The versatile six-time Emmy winner — and two-time Oscar nominee — breaks down his fanbase(s) in EW's 'How Are You Famous?'

By Dan Snierson
June 28, 2020 at 07:40 PM EDT
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The Crown

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John Lithgow has played cunning world leaders, hubristic aliens, tortured serial killers, torturing serial killers, unhinged racists, bumbling patriarchs, and bighearted transgender ex-football players — and by stopping there, we’ve probably just pigeonholed him.

The avuncular actor, 74, boasts more range than a Montana cattle ranch, shape-shifting his way through family sitcoms, period dramas, and action thrillers while racking up Oscar nominations (two), Emmy trophies (six), and fans (much more on them in a minute). The territory that he charts can be delightful, absurd, poignant, or terrifying, but it's almost always admirable — and often unexpected. “I’m thought of as an unlit firecracker,” he sums up. “You don’t know which direction I’ll fly off in.”

Lithgow — who will star in FX’s 2021 psychological thriller The Old Man as a secret-stained federal agent — next ignites and impresses in HBO’s '30s-set drama Perry Mason (Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT) as proud-but-fraying lawyer E.B. Jonathan. “He's a very complicated character because he has a very high opinion of himself, yet he's desperately insecure at the same time,” says Lithgow. “He senses that he's over the hill and that this is his chance to get back into the game. And he's blowing it.”

What is the catalyzing characteristic that draws Lithgow to a role? And what binds the diverse collection of them across his five-decades-long résumé? “The common thread is a character that fascinates you because of its mystery, its contradictions, and its duality,” he explains. “And the fact that the character travels a journey.”

Lithgow’s own journeys have taken him far and wide; he has appeared in 23 Broadway plays (winning two Tonys, for 1973's The Changing Room and 2002's Sweet Smell of Success), and has written and illustrated another satirical poetry book, Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown: Verses for a Despotic Age (out Oct. 6). “I’m a pan-enthusiast; I love trying different things,” says the Harvard-educated, London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art-trained actor. “It’s given me tremendous viability. I myself am surprised by the things they will ask me to try.” We decided to test Lithgow in a different way, asking him to identify the Hollywood projects from his celebrated career that fans reference the most — and get him stopped on the street.

Illustration by Anne Latini for EW

3rd Rock From the Sun (1996–2001): 16%

Lithgow anchored NBC’s aliens-disguised-as-humans sitcom as puffed-up High Commander Dick Solomon, snagging three Emmys for his wacky work. “It’s people 35 and up, and the 35-year-olds remember it very fondly as a show they watched with their parents,” he says. “3rd Rock people remember crazy moments — the time I wore black leather pants too tight for me. They remember that the leather pants squeaked, and interesting enough that they should remember that, because we had someone standing next to it, twisting a piece of wet leather with every move I made. So I guess we were doing something right if after all those years people remember the squeak of that leather.... They like to see me do my alien salute. We did that three times in 139 episodes, thought it up in three-and-a-half seconds, and then it enters everyone’s DNA for decades to come.”

Dick’s blunders did wonders for the man behind them. “It exploded my career,” he says. “It exploded everybody's expectations of me. Nobody had seen me do that nonsense before, except for if they happened to remember the three times that I hosted Saturday Night Live way back in the '80s. Bonnie and Terry Turner, who created the series, had been staff writers on SNL when I did it, and we became very good friends. They created a character, Dick Solomon, for me and only me. If I hadn't done it, they wouldn't have done it. They always said they needed an actor who was a combination of Bugs Bunny and Errol Flynn — and I was the only one they could think of.”

Dexter (2009): 13%

Season 4 of Showtime’s killer thriller brought its most chilling terror, Lithgow’s Emmy-winning turn as the Trinity Killer, a modest deacon who was moonlighting as a tri-style serial murderer. “[Fans] tilt toward the Comic-Con gang, and they have a taste for lurid, gruesome television,” he says. “They absolutely love the Trinity Killer, and they always use the word ‘love,’ which I thought was ironic. People ask me to sign their hammers, including at the stage door of a Broadway show. There are a lot of hammers out there with my signature on them, like a Joe DiMaggio baseball bat!”

