2:18pm

Mon December 5, 2011
Books

John Lithgow's On-Stage 'Education'

Originally published on Tue December 6, 2011 1:45 pm

John Lithgow was born into a theater family, but he never intended to become an actor; he wanted to paint. But ever since he first took the stage as a toddler, he was a hit — and he's gone on to win numerous awards for his work in television, theater and film.

In his memoir, Drama: An Actor's Education, Lithgow focuses on the years before the fame — from his stage debut at the age of 2 and his college years at Harvard, right up to the moment when he moved out West and became a star.

Lithgow talks with NPR's Neal Conan about his early struggles and discoveries, and passes on what he's learned during his decades-long career.


Interview Highlights

On how his father, actor and director Arthur Lithgow, reacted when John told him he intended to go into the family business, after receiving a Fulbright to study acting in London

"His face fell ... By that time I had worked for him for years in his summer Shakespeare festivals. He had directed me. I had acted with him. I had even directed him once or twice. And I thought, well, it's a fait accompli, I'm going to be an actor. I told him I was off to study it in earnest, and he looked like I had told him I'd contracted a terminal disease.

"... I think he had managed to — if not mask all of his professional troubles from me — he masked how difficult they were for him. To my mind, he had a kind of magical career, he was like the ringmaster of a wonderfully exciting circus of which I was a participant ...

"It's one of those dark ironies of life that the very moment when I, after some bit of struggle, my career took off so abruptly, his was just beginning a sort of precipitous decline. He'd lost the last really good and prestigious job he had as a theater manager, and ... he was a circumspect man. I mean, he was not emotionally extravagant, but the wonderful thing was he — to all appearances — he was elated by the success I'd had and [was] very proud of me. ... He wouldn't allow me to feel any guilt or bad feelings about his bad fortunes."

On how he talks to his own kids about acting

"I tell young people, including my own kids, don't do this, it's too difficult. It's a career full of rejection, disappointment and failure. It's murderously hard on the ego. Don't become an actor.

"[But] I always add at the end, if you're going to become an actor, you ignore everything I say anyway, as I did. I mean, the choice to become an actor is very courageous, but like all courageous acts, it's very foolhardy too, you know."

On the advice he gives to young, struggling actors

"They've made the decision to become actors, so I'm certainly not going to tell them to give up. I tell them to just stay creative, try to develop things all on their own that they themselves can control. Try writing. Try directing. If there's a part you really want to play, figure out a way to produce it.

"... Chances are, you will never get a chance to follow through on these ambitious projects, but the reason will be someone has finally hired you to act. But in the meantime, you have kept yourself alive with just creative energy. You have given yourself hope that you can accomplish something. It's very important to stay creative and not simply to wait around for people to want you. It's the hardest thing about the business."

On the pact made between the actor and the audience

"There's a wonderful passage in the book that describes my father stepping in for another actor in a production of [The] Taming of the Shrew, when he's already playing another role. In desperation, he has to play two roles, Baptista and Petruchio.

"In several scenes, they're on the stage together. So he went out to the audience — I was a lighting assistant backstage, and I witnessed him — I, like the rest of the company, couldn't believe he was doing this. He said, 'I'm going to play both parts. I have a coat rack here and a cloak. Every time I switch from one character to the other, I'll whip off the cloak, put it on the coat rack, and that will be Baptista. I will be Petruchio. And when Petruchio exits, I'll put the cloak back on. All right? Here we go.'

"And the audience absolutely loved it. That was the deal he made with the audience. And the lesson I learned in the wings, listening to him pull off this unbelievable piece of kind of theater alchemy, is make a deal with the audience, and they'll follow you anywhere, as long as they know the rules."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. John Lithgow made his stage debut at the age of two, spent nights and weekends and summers hanging out backstage at productions staged by his actor-manager father, but only decided he would be an actor when overwhelmed by applause one night onstage at Harvard.

He's gone on to win - well, I was about to say countless awards, but I suspect he's counted them. You hissed him in "Footloose," cheered him in "Garp," tuned in weekly to "Third Rock," and peeked between your fingers at his Trinity killer on "Dexter."

