John Lithgow’s roots are in the theater. In 1973, he won a Tony Award three weeks after his Broadway debut, in David Storey’s The Changing Room. Since then, he has appeared on Broadway 19 more times, earning another Tony, three more Tony nominations, four Drama Desk Awards, and induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame. Ensuing stage performances have included major roles in My Fat Friend, Trelawney of the “Wells,” Comedians, Anna Christie, Bedroom Farce, Beyond Therapy, M. Butterfly, The Front Page, Retreat from Moscow, All My Sons, the Off-Broadway premieres of Mrs. Farnsworth and Mr. and Mrs. Fitch, and the musicals Sweet Smell of Success (his second Tony), and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
In 2007 he was one of the very few American actors ever invited to join The Royal Shakespeare Company, playing ‘Malvolio’ in Twelfth Night at Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2008 he devised his own one-man show Stories by Heart for The Lincoln Center Theater Company, and has been touring it around the country ever since, including a triumphant six-week run at The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
In the early 1980’s Lithgow began to make a major mark in films. At that time, he was nominated for Oscars in back-to-back years, for The World According to Garp and Terms of Endearment. In the years before and after, he has appeared in over 30 films. Notable among them have been All That Jazz, Blow Out, Twilight Zone: the Movie, Footloose, 2010, Buckaroo Banzai, Harry and the Hendersons, Memphis Belle, Raising Cain, Ricochet, Cliffhanger, Orange County, Shrek, Kinsey, and a flashy cameo in Dreamgirls. This summer, Lithgow was seen on the big screen in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Fox’s prequel to Planet of the Apes.
For his work on television, Lithgow has been nominated for eleven Emmy Awards. He has won five of them, one for an episode of “Amazing Stories,” and three for what is perhaps his most celebrated creation. This was the loopy character of the alien ‘High Commander, Dick Solomon,’ on the hit NBC comedy series “3rd Rock from the Sun.” In that show’s six-year run, Lithgow also won the Golden Globe, two SAG Awards, The American Comedy Award, and, when it finally went off the air, a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. More recently, his diabolical turn as ‘The Trinity Killer’ in a twelve-episode arc on Showtime’s “Dexter” won him his second Golden Globe and his fifth Emmy.
His other major appearances on television have included roles in “The Day After,” “Resting Place,” “Baby Girl Scott,” “My Brother’s Keeper,” TNT’s “Don Quixote,” HBO’s “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” and most recently “How I Met Your Mother,” making a long-awaited entrance as the father of Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris).
And then there is Lithgow’s work for children. Since 1998 he has written eight NY Times best-selling children’s picture books, including The Remarkable Farkle McBride, Marsupial Sue, Micawber, I’m a Manatee, Mahalia Mouse Goes to College, and I Got Two Dogs. In addition, he has created two Lithgow Palooza family activity books and The Poets’ Corner for Warner Books, a compilation of fifty classic poems aimed at young people, to stir an early interest in poetry. He has performed concerts for children with the Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore, and San Diego Symphonies, and at Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. He has released three kids’ albums, Singin’ in the Bathtub, Farkle & Friends, and the Grammy-nominated The Sunny Side of the Street. These concerts and albums have included several his of own songs and rhyming narrations. Together, this prodigious work has won him two Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Awards, and four Grammy nominations.
Lithgow has even dipped his toe into the world of dance. In 2003, the noted choreographer Christopher Wheeldon invited him to collaborate on a new piece for the New York City Ballet. The result was Carnival of the Animals, a ballet for 50 dancers, with music by Camille Saint-Saens and with Lithgow’s verse narration. Lithgow himself spoke the narration from the stage. At a certain point he ducked into the wings, climbed into costume, and re-emerged to dance the role of ‘The Elephant.’ He has performed this feat over 20 times.
In September HarperCollins released Lithgow’s critically acclaimed memoir, Drama: An Actor’s Education. The book presents scenes of his early life and career that took place before he became a nationally-known star. It vividly portrays the worlds of New York, London, and American regional theater, and relives his collaborations with renowned performers and directors including Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse, Liv Ullmann, Meryl Streep, and Brian De Palma. Lithgow’s ruminations on the nature of theatre, performance, and storytelling cut to the heart of why actors are driven to perform, and why people are driven to watch them do it.
John Lithgow was born in Rochester, New York, but grew up in Ohio, graduated from high school in Princeton, New Jersey, attended Harvard College, and used a Fulbright Grant to study at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art. This year Lithgow was honored as a Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal recipient and was inducted into The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2005 he was presented with an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by Harvard and became the first actor in Harvard’s history to deliver the school’s Commencement Address.
Lithgow has three grown children, two grandchildren, and lives in Los Angeles and New York. He has been married for 30 years to Mary Yeager, a Professor of Economic and Business History at UCLA.
John Lithgow’s biography courtesy of the Manhattan Theatre Club. The Columnist opens on Broadway Wednesday April 25th.