Lithgow was immediately intrigued by Trinity — “I always thought that was a very particular and thrilling challenge: a man in the grips of a compulsion which he wishes he didn't have, and in fact, on some level wished someone would stop him from doing it" — and he was almost equally tickled by keeping this killer under wraps. “I had a pitch meeting with the showrunner and the executive producer, and they had to tell me this big secret, the story of the Trinity Killer,” he says. “And I had to swear that I wouldn't tell anyone. And it was just captivating. It was like listening to the ultimate campfire story. They ended up telling me much more than they had intended to, because I kept on saying, 'Well, wait a minute. What about the baby?' And when I did the role, I knew [that] I knew the story and nobody else did. There was a woman playing my daughter [Vanessa Marano], and she didn't even know she was my daughter, and I couldn't tell her! There was a culture of secrecy surrounding it — and it was really fun.”

The Crown (2016–2019): 12%

The sole American in the cast of the Netflix royal drama, Lithgow won plaudits and another Emmy for his commanding portrayal of British prime minister Winston Churchill. “It’s a slightly more sophisticated crowd,” notes Lithgow of The Crown segment of his fanbase. “They love English acting and history, and they are fascinated by royalty. Winston Churchill himself is a rock star historically, especially in this day and age, when everybody says, ‘Where is Winston Churchill when we need him, in the middle of a global crisis?’ He’s also a fascinating, idiosyncratic, and occasionally comic character. If there’s any comic relief in that first season, it was Churchill. They love the fact that I brought my comedy chops.”

They do love one episode in particular: Season 1’s "Assassins," in which Churchill befriends the artist painting his portrait, only to later turn on him when he detested the end result. “It was a great study in an old man's fantasy,” raves Lithgow. “Everybody immediately invokes that. I would say 10 times I've been told, ‘That is the best hour of television I've ever seen.’”

Lithgow was both intimidated and invigorated by the challenge of playing one of the great orators and world leaders of the 20th century. “Claire Foy was already set, [as was] Stephen Daldry, who's just a genius director,” he recalls. "And the fact that it was Netflix, they were selling the crown jewels to produce it. I just knew it was going to be a spectacular project. As excited as I was, I was equally terrified. To be enlisted the only American to join all these great English actors and to play the ultimate Englishman, it was a big scary challenge. But I was so excited and flattered that they would think of me for it.”

The World According to Garp (1982): 10%

In an era when transgender representation was scarce and dehumanizing, Lithgow scored an Oscar nomination as Roberta, a trans former Philadelphia Eagles tight tend who served as a protective, compassionate force in this quirky film adaptation of John Irving’s novel starring Glenn Close and Robin Williams. “It was the first time I made an impact in a big way in a movie,” says Lithgow. “It was a wonderful film. And back in those days, transgender people were much more in the shadows. [The role] disarmed people because the character was so dear, so appealing. I remember the actress Carol Kane saying she just felt like Roberta was the friend she wished she had. It really meant something to people. I got remarkable letters, and transgender people would come up to me and thank me. I saved an extraordinary letter that said, ‘You have no idea what it's like to see someone like me portrayed in a film without being a psychopath or a killer or a pervert or a villain.’ It was very moving.”

It took some persuading — and an in-person meeting with Williams — for Lithgow to land the part, though. “I had read the novel, and I loved the character, and I was dying to play the part,” he recalls. “I met with [director] George Roy Hill, and then it took him six months to cast me in the role! He saw about a hundred people because he thought I was way too tall and that it would be ridiculous putting me next to Robin Williams. He was ignoring the fact that Garp is a short character, and a tight end is an enormous player on a football team. So we finally did a screen test and that sold him.”

Bombshell (2019): 9%

Normally known for playing fearsome fictional villains, Lithgow slipped on the predatory skin of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes for this big-screen drama about the women of Fox News Channel who exposed Ailes’ history of sexual harassment. Lithgow estimates that it’s the fifth most common project that his fans will stop him on the streets about, in part because of its disturbing nature, and also because it’s the most recent film in which he’s starred. “That was another pretty bravura performance," he notes. "Everybody was just completely disgusted by the performance. My niece wrote me right after seeing it; she sent me an email, 'Just saw Bombshell. Yuck!!!' Of course, she considered that to be a compliment… [The role] was very disturbing. It was because it was so seedy. It was such a perverse performance. I mean, the story was so ugly. [Fans] single out the searingly uncomfortable scene with Margot Robbie. She was amazing in it. It's a matter of just embracing what your role is — just going with it.”

