Harvard Arts Medal

2017 Harvard Arts Medal Recipient: John Lithgow


Award-winning actor John Lithgow ’67 ArD ’05 was the recipient of the 2017 Harvard Arts Medal, which was awarded by Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust at a ceremony on Thursday, April 27, 2017 at 4 pm at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. The ceremony, presented by the Office for the Arts at Harvard and the Harvard University Board of Overseers in association with the American Repertory Theater, included a discussion with Lithgow moderated by President Faust. This was the official opening event for ARTS FIRST, Harvard University’s annual festival showcasing student creativity in the arts which celebrated its 25th anniversary April 27-30.
actor John Lithgow ’67 ArD ‘05, Master of the Arts at Harvard

“John Lithgow is an extraordinary actor who has enriched and entertained the world with unforgettable stage and screen performances,” said Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University. “We owe the launch of ARTS FIRST—this year celebrating its 25th anniversary—to his unfailing efforts and his lifelong belief in the abundance and power of our creative community. He has shaped the experiences of countless people at Harvard and beyond, and it will be an honor to present him with this year’s Harvard Arts Medal.”

The Harvard Arts Medal honors a distinguished Harvard or Radcliffe graduate or faculty member who has achieved excellence in the arts and has made a contribution through the arts to education or the public good. Previous Medal recipients include architect Frank Gehry GSD ‘57 ArD ’00; former ballet dancer and now arts leader Damian Woetzel MPA ’07; photographer Susan Meiselas EdM ’71; visual artist and essayist Catherine Lord ‘70; saxophonist/composers Joshua Redman ’91 and Fred Ho ’79; composers John Harbison ’60 and John Adams ’69 MA ’72; playwright Christopher Durang ’71; poets John Ashbery ’49 and Maxine Kumin ’41; cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76; film director Mira Nair ’79; conductor and founder of Les Arts Florissants William Christie ’66; stage director Peter Sellars ’80; National Theatre of the Deaf founder David Hays ’52; authors John Updike ’54 and Margaret Atwood AM ’62 LittD ‘04; songwriter/musicians Bonnie Raitt ’72 and Pete Seeger ’40; and actors Jack Lemmon ’47, Tommy Lee Jones ’69 and Matt Damon ‘92.


Born in Rochester, New York, and raised in a theater family—his mother was a former actor; his father a producer and director who ran the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey—John Lithgow has been described as an “actor’s actor” who has played a wide range of dramatic and comic roles on stage, film and television. A History and Literature concentrator at Harvard, he has written of his undergraduate years as “the most active and creative of my life,” graduating magna cum laude in 1967. Later he studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art on a Fulbright scholarship.

Since then, Lithgow has amassed numerous credits and won accolades from critics and audiences worldwide. His performance as Roberta Muldoon in the film adaptation of John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp was nominated for a 1982 Academy Award, and earned him Best Supporting Actor nods from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle. Some of his other notable film credits include Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976) and Raising Cain (1992); Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983); Terms of Endearment (1984, Academy Award nominee); the cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984); Footloose (1984); Harry and the Hendersons (1987); Cliffhanger (1997); Shrek (2001), for which he voiced the villainous character Lord Farquaad; Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011); and Love is Strange opposite Alfred Molina (2014), which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Male Lead.

For his stage work Lithgow won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in David Storey’s 1973 play The Changing Room; and won again in 2003 as Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of columnist J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. A few of his more recent theater credits include Pam MacKinnon’s acclaimed Broadway production of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (2014); the National Theater (UK) production of Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Magistrate (2012); David Auburn’s The Columnist for the Manhattan Theater Club (2012); the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons directed by Simon McBurney (2008); The Retreat From Moscow, also on Broadway, co-starring Eileen Atkins (2003); and the hit musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005). Since 2008 Lithgow has appeared in two installments of Stories by Heart, his self-written celebration of storytelling, at Lincoln Center Theatre and on tour, and in 2014 he played the title role in King Lear presented by the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

