Character man

John LithgowFounder of ARTS FIRST, Master of the Arts at Harvard, guardian angel of the arts and, now, Harvard Arts Medalist John Lithgow '67 ArD '05 talks about his career, training and the legacy of the arts at his alma mater.

By Alicia Anstead NF '08

John Lithgow begins by asking me to wait a second, he has to put on his robe. We’re on the phone, mind you, but still, it’s a one of those moments that happens only in interviews with artists. As I wait, I remember: This isn’t the first time Lithgow has had a Harvard robe moment – or disrobing moment as the case may be. Back in 1993 at a dinner with Harvard’s august Board of Overseers, Lithgow, a board member at the time, stood up, took off his jacket, his tie, his shirt to reveal the very first Harvard ARTS FIRST t-shirt in history. He was finalizing his grand idea to establish recognition for the arts and artists at Harvard by creating a festival. Like Superman, he emerged as Master of the Arts at Harvard and so created ARTS FIRST, the univeristy's annual celebratory festival of student and faculty creativity.

Two years after Lithgow founded ARTS FIRST, he launched the idea for a Harvard Arts Medal, which he told me much later in our conversation was to “remind people that it is possible to go to Harvard and go

Harvard Arts Medalist Mira Nair '79 with Lithgow
into the creative arts and have a remarkable career.” Officially, the medal honors an alum who has “achieved excellence in the arts and has made a contribution through the arts to education or the public good.” 

Lithgow has done all that: works in the creative arts, has a remarkable career, has achieved excellence and has made a powerful contribution to both a college and a community. The man deserves a medal. And he’s been given plenty of them.

He’s only months off the red carpet for winning awards for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in the hit Netflix series The Crown. (He’s no stranger to the red carpet. Indeed, his list of nominations and awards
Lithgow The Crown
Lithgow as Winston Churchill
has its own Wiki page.) And that’s why I am talking to him in his robe from a hotel in Boston. Twenty-five years after the inaugural ARTS FIRST, he’ll take a red-carpet walk of sorts at 4 p.m. Thursday, April 27 at Loeb Drama Center to receive the Harvard Arts Medalhis own creation! – from President Drew Gilpin Faust. The event kicks off the annual four-day festival April 27-30 in and around Harvard Yard.

“There, now I'm completely comfortable,” he says on the other end of the phone. It’s 2 p.m. What’s he doing in a robe at this hour anyway? I ask: “Can you tell me about a typical day in the life of the artist. Say, today?” What I mean is: Who’s putting on a bathrobe at two in the afternoon?

“That’s a perfectly good way to start,” he says in an avuncular tone. “I got up at about 12:30 p.m. today because I shot all night in Concord, Massachusetts, on Main Street on this film. My sleep patterns are completely discombobulated. I arrived at work last night at about 4:30 p.m. and worked until about 4 a.m. And then came home. It has been a tough week because it has been outdoors at night.”

He pauses.

“But the answer to your question is that life is at the point of insanity. If you were calling me at a time when I was working in a Broadway play, for example, life would be very predictable. Or if you were calling me when I was between jobs or out of work, I would be trying to organize my life around some activity that kept me from going crazy. It’s very odd an actor’s life.”

He lists off all the ways actors are different from, say, painters and dancers and other “self-disciplined” artists. (His words, not mine.) But actors? Well, they apparently live in the crazy. Every single gig is something new. New city. New co-workers. New hours. New boss.

“You either enjoy that unpredictability, or it completely throws you for a loop, and sometimes both,” he says.

Which is he: the enjoyer or the thrown-for-a-looper?

“I absolutely love it,” he says. “The thing is I’m an actor who does lots of different things. I work in theater, film and television. And I do a lot of activities outside of those three general areas. There’s a certain restlessness, not to say panic, about my hyperactivity. And you never lose that sense of fearing you will never work again.”

Really? This man with a list of credentials longer than the Charles River is worried about never working again? I look down at my notes about his resume. I wonder: Has he ever been out of work since leaving Harvard and LAMDA?

“Well, there were a few years there where I couldn’t get going,” he says thoughtfully.

Then he tells me a story actors dream of being able to tell.

“I grew up in a theater family, and my father was a regional theater classical repertory producer, and he
Lithgow in "The Changing Room"
hired me for my first job professionally,” he says. “I had been working for him quite often as a kid, but I worked for him at the McCarter Theatre for a year as a resident of his company. I then decided ‘Dad, I’ve got to do this on my own’ – in a classic pattern – and went off to New York and got nothing for two years. Then off I went to Long Wharf Theatre. The second job I did – a wonderful brand new English play in its American premiere, a play called The Changing Room – went to New York. I never thought I’d get to Broadway. I just thought I’d be a rep actor. The show opened on March 7, 1973, and on March 25, I won a Tony Award for it. And that was it. The periods when I have not been working ever since have been by choice. I really have worked consistently, which makes me an extremely rare and lucky actor.”

I ask him to set talent aside for a moment because it’s both a given and considerable. Outside of that no-small matter, how does he account for his tremendous success – including Tony, Emmy, Golden Globe awards?