It worked; Lithgow received praise from those within the news business. (“You even breathed like him!” was one compliment.) But, as he is quick to explain, he was set up to succeed. “Here I was, being asked to act with Charlize [Theron] and Nicole [Kidman] and Margot,” he says. “Jay Roach, who I’d worked with before [on The Campaign] — I just love him as a director. And [screenwriter] Charles Randolph, who had won an Oscar for The Big Short. All those extraordinary elements were in place. Just a tremendous role, tremendous challenge. [But] I had no doubts, no qualms about that whatsoever.”

Harry and the Hendersons (1987): 8%

Lithgow went kid-friendly in the goofy big-screen comedy about a suburban family who takes in a Bigfoot after hitting it with their car. “I get a lot of 50-year-old people saying they loved Harry and the Hendersons when they were kids," he says. "The moment that I hit Harry in the face — to make him go back in the woods, to save him — and tell him, ‘We don’t want you here anymore,’ grown people tear up at the memory of that. We didn’t take it nearly as seriously, but boy, the impact that had on children; they just loved the film. And would see it over and over again on tape when they were kids, or show it to their children. So that's very nice.”

Lithgow wasn’t quite sold on the idea of spending months bonding with an animatronic sasquatch, but thankfully, a notable name in town helped sell the actor on the gig. “I thought it was kind of dopey, and I turned it down until I met with the director [William Dear] and the [uncredited] executive producer, who was this fellow by the name of Steven Spielberg,” Lithgow deadpans. “And it's almost impossible to say no to it at that point. But we sat together over at Amblin, the three of us talked about it, and after talking for about a half an hour, Bill Dear took out the renderings of the Harry special effects makeup from Rick Baker. And that sold me in an instant. I said, ‘Oh, I get it!’ In other words, we really, really feel for this big creature. It was not an easy film to make it because it was special effects long before CGI — very, very difficult special effects makeup made with all kinds of little machines, operated by three guys with little remotes. It was a tough, tough movie to make, but of course, you see it and it looks effortless.”

Footloose (1984): 7%

In the surprise hit musical drama that brought Kevin Bacon to greater fame, Lithgow played a rigid reverend who ultimately saw the light when he allowed the town’s kids, including his own daughter (Lori Singer), to hit the dance floor. “That’s an older crowd who were teenyboppers 35 years ago," he says. "They talk about cheering at the big moment when I say I’m going to allow the kids to dance. There’s that wonderful scene at the end between me and Dianne Wiest standing out on the field, looking at the barn where the kids are having a dance. We have our arms around each other and are rocking back and forth and she says, 'We're dancing! Look at us, we’re dancing!'... It’s interesting that they remember me as the villain of that movie when ultimately I’m redeemed. But they only remember the fact that I wouldn’t let the kids dance.”

Rev. Shaw Moore's enlightening rippled through at least one fan's family. “The most beautiful story I have is when I was doing 3rd Rock, there was an episode where the aliens were circus performers and [the producers] had a big handsome guy playing the circus strong man,” he explains. “Really sweet fellow. And he took me aside, and very earnestly said, ‘I come from a little town in Louisiana and my daddy was the Baptist minister and I saw you in Footloose and you were my daddy! And I took my daddy to the movie the next night without telling him anything about it. And because of your performance' — by this time, tears were streaming down his face — ‘I was the first one of six kids who got to go to his high school prom.’ I was just overwhelmed because I always thought of Footloose as my teenybopper movie. It just goes to show what an impact it had on people without even knowing it. Because he took it very seriously. And we did too. Kevin, Dianne Wiest, Lori Singer, and I, we treated it as a very serious and moving story, even though it was exuberant and full of rock & roll and dancing. It was mainly because of Herbert Ross, our director. And there was no better evidence of it than that fellow.”