Beginning in 1996 Lithgow conquered television playing the extraterrestrial Dr. Dick Solomon in the NBC sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, for which he won two Screen Actors Guild Awards, a Golden Globe and three Primetime Emmy Awards. Other notable TV credits include Twenty Good Years opposite Jeffrey Tambor (2006-2008); the fourth season of Showtime’s Dexter, for which he won a 2009 Primetime Emmy Award as Arthur Mitchell, “The Trinity Killer”; a recurring role on How I Met Your Mother (2011-2014); and the acclaimed 2016 Netflix series The Crown, for which he won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series and a Critics Choice Television Award as Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for his portrayal of Winston Churchill. 

Lithgow is also the author of several children’s books, including Mahalia Mouse Goes to College: Book and CD, published in 2007 by Simon & Shuster. Farkle and Friends, a series of children’s concerts that Lithgow continues to perform around the country, is a CD of the same name released by Rhino Records in 2002, and other recordings for children have earned him four Grammy Award nominations. His memoir DRAMA: An Actor’s Education was published by HarperCollins in 2011. Appointed Master of the Arts at Harvard, Lithgow has served on the Harvard Board of Overseers and is one of the co-founders of the ARTS FIRST festival. He received a Doctor of Arts Honorary Degree from Harvard—and was the first actor to deliver the speech at the University’s Commencement exercises—in 2005.

Harvard University’s annual ARTS FIRST festival, showcasing student and faculty creativity, will take place Thursday-Sunday, April 27-30, 2017. Sponsored by Harvard’s Board of Overseers and produced by the Office for the Arts at Harvard with partners across the University, this year’s edition will also feature a gala performance on the evening of Friday, April 28 celebrating the festival’s 25th anniversary and the University’s growing arts landscape; as well as the all-day Performance Fair on Saturday, April 29 showcasing more than 200 music, theater, dance, film, visual arts and multidisciplinary events at indoor and outdoor venues. All events are open to the public, most free of charge. For more information, contact the Office for the Arts at Harvard at 617.495.8676


The Harvard Arts Medal was established in 1995 to recognize excellence and demonstrated achievement in the arts by a Harvard or Radcliffe alumnus/a or faculty member. The medal is given to an individual who has achieved distinction in the arts and who has made a special contribution to the good of the arts, to the public good in relation to the arts, or to education. It is awarded by the Office of Governing Boards and the President of Harvard at the recommendation of a committee of faculty, alumni and administrators, which is convened by the OFA.

Past Recipients

Damian Woetzel MPA ‘07 leads the audience in the opening of Balanchine's "Serenade" at the 2015 Harvard Arts Medal Ceremony2016 Frank Gehry GSD '57 ArD '00
2015 Damian Woetzel MPA '07
2014 Margaret Atwood AM '62, Litt.D. '04
2013 Matt Damon '92
2012 Tommy Lee Jones '69
2011 Susan Meiselas EdM ’71
2010 Catherine Lord '70
2009 Fred Ho '79 (awarded Fall 09)
2009 John Ashbery '49 (awarded Spring 09)
2008 Joshua Redman '91
2007 John Adams ’69 MA ‘72
2006 Christopher Durang ‘71
2005 Maxine Kumin ‘46
2004 Yo-Yo Ma ‘76
2003 Mira Nair ‘79
2002 William Christie ‘66
2001 Peter Sellars ‘80
2000 John Harbison ‘60
1999 David Hays ‘52
1998 John Updike ‘54
1997 Bonnie Raitt ‘72
1996 Pete Seeger ‘40
1995 Jack Lemmon ‘47

IMAGE, above: actor John Lithgow ’67 ArD ‘05, Master of the Arts at Harvard; IMAGE, below: Damian Woetzel MPA ‘07 leads the audience in the opening of Balanchine's Serenade at the closing of the 2015 Harvard Arts Medal Ceremony