“I myself don’t consider it quite as extraordinary as you do,” he says. “I feel that I’m a working stiff. But in this sense, I feel as though I am also lucky. As I said, I did grow up in a theater family, and a rep theater family. Very often in discussing these topics, and I must say, not very many journalists ask me about this, I reference Shakespeare and the mechanics of his working life.”

Here he takes a small digression to talk about the world of Shakespeare, how the Bard’s troupe members held several scripts – Hamlet, Comedy of Errors, Macbeth, Merry Wives, Henry V – all in their heads at one time and were ready to perform on any given night, and how his father shaped an approach to producing from that Renaissance model, and how Lithgow himself worked as a teen in that same format under his father’s tutelage and how that became the “template” for his own career. From this history (dating back to Shakespeare) emerged Lithgow’s stock in trade: the character actor.

Lithgow takes a breath.

“You still are that,” I say. “A character man.”

“And still,” he repeats, not with resignation but with what can only be called gratitude. “I’m now the go-to man for old and eccentric choices. If you have that, you work all the time.”

“Do you get tired of it?” I ask. “This work? It’s a lot of work. You’re up 12 hours in the night in the middle of Concord, Massachusetts, in fake spring temperatures. Do you ever just lull?”

“Yeah,” he exhales. “In a word: yes. And progressively as I grow older. It’s exhausting work. Movies in particular can be extremely tedious.”

The challenge, he says, is finding a way to transform those “soul deadening” off-camera waiting periods into something productive and fun. “I’m pretty good at that,” he says. “You hang out. You make good friends. These days I’m having a wonderful time working with Will Ferrell. I’m playing his father, and it’s deliriously fun. But after a week of night shooting, you say: ‘What am I doing with my life?’”

We spend the next few minutes talking theater – companies, training, current shows, actors he admires. He explains the beloved English holiday tradition of the panto play. I tell him about two plays I’ve seen recently. It’s a pleasant exchange.

Lithgow in Utopia
Lithgow in the G&S show "Utopia Unlimited"
Eventually we get around to Gilbert and Sullivan and the famous story about Lithgow and G&S at Harvard. I know the story, of course, and I push for something else about his Harvard days. Just exactly what happened to him at Harvard that set him up for such a generative life in the arts?

Another dreamy story follows.

“When I arrived at Harvard, I was still ambitious to work in the visual arts,” he says. “I grew up wanting to be an artist and doing a lot of it, studying quite seriously at the Art Students League – all this before going to college. I went to Harvard because I got into Harvard – completely ignoring the fact that it is pointless to go to Harvard if you seriously want to be a painter. Or it certainly was back then. But I went off to Harvard. And quite naturally in the first week fell in with the theater gang. I got into the freshman acting seminar at the Loeb and got hired for the first thing I auditioned for – which was a big role, one of the three major roles in The Devil’s Disciple within weeks of arriving. I was 18 years old. It got such an enormous response. Harvard is an intimidating and competitive place, and here was an area in which I had no competition. I became a campus star immediately. Then I had that Gilbert and Sullivan experience, where I was just overwhelmed by the response of the audience. It’s irresistible at that point. It’s such a glorious feeling. In those days, everything you did in the arts was extra curricular except for that freshman seminar. You were untutored. Nobody was giving you notes. No professional faculty tried to give you notes, and you would have ignored them with great scorn. We were arrogant little brats, of course. But I’ve always said these were the four most creative years of my life.”

And he drives that thought right to its logical end.

“It was a deliriously wonderful time. And in creating ARTS FIRST, I was reliving that moment of creativity and reminding people what an extraordinarily creative place this is because of the talents of young people.”

Historically at ARTS FIRST, Lithgow interviews the Harvard Arts Medalist in a ceremony on Thursday afternoon, then on
Harvard Arts Medalist John Lithgow '67 ArD '05
Saturday wanders the Yard during the Performance Fair, usually alone, dropping in to see as many student events as his stroll allows. This year, he will be interviewed by President Faust and feted by the university.

We grow quiet for a moment on the phone. I can tell he’s thinking back in time. And so am I – to a conversation I had with Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard, which produces ARTS FIRST and administers the Arts Medal.

“I’m so thrilled we’re honoring John,” Megan said. “It’s hugely meaningful to all of us. He’s the guardian angel and patron saint of the arts and of the festival. We could give him this medal every year.”

Lithgow interrupts my distraction.

“You know, those four years of anybody’s life are extremely formative,” he says. “It makes me so damn proud. Really nothing in my life has so explicitly demonstrated the power of a simple idea. It was just something waiting to happen.”

SPECIAL FEATURE: Check out these short videos with John Lithgow and his ideas on the Harvard Arts Medal and art making.

ARTS FIRST will take place APRIL 27-30 at Harvard University. Most of the festival is free, and all of it is open to the public. President Drew Gilpin Faust will present John Lithgow ’67 ArD ’05 with the Harvard Arts Medal and conduct a public interview, 4 p.m. Thursday, April 27 at Loeb Drama Center. The event is free but tickets are required.