In a memoir published earlier this year, he explained how much of that celebrated career stemmed from conscious and unconscious emulation of his father. If you're a parent and work in the arts, fields fraught with rejections and no guarantee of success, do you really want your children to follow in your footsteps? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the New York Times ethicist joins us on The Opinion Page to talk about the dilemma pediatricians face with parents who do not immunize their children. But first, John Lithgow joins us here in Studio 3A. His book is called "Drama: An Actor's Education." He's in town for the Kennedy Center's honors show, which was taped last night. Nice to have you with us.

JOHN LITHGOW: Great to be here, Neal, good to see you.

CONAN: Good to see you. There's a moment you describe in the book where you go to tell your father you've received a Fulbright fellowship to go study acting in London and get a completely different reaction from what you expected.

LITHGOW: Yes, his face fell. My father, by that time I had worked for him for years in his summer Shakespeare festivals. He had directed me. I had acted with him. I had even directed him once or twice. And I thought, well, it's a fait accompli, I'm going to be an actor. I told him I was off to study it in earnest, and he looked like I had told him I'd contracted a terminal disease.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LITHGOW: He was surprised at me, and I was surprised that he was.

CONAN: Because his career, which you had seen from the different perspective of a child, but had been fraught with all kinds of rejections and firings and removals.

LITHGOW: Yes, and I think he had managed to if not mask all of his professional troubles from me, he masked how much - how difficult they were for him. To my mind, he had a kind of magical career, he was like the ringmaster of a wonderfully exciting circus of which I was a participant. You know, as a little boy I played Mustard Seed and a prince in the tower and a spear carrier and a foot soldier.

So I mean, he got used to it, the die was cast, but I - at that point I was a senior at Harvard. I'm sure he was also thinking, well, what was all that for?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Yeah, there might have been that. There is another scene a few years later. You have just made a huge splash on Broadway, just won your first Tony Award, gone on to success that your father could never have dreamed, in fact you never really thought possible, a repertory actor. And at the same time you are living at his home in Princeton, and he has just been fired.

LITHGOW: Yeah, he - it was - I mean, it's one of those dark ironies of life that the very moment when I, after some bit of struggle, my career took off so abruptly, his was just beginning a sort of precipitous decline. He'd lost the last really good and prestigious job he had as a theater manager, and you know, it's - he was a circumspect man. I mean, he didn't - he was not emotionally extravagant, but I - the wonderful thing was he - to all appearances he was elated by the success I'd had and very proud of me.

And I think he was genuinely, and I think it must have been comfort for him at that moment, but I also felt he wouldn't allow me to feel any guilt or bad feelings about his bad fortunes.

CONAN: Yet you write in the book that he had been - well, you were outraged, of course, that he was fired, but then you looked at the reasons, and there were reasons that you had - conclusions you'd come to as well.

LITHGOW: Yes, there was a sort of Greek trajectory to my relationship to my dad. I worshipped him as a kid. I idolized him and loved working for him and thought he was doing absolutely the finest theater that could be done.

He was a man of great integrity and did have very high standards, but he never got his hands truly dirty in the commercial theater. He never really went to New York and placed himself into the marketplace. I did. After working for him for a year, I sort of discovered he wasn't - in a way he was almost too nice to be a great theater manager. He was too much a gentleman.

He wasn't a tyrant. He wasn't a fascist. He didn't - he would settle for second best. In my - I mean, I was a bit of a cocky young snob myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LITHGOW: I think I - over the years my own estimation of my father has only gone up since then. It's sort of - there was a dip, and now it's higher than ever in retrospect.

CONAN: There is another moment, a few years on from that, and you're meeting Joe Papp, the impresario of Shakespeare in the Park, and the first thing he says to you is: John Lithgow, the man who outstripped his father, as every child should.

LITHGOW: Yeah, it was an extraordinary kind of character tick of Joe Papp's to go after somebody's most sensitive spot, go right for it, at which point he had him right where he wanted him. It was very unbalancing because I was very flattered that he would call me successful but very angry that he would diminish my father's achievements, and in front of other people, without knowing anything about my relationship with my dad or how I would react.

Maybe he did know how I would react. But I mean, Joe Papp is an extraordinary figure in 1970s theater. So he's a very vivid character in the book.

CONAN: We're talking with John Lithgow, the actor, about his book "Drama: An Actor's Education," and we're asking our listeners who work in the arts - music or theater or film or television - if - fields where you're getting a lot of no-thanks notes, do you want your kids to follow in your footsteps? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Darrin's(ph) on the line, calling us from Selma, Indiana.

