good people behind it and I’m available. Good writing, good subject, good character and excellent people—people I really want to work with—that’s what draws me to a project.”

His time on television’s popular Third Rock from the Sun amounted to “six years of hysterical laughter.”

On the movie set for The World According to Garp, director George Roy Hill warned star Robin Williams, “don’t give me any of that comedy sh-t.” Lithgow noted that the late Williams even then had “a melancholy side.”

His segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, which featured him as a frightened airplane passenger, was “the most exciting 20 minutes of film I’ve ever been in. It was a liberating experience, because director George Miller kept asking me for ‘more.’ Usually with theater actors, on film they’re told to do less.”

For his role as a strict minister in the hit movie Footloose, Lithgow spoke with an Assembly of God pastor to gain insight—without ever telling the pastor he was playing one in the movie.

For his role as Dr. Emilio Lizardo in the cult movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, he adopted an Italian accent he honed through listening to an Italian tailor at the film studio—and later asked that the tailor be given a credit as his dialect coach.

He’s written nine books for kids, all accompanied by a CD “where you hear me sing,” Lithgow says. “I keep doing it because an actor’s greatest ambition is the complete and total suspension of disbelief. That is our great goal—to make people actually forget they’re seeing an actor—and you never totally achieve it with adults.”

And speaking of young people, Lithgow has some advice for young people dreaming of a career in the arts. "I tell young people who want to be actors 'don’t do it,'" he said wryly. "But then I add, 'If you’re going to be an actor you’re going to ignore everything I say.' Only be an actor if you cannot do anything else, and nothing else will give you that joy. Much of what I’ve done is because I’m scared no one will hire me, and while that's not exactly a fear anymore, there’s a certain creative restlessness you feel when you’re not on a job. That’s the other thing I always tell young people—have some creative ambition in your life that has nothing to do with somebody asking you or hiring you. That way you’re not just sitting around waiting to be wanted, and you’ve got something else that is all yours."

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