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Character Study

By Phebe Wahl

Photo by Robert Zuckerman


Back on Broadway where it all began, actor John Lithgow takes the stage sharing the stories closest to his heart.

AS THE OFFSPRING of actors, John Lithgow had no ambition to act as a boy. His parents’ peers warned him of the brutal profession. “As a result, when I finally decided to pursue acting in my early 20s, I had a big advantage over my peers: I knew firsthand what a tough game it was,” he says. Despite the warning, Lithgow was a quick study, winning his first Tony Award in 1973 three weeks after his Broadway debut in David Storey’s The Changing Room. The brilliant actor has since added five more Tony nominations, 50 films, several Oscar nominations, five Emmy wins, two Golden Globe awards and more than 20 more Broadway performances to his impressive résumé.

“I prefer doing theater in New York over anywhere else,” says Lithgow. “New York has the most discerning audiences, the most demanding critics, and the very best onstage and backstage theater talent of any city in the country,” he says. “Besides, the acting community in New York includes about three generations of my very best friends in the business.”

This month, the Harvard-educated actor hits the American Airlines Theatre stage with John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, directed by Daniel Sullivan—an exploration of storytelling and the craft of acting told through characters pulled from the classic short stories by Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse. “The genius of both Wodehouse and Lardner is that each of them created a vast gallery of deliciously detailed characters,” Lithgow says. “Neither was a playwright, and yet their characters are full of the kind of physical, verbal, and emotional traits and idiosyncrasies that an actor can make a real meal out of.”

“Simply put, I want audiences to have a fabulous time,” he says. “I want to pull them in all sorts of emotional directions; I want to share my own life experiences with them and remind them of their own; I want to introduce them to a couple of great stories [that] very few of them have ever even heard of. And though I don’t intend to deliver anything resembling a lecture, I want to provoke in them a few thoughts about the role that storytelling plays in their lives.”