DARRIN: Hi, Neal. Hi, Mr. Lithgow. It's a pleasure.

CONAN: Call him John.

LITHGOW: Yes, I'm John, and you're Darrin?

DARRIN: I am, it's Darrin, yes.

LITHGOW: How are you, Darrin? Good Hoosier.

DARRIN: I'm well, thanks. My wife and I are both theater artists, and before our children were born, I certainly said to anyone who would listen, you know, I would never encourage them to go into the theater profession. It's a difficult career, absolutely, and hard times ahead for anyone who tries it. But it became inevitable. They were just there.

You know, they grew up backstage, as you said, and on the sets and understanding that as simply a lifestyle. That's what life was to them. And so there came a point where my daughter said, you know, when am I going to do a show, when's my show?

And of course it made sense to put her in. I relished seeing her onstage and then began to realize that, you know, they truly were gaining a great education not only in the art itself but in the human condition and interpersonal relationships, you know, their language skills, and everything about it was making them better people. And so now we embrace - my daughter is eight, my son is four.

My daughter has a bit of a resume now, and my son is making his stage debut next week alongside his sister in a little Christmas show we're doing.

LITHGOW: Well, congratulate them for me and tell them to break their legs.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DARRIN: Thank you very much, I will do.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Darrin, and if I seem to take some familiarity with Mr. Lithgow, it is because we do know each other. We worked together many, many years ago at a radio station in New York, and he was appearing in a show called "Under the Gun," a weekly satirical effort, and other productions at WBAI, where I was working in the news department.

LITHGOW: Even that makes an appearance in the memoir.

CONAN: It does. I was startled to see how big a role - $115 a week, man...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LITHGOW: Although I have to tell you, Neal, you were in the news department. You always struck me as the grownups.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well...

LITHGOW: We were all young whippersnappers.

CONAN: It was a long time ago. In any case, we're asking - you have children, of course. You play to children all the time, but you have children of your own. Would you want to see them follow you on stage?

LITHGOW: You know, it's a very difficult thing, and it's nice that you've made that the theme of our interview, particularly since there's so much father and son dynamics in my book. I tell young people, including my own kids, don't do this, it's too difficult. It's a career full of rejection, disappointment and failure.

It's murderously hard on the ego. Don't become an actor.

CONAN: And they say you're just trying to kill the competition.

LITHGOW: Well, I always add at the end, if you're going to become an actor, you ignore everything I say anyway, as I did. I mean, the choice to become an actor is very courageous, but like all courageous acts, it's very foolhardy too, you know.

CONAN: You were, in a sense, though, cocooned until you got to New York by the fact that you so often worked with your father.

LITHGOW: Yeah, and I had the huge advantage of not only a backlog of experience onstage, but I knew what the business was some - to a great extent. I knew how hard it was. I knew what I was in for. But even so, I suffered a couple of brutal years of unemployment and could not get any traction, even with all my - with my huge head start and with my Harvard training, London Academy training, and a year - a convenient father directing a repertory company who was all ready to hire me to get me going.

CONAN: In fact, you at one point established your own repertory company.

LITHGOW: Yes, you'll notice I have not established one since.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: The Great Road Players.

LITHGOW: That's right. That was my one total catastrophe.

CONAN: Well, so far.

LITHGOW: So far.

CONAN: You're young yet. John Lithgow is with us. His book again is titled "Drama: An Actor's Education." If you are a parent and work in the arts, do you want your children to follow that often difficult path? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DARRIN: And of course it made sense to put her in. I relished seeing her onstage and then began to realize that, you know, they truly were gaining a great education not only in the art itself but in the human condition and interpersonal relationships, you know, their language skills, and everything about it was making them better people. So now we embrace - my daughter is eight, my son is four.

My daughter has a bit of a resume now, and my son is making his stage debut next week alongside his sister in a little Christmas show we're doing.

LITHGOW: Well, congratulate them for me and tell them to break their legs.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DARRIN: Thank you very much, I will do.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Darrin, and if I seem to take some familiarity with Mr. Lithgow, it is because we do know each other. We worked together many, many years ago at a radio station in New York, and he was appearing in a show called "Under the Gun," a weekly satirical effort, and other productions at WBAI where I was working in the news department.