Terms of Endearment (1983): 7%

Lithgow earned a second Oscar nomination for his relatively small role in this heart-wrenching family traumedy (filmed concurrently with Footloose) as kindly banker Sam Burns, who had an affair with a married mother of two (Debra Winger), who later dies of cancer. “Terms of Endearment remains about the best movie I was ever in,” he says. “Everybody loves the film so much. They talk about how much they cried. Jeff Daniels was so great — and, of course, Jack [Nicholson] and Shirley [MacLaine] and Debra. All the characters were so vivid and wonderful. You just cared so much for these people.”

This was another role that almost eluded Lithgow; he was in rehearsals on Footloose when he was asked to immediately fly out to Lincoln, Neb., to replace another actor as Sam. “They just realized, ‘This is not going to work. People have got to forgive her for having this affair. And if they're not comfortable with her cheating on her husband, it's going to put her in real trouble,'" recalls Lithgow. "So they thought of me! Turns out, they figured I was the best possible adulterer.”

Alas, Footloose’s director was not so keen on the idea of losing a key actor in the middle of rehearsals. “He wouldn't let me free,” shares Lithgow. “Terms of Endearment was the best script I've ever read. I was dying to do it! But I couldn't do it. But the good news was they were both Paramount films. And [then president of the production] Jeffrey Katzenberg and [then-chairman] Barry Diller leaned on Herb Ross to let me go. So my entire role was shot in five days. I went from Utah to Lincoln, Neb., right back to Utah. And if you see those two movies, I have exactly the same haircut!”

Cliffhanger (1993): 6%

As a fiendish terrorist-thief hunting down an illicit $100 million payday in the high-altitude, high-octane thriller, Lithgow matched both wits and blows with Sylvester Stallone. The fans who run up to Lithgow are decidedly passionate and definitely male. “They will quote lines I’ve long since forgotten,” he says with a chuckle. “They will do an imitation of me, so that’s kind of weird. ‘Do you know what real love is? Sacrifice.’ ‘Kill a few people, they call you a murderer. Kill a million, and you’re a conqueror.’ Curiously, a lot of Englishmen think it’s great, and I think my English accent is horrible in it. But it is a thrilling film.”

Cliffhanger would prove to be the most fun that Lithgow had making a movie  — “it was four months in Italy and the Italian Alps, and I only worked about a third of the time, so it was a ball” — but this role also gave him pause, and not because of any fear of heights. “I was not that enthusiastic about it,” he admits. “It was one of those big movies that you do because you know it's going to be a big deal. But it’s kind of standard-fare action stuff. But [director] Renny Harlin spun it into this really — he did the mountain climbing and the high-altitude stuff. It was so thrilling and beautiful to look at. And I got to fight a great big battle with Sylvester Stallone on the belly of a helicopter strapped to a mountain! I've never done a scene like that before. And if you're able to do that in the movies, you certainly want Sylvester Stallone to be the one you're fighting with.”

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983): 6%

Lithgow was a tormented delight in the anthology film adapted from Rod Serling’s revered TV series, starring in the segment “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” as a paranoid passenger who gets terrorized by a creature on the plane’s wing that no one else sees. “I get jokes from flight attendants on airplanes. All the time!" he says. "Things about seating me next to the window, or: ‘Be careful about what you see on the wing.’ I wish I had a nickel for every one.”

You have that Spielberg fellow to thank for sending Lithgow on this flight of lunacy. Spielberg, who directed one of the Twilight segments, urged the actor to see the George Miller-helmed Road Warrior, and an impressed Lithgow signed on to "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," which Miller was set to direct. “It was a great job for me because it was the first film job where the director told me to do more instead of less,” he says. “I'd come out of theater and I'd done a few films and every film director told me, 'Take it down, take it down! You're not playing to the last row.’ But George — nothing I did was enough for him. [Laughs] And I felt, “Oh man, have you ever got the right actor for this!' The first thing I did was closed up in the little airplane lavatory, shaking and banging my head and swallowing pills in a total panic. And he just kept asking for more, more, and more, in his strong Australian accent. He said, “I want to see your face crack!” It was like, 'Oh boy, here we go!' And it was very liberating. From then on, there's been no stopping me.”

