John Lithgow does something audacious in his new memoir, Drama: An Actor's Education, something few actors are willing to do. He celebrates his success. He comes right out and says it: I was good; I got accolades; it felt terrific. His great strength as a writer, though, is that he turns his personal thrills into a gift to readers. Far from sounding arrogant or egomaniacal, he comes off as humbled and delighted by the awards and applause. He invites readers in and treats us like lifelong friends, so that instead of sitting at his feet envying him, we're backstage celebrating with him. The book feels like a warm hang with someone you always thought you'd like, which also makes you want to dash out and advocate for arts education.
"The book is called An Actor's Education for a reason," Lithgow said recently, in his publisher's office in Toronto. "The thing that you learn as an actor, with experience, is why it is you do this strange thing. If I were to sum up my reasons in a single word, it's joy. The joy I feel and the joy I give to other people. That's what I'm after. So I loved writing about those joyful moments."
At 66, Lithgow has changed little from the tall, fit, courtly fellow whom I first noticed in 1981's Blow Out, followed quickly by a run of work – The World According to Garp, Twilight Zone: The Movie and Terms of Endearment – that proved he could play any kind of character (murderer, cross-dresser, victim, lover) and infuse each with a relatable vulnerability. He kept that going in his TV career, too, even while playing an alien ( Third Rock from the Sun) and a psycho killer ( Dexter). And he still has that distinctive voice, anglicized vowels in a reedy timbre that always sounds like he's on the verge of laughing or crying.
In fact, his eyes filled with tears fairly early in our interview. We were discussing his late father, Arthur, an actor, teacher and impresario. The founder or director of numerous theatre festivals, Arthur helped launch several generations of acting and backstage professionals. But he's also a poignant figure who could never fully rise to his own expectations. He was forever losing or leaving jobs – the family moved so often that Lithgow attended eight different secondary schools – convinced that his big break was just around the corner.
Arthur's presence can be felt on every page: He gave Lithgow his love of stories and Shakespeare, his first acting jobs (from age 7) and even the impetus to write his book. But in a storyline straight out of a Greek classic, Arthur's career was in a free fall just as Lithgow's was shooting skyward – he landed his first major role on Broadway, in 1972's The Changing Room, and won a Tony for it. At one point, Arthur practically begged his son to come home and work for him (and, not incidentally, rescue his failing theatre company), but Lithgow, determined to make his own way, turned him down.
"I felt lurking melancholy and guilt about that, but things were always very genial between us," Lithgow said. "We are like each other, in that we're both conflict-averse. It's one thing that made him a not very effective theatre manager. But he was so proud of me, and so happy for me. He never seemed discouraged. I discovered later in life that he was more unhappy than I knew, but that was my dad. Putting on a very good face. He gave me the gift of being able to completely savour my success, and he celebrated with me. It's something I'm very grateful for."
Near the end of his father's life, Lithgow found a way to tell Arthur how much good he had done for so many people. Recalling how "it honestly startled him, that anybody had that opinion of him," is what made Lithgow tear up.
Arthur's kid certainly learned how to tell stories – before tackling this autobiography, he wrote and performed one-man shows and shows for children, and wrote children's books. His book is full of absorbing details about his years as an archetypal "good boy," a dutiful son who became a husband and father very young, followed by a dramatic period when he dashed it all to pieces by falling madly in love with the actress Liv Ullmann, with whom he co-starred in a Broadway production of Anna Christie. His life settled back down when he met his current wife, economics professor Mary Yeager, and the book sails happily on from there, describing heady encounters with people who influenced him, including Meryl Streep, Bob Fosse, Lincoln Kirstein and Mike Nichols.
But writing his life wasn't as easy as it looks, Lithgow said. He worked on it in fits and starts for three years, often on location in hotel rooms. (He wrote a big chunk in Vancouver while shooting the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes.) "Writing a memoir is a very arrogant thing to do," he said. "You're writing on the presumption that thousands and thousands of people are interested in you. I almost had to stoke up my own arrogance, certainly my confidence, to do it. Then I hit these crucial moments in my life that were very, very difficult to write about. For a long time I wrestled with, 'How much am I going to reveal, how deep am I going to go?' I found something takes over you. You feel, 'I have to address this. I have to deal with this.'
"But it's very hard to write when my wife is anywhere near," he added happily. "We so distract each other. We'd rather do anything else than work; we're very bad for each other that way. We're coming up on our 30th anniversary."
The book stops around 1982, just as Lithgow is segueing from theatre to film and TV. So is a sequel inevitable? He grinned, a little sheepishly. "I suppose," he admitted, then hinted at a couple of stories that demonstrate he has plenty of material left. The first, about five days on Terms of Endearment: "It was [director]Jim Brooks's first film, and he had three major, major superstar personalities, Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger and Jack Nicholson," he said. "Everybody was lining up, taking sides, bickering, not showing up for work. It just seemed like chaos to me."
And the second, about his early Hollywood auditions in the 1970s: "It was so nutty, and everybody was so stoned," he said. "There's a whole different minuet you dance, trying to get film work. It has much more to do with how you look and how you behave in a meeting than your actual acting. Auditioning means nothing. It was all brand new, and I was just incredibly paranoid. I felt I'd learned nothing, like a total beginner."
His old man would have related. And, I'm sure, been proud.