LITHGOW: Even that makes an appearance in the memoir.

CONAN: It does. I was startled to see how big a role - $115 a week, man, I think...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LITHGOW: Although I have to tell you, Neal, you were in the news department. You always struck me as the grownups.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well...

LITHGOW: We were all young whippersnappers.

CONAN: It was a long time ago. In any case, we're asking - you have children, of course. You play to children all the time, but you have children of your own. Would you want to see them follow you on stage?

LITHGOW: You know, it's a very difficult thing, and it's nice that you've made that the theme of our interview, particularly since there's so much father and son dynamics in my book. I tell young people, including my own kids, don't do this, it's too difficult. It's a career full of rejection, disappointment and failure.

It's murderously hard on the ego. Don't become an actor.

CONAN: And they say you're just trying to kill the competition.

LITHGOW: Well, I always add at the end, if you're going to become an actor, you ignore everything I say anyway, as I did. I mean, the choice to become an actor is very courageous, but like all courageous acts, it's very foolhardy, too, you know.

CONAN: You were, in a sense, though, cocooned until you got to New York by the fact that you so often worked with your father.

LITHGOW: Yeah, and I had the huge advantage of not only a backlog of experience onstage, but I knew what the business was to a great extent. I knew how hard it was. I knew what I was in for. But even so, I suffered a couple of brutal years of unemployment and could not get any traction even with all my - with my huge head start and with my Harvard training, London Academy training and a year, a convenient father directing a repertory company who was all ready to hire me to get me going.

CONAN: In fact, you, at one point established your own repertory company.

LITHGOW: Yes, you'll notice I have not established one since.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: The Great Road Players.

LITHGOW: That's right. That was my own total catastrophe.

CONAN: Well, so far.

LITHGOW: So far.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: You're young yet. John Lithgow is with us. His book again is titled "Drama: An Actor's Education." If you are a parent and work in the arts, do you want your children to follow that often difficult path? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. John Lithgow is our guest, well-known of course for his role in comedies, TV and film. His most recent Emmy, however, came for his chilling performance as the Trinity killer on the Showtime series "Dexter."

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "DEXTER")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LITHGOW: (As Arthur Mitchell) You just need to let go and fall.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Please, I'll do anything.

LITHGOW: (As Mitchell) Good, jump.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) No, I can't.

LITHGOW: (As Mitchell) You can.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Mitchell) I have children.

LITHGOW: (As Mitchell) I know, Jason and Suzie. If you'd like, I could swing by your house, put a ice pick in your husband's head and bring your kids back and throw them off one at a time until you finally decide to jump. Is that what you want?

CONAN: Actually, I wanted to change the channel and watch "Harry and the Hendersons."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LITHGOW: Well, that was the real me.

CONAN: John Lithgow's memoir was released earlier this year and is one of our Books We Missed. In it, he writes that one of his earliest roles, while just a toddler, put him onstage playing the role of son to his actual father Arthur Lithgow. Eventually, he grew into the family business, so to speak.

So if you are a parent and work in the arts field fraught with rejection, how do you want your children to grow up and follow your path? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next to Jim, and Jim's on the line from Grand Rapids.

TIM: Hi, it's Tim.

LITHGOW: Hi, Jim, it's John.

TIM: Hi, John. I love all the work that you have done throughout the years.

LITHGOW: Thank you.

TIM: You have done what Viola Spolin, you're probably familiar with her. She always said share with your audience. And it seems like you're the kind of actor that does that.

LITHGOW: Well, they give a lot to me. They share a lot with me.

CONAN: Do you have a child going into the business, Jim?

TIM: No, I make my living though as an entertainer, and I started out in children's theater. And one thing led to another and do TV commercials and radio commercials and ended up working in radio. And my kids, now 13 and 15, you know, when their parents, you know, find out maybe who I am what I do, but when their friends say so what does your dad do? And they just kind of throw it off these days, well, he just does shows.

You know, they have no idea. Their friends are like he does what? And they don't come to the comedy clubs, or they don't, you know, see most of what I do. But there's part of me that's torn that I kind of would like to see my kids sometimes onstage, when they've done little things here or there, that I want them to go for it. At the same time, it's one of those lives that you live that if the phone doesn't ring, you don't work.

LITHGOW: Yeah, yeah.

TIM: And it's really - you're torn with it because you're - and for me I guess if they really love it, if they get bit by the bug, then I guess you're going to pursue it, and you're going to do some version of it. If not, that's OK, too.

CONAN: All right, Jim, well, thanks very much for the call. John Lithgow, of course far too grand an actor to stoop to commercials.

LITHGOW: Oh no, no, I've done my commercials. I've done a few commercials, but I've probably only done about 2 percent of the commercials that I've auditioned for, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: There's a very funny chapter in the book of your auditioning for commercial after commercial.

LITHGOW: That's right. Before I ever got one, you know, after I'd done 100 unsuccessful auditions, I said oh, well, at least now I can tell everybody I don't do commercials because they're beneath me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LITHGOW: That all ended when I finally did a few.

CONAN: Let's get Elaine on the line, Elaine with us from Rochester in New York.

ELAINE: Hi, my husband and I met when he was doing regional theater and children's theater. When our daughter was born, he cut way back because he wanted to be home to see her at night.

LITHGOW: Yeah, yeah.

ELAINE: And then she went to the school of the arts here in Rochester as an acting major and is now acting and directing PSA.

LITHGOW: Oh, how great.

ELAINE: She's a second-year student, and we're going to be faced soon, when she graduates, there's a question does she start pounding the pavement, or does she go to grad school for it. And I keep my fingers crossed that her acting teachers right now are very encouraging.

LITHGOW: Well, it's a great...

ELAINE: Then I hear you talk about, you know, years of Boyardee in a can, probably.

LITHGOW: Well, you know, what I tell the young actors all the time is, you know, they've made the decision to become actors, so I'm certainly not going to tell them to give up. I tell them to just stay creative, try to develop things all on their own that they themselves can control. Try writing. Try directing. If there's a part you really want to play, figure out a way to produce it in some...

Chances are you will never get a chance to follow through on these ambitious projects, but the reason will be someone has finally hired you to act. But in the meantime, you have kept yourself alive with just creative energy. You have given yourself hope that you can accomplish something. It's very - it's very important to stay creative and not simply to wait around for people to want you. It's the hardest thing about the business.

ELAINE: Yeah, and she's done well in her small pool, and I don't know if she's ready for the times and times and times of no callbacks.

LITHGOW: Well, she'll survive it. You know, if it's something she really wants, she will survive it, and if she's in that Rochester program, it means she's pretty good. So tell her I hope to work with her someday.

TIM: Well, thank you kindly.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Elaine. Another theme of the book is the idea of acting as well - at one point you call it faking it, that that's what actors do. The act of deception, that there is this pact between the actor and the audience, where we're going to fool you, and you agree to be fooled.

LITHGOW: Uh-huh. Yes, it's - there's a wonderful passage in the book that describes my father stepping in for another actor in a production of "Taming of the Shrew," when he's already playing another role. In desperation, he has to play two roles, Baptista and Petruchio.

CONAN: Who are onstage sometimes at the same time.

LITHGOW: In several scenes, they're on the stage together. So he went out to the audience - I was a lighting assistant backstage, and I witnessed him. I, like the rest of the company, couldn't believe he was doing this. He said I'm going to play both parts. I have a coat rack here and a cloak. Every time I switch from one character to the other, I'll whip off the cloak, put it on the coat rack, and that will be Baptista. I will be Petruchio.

And when Petruchio exits, I'll put the cloak back on. All right?

CONAN: OK.

LITHGOW: Here we go. And the audience absolutely loved it. That was the deal he made with the audience. And the lesson I learned in the wings, listening to him pull off this unbelievable piece of kind of theater alchemy, is make a deal with the audience, and they'll follow you anywhere, as long as they know the rules.

CONAN: Let's go next to Mike, Mike with us from Manhattan, Kansas.

MIKE: Hello, John, hello, Neal.

LITHGOW: Hi, there, how are you?

MIKE: I'm fine. Mine wasn't the acting world, mine was music. It started it when I was just 13, 14 years old, went on the road, spent about 25 years in buses up and down the - mostly the Midwest, from Texas to Canada. And my son got the bug, and he's a musician now.

And they asked me to kind of give my version of how it's changed, and I think it's changed dramatically. I made a very good living for where I'm from; raised a family, bought a house, all that kind of stuff. But we made our money off the performance, off the gate, off the people coming in. And my son is making all his money off of merchandise.

You know, they're having to sell records and sell T-shirts and all of that, and music's just changed. You know, he's really struggling financially, and a lot of it's just the economy, but most of it's just how the music's changed. But through Internet music and all this, you know, all these other distractions, they're just not filling halls like they used to, and...

LITHGOW: I know, God bless him that he's still working away so hard at it. All the rules are changing, and everybody is bewildered by it.

MIKE: They are.

LITHGOW: They - at least he's out there, and he's doing it. He's a young man, and this is the time for him to try it. If he doesn't hurl himself into it now, he'll be asking himself the rest of his life what would have happened, what would I have - what would have happened if I'd done this?

You know, and it sounds great that you're supporting him, even in the face of his difficulties.

MIKE: Oh, I've been supportive since he picked up his first guitar and first set of drumsticks, you know.

LITHGOW: Well, good on you.

CONAN: Mike, we wish both your son and yourself good luck.

MIKE: Thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: Here's a tweet from TomGoddell(ph): My parents told me not to become a classical musician because there's no money in it. So I went into public radio instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LITHGOW: And that man is rich.

CONAN: He really cashed in. Joe's on the line with us from San Francisco.

JOE: Hello, thank you.

LITHGOW: Hi, Joe.

JOE: I'm not a parent, but I am a child. I did make my own attempt at New York life and the theatrical world, and I wasn't there very long. A lot of people who were more talented than I was and more attractive than I was and coupled with lack of parental support - I wouldn't say discouragement, but I didn't have their support - and so I sort of backed off and moved away and did other things.

But I want to say to Mr. Lithgow - excuse me, John - is as delightful as I find all your roles, you will always be Dr. Emilio Lizardo.

LITHGOW: Oh, you're a good man.

JOE: I wonder...

LITHGOW: You're a good man.

JOE: I wonder how often you get that compliment, and I definitely think that it had an influence on your career. It seems to have affected other of your roles, either your selection - either your choice of them or others...

LITHGOW: Yeah.

JOE: ... (unintelligible) of them.

CONAN: Joe refers to the "Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai."

LITHGOW: That's right, Dr. Emilio Lizardo, the man who said, laugh while you can, monkey boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LITHGOW: I get...

CONAN: Applause in the control room.

LITHGOW: I get frequent requests to recite exactly that line. You'd be surprised how many people invoke "Buckaroo Banzai" as their favorite movie experience of their young years. I think, you poor soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LITHGOW: No, I was very proud.

CONAN: (Unintelligible) DVD of "Citizen Kane."

LITHGOW: Yes. I was very proud of "Buckaroo Banzai" and Emilio Lizardo. And in many senses, I do think it kind of liberated me. I've played wild roles like that, among them Dr. Pinch in "Comedy of Errors," when I was about 17 years old, an episode which is also described in detail in the memoir.

CONAN: It is.

LITHGOW: So I had prefigured Dr. Lizardo, but that was the first time I went truly public with it. And yes, it's true, ever since then I've been on the shortlist of freaks, you know? Who do we call when we have a completely out of the - over-the-top character?

CONAN: Here's an email from David: While I would want my daughter to pursue anything she was passionate about, I think I might have the same reaction as Mr. Lithgow's father. If she told me she wanted to be a composer like her father, actually her erstwhile composer father in truth, countless hours, years of study complete with a Duke Ph.D. - no job. She's only nine but she already has a life plan, includes a career in dentistry. You go, girl.

LITHGOW: Yeah. There's a very - a girl with a good head on her shoulders and probably a fine set of teeth.

CONAN: Let's go next to Leslie. Leslie, with us from Cape Cod.

LESLIE: Hi.

LITHGOW: Hi, Leslie.

LESLIE: Hi. Big fan. I did read your book. And anyone who's interested in reading it, I would say to listen to you read your own book. I thought it was fantastic.

LITHGOW: Thank you. Is that how you read it? By listening to it?

LESLIE: I did. I - usually, when I read a book, I get both so that I can always have it at home or in the car wherever I go.

CONAN: Some of us think you should've hired a radio professional to read that book.

LESLIE: (Unintelligible) and even more so, a few years ago, my daughter worked with you on a show. She's in theater. And said that you were one of the nicest people she's ever worked with.

LITHGOW: Oh, how sweet. Tell me her name, and what did we work together on?

LESLIE: "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," which I just totally loved. What a great show. She was one of the stage managers.

LITHGOW: Oh, great. (Unintelligible) that was a wonderful year-long experience.

LESLIE: She now has two children, and she's got your books. And I was wondering if you were going to do your one-man show again.

LITHGOW: Oh, yes. I'll be doing that. Actually, I have to tell you the memoir grew right out of the one-man show. I don't think I would have never had the courage...

LESLIE: To bring up the stories of your - to your father.

LITHGOW: Yeah. Yeah.

LESLIE: It's just a great book, and I loved the part when you missed Woodstock.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LESLIE: That made me laugh.

LITHGOW: Can you believe that?

CONAN: I was doing the morning shift at WBAI (unintelligible) ...

LITHGOW: Exactly, you and me - two young schmucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Leslie, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with John Lithgow, "Drama: An Actor's Education." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I worked with John for six months in Italy on "Cliffhanger," writes Kevin. I was a stuntman. He was so professional to work with. My son would like to also work in front of the camera, and I will encourage him to do so. Hello, John. Always nice to hear your voice.

LITHGOW: Oh, great.

CONAN: And this from Elizabeth in Norman, Oklahoma: I worked in film and theater for most of my professional life, as a costumer and costume designer. I don't encourage my kids, eight and 10, to work in entertainment because there is no life balance. Working 14 to 16 hours a day on TV series leaves me no time to be a meaningful part of a family. However, if they must try it, I will do everything I can to help them as any parent would. Unbalanced life?

LITHGOW: Well, I - it can unbalance a life. Of course, it can. But what can you do? In so many ways, you are at the mercy of your own passions. I mean, people have that dream as they do in any of the creative arts. They're all very precarious professions. And yet, where would we be without them? I just spent the weekend at the Kennedy Center Honors, celebrating the arts in America. When it's good it is - there's nothing like it. And it is that catnip, it's that carrot on the stick - we're all looking for those moments when we truly can express ourselves and make an impact on other people.

CONAN: There is - speaking of the Kennedy Center Honors - a story you tell about one of this year's honorees, who you met, what, 40 years ago.

LITHGOW: Yeah. Yes. I was there when a young actress - I was actually working as a director, and I got to witness this astonishing audition by a young actress, who before our very eyes, transformed herself into "Baby Doll" in Tennessee Williams, "27 Wagons Worth of Cotton." Within seconds, she was cast. There's no question about it. I call it a great moment in theater history. And the reason was, it was the last time Meryl Streep had to audition for anything. Look - you should have seen her last night, all aglow with all those people standing and cheering for her.

CONAN: Jersey girl.

LITHGOW: Jersey girl, that's right.

CONAN: This from Marian in Nevada City, California: My children are currently teenagers. While they were quite young, I found myself a single mom actress living in the foothills of Northern California. It was a cosmic joke, but not very funny. My daughter is now a dancer. I absolutely support her because her heart requires it. And without feeding our hearts, we stop living. I also encourage her interest in pre-med.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LITHGOW: Well, yes. But the first of - the first half of that was far better put than I did. I mean, that's exactly it: It's the business of following your heart.

CONAN: What do you do next?

LITHGOW: Well, I'm going to be in an absolutely hilarious movie, supporting Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. And then after that, starting on March 1st, I started rehearsing for a brilliant new play by David Auburn in New York called "The Columnist," written - Auburn was the writer of "Proof." This is his second play since then. And I'll play Joseph Alsop, of all people, speaking of journalism.

CONAN: The world's greatest columnist, and if you disagreed, you could just ask him.

LITHGOW: That's right. Exactly.

CONAN: John Lithgow, thank you so much. I have to say we've gotten hundreds of emails and calls...

LITHGOW: Well...

CONAN: ...appreciating your work in theater and movies and TV.

LITHGOW: Well, send them all my best. It was a real pleasure to be here, Neal.

CONAN: We'll send them all to the bookstore to buy "Drama: An Actor's Education." Thanks very much for having us.

LITHGOW: Great to be here.

CONAN: Coming up next on the Opinion Page: The New York Times Ethicist tackles the question can pediatricians ethically refuse to treat vaccine refusers? Ariel Kaminer joins us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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