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984): 2%

Lithgow busted out his best Italian accent and rotting false teeth as the Jekyll and Hyde-ish Dr. Emilio Lizardo/Lord John Whorfin in the bizarro sci-fi adventure film. The polarizing movie has developed a cult audience — which Lithgow can identify as they approach. “The aged hippie brainiac who comes up to me and says, 'You know one thing you did that I really, really loved is…' — there’s absolutely no question; I know exactly what they're going to say next, and I can see it from a mile off," he says. "I can see the people who are going to rave about Buckaroo Banzai from across the street. They'll say, 'Hey, man!' And they'll ask me to say, 'Laugh while you can, monkey boy!' and I’ll oblige them. And I adore them because I honestly loved doing that movie. They all remember watching it at midnight in a packed crowd, when nobody else had even heard of it.”

When Lithgow first heard of it, he wanted no part of it. Or rather, in it."I turned it down," he remembers. "It was so crazy. I didn't know what to make of it. But then I met with W.D. Richter and Earl Mac Rauch, the director and the writer of it, and they were so adorable, and I was very persuadable. They said, 'No matter what you think of this or how good you think it is or will be, you would have a great time!” And I did! I just loved it."

Ricochet (1991): 2%

Lithgow has this philosophy about bad guys: "The better the villain, the hotter the drama." And one villain who turned heads (and stomachs) is the loathsome hitman and white supremacist, Earl Talbot Blake, who breaks out of prison and exacts revenge against the young cop-turned-ADA (Denzel Washington) that took him down in the big-screen action-thriller Ricochet. “There is no more hateful or racist role than Earl Talbot Blake,” says Lithgow. “I mean, it was just a completely vile, hideous character, and [fans] always use the word love…. I guess it was just because I went all the way with that role. It was one of those instances where you play a role with the specific intention of making everybody hate you, and I just did it fearlessly. And it just made it into this kind of terrifying, overheated drama.” Right down to Earl’s very pointed demise: “They loved it when I fell on a spike.”

His Broadway work: .5%

The theater runs in Lithgow's blood; his mother was a stage actress, and his father was a producer/director. In addition to his two Tonys, Lithgow has won four Drama Desk Awards and was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2005. It's a very particular type of fan that knows him solely from that world — at least geographically speaking. “I get [recognized for] that in New York, but not much anywhere else," says Lithgow, who brought his one-man show, Stories by Heart, to Broadway in 2018. "It’s interesting to contemplate that in my entire career, not as many people saw me act as saw a single episode of The Crown. But it doesn’t stop me from doing theater.”

His children's work: .5%

Lithgow boasts kid appeal (and parent approval) beyond Harry and the Hendersons: he has written numerous children's books (Marsupial Sue), recorded albums (Singin' in the Bathtub), and, of course, voiced Lord Farquaad in Shrek. "Parents would come up to me with their children, back when it was a big hot movie and they would say, 'You know, Brandon, this is Lord Farquaad,'" he says. "And the kids look at me completely bewildered, this big, kind of amiable man who bears no resemblance whatsoever to Lord Farquaad. But then I would say something like 'I’m not the monster here—you are!' and they’d recognize the line and the voice, but it didn’t make any sense to them."

Monty Python, The Silence of the Lambs, and Frasier: 1%

John Lithgow did not appear in any of those projects, but not everyone realizes that. “The one I get most mistaken for is John Cleese, especially when I'm in other countries," he notes. "People will say in broken Italian accent, “Oh! Monty Python! Monty Python!” So I begin to think of myself as the American John Cleese. I take it as an enormous compliment to even put me in the same universe." (The pair ultimately would share the screen when Cleese guest-starred on 3rd Rock.)

Other off-base fans want to clink metaphorical glasses of chianti with him. "I have to tell you," he shares, "sometimes people tell me how great I was in Silence of the Lambs!" That's doubly weird, given that Lithgow was actually next in line to play Hannibal Lecter after Anthony Hopkins. "They offered it to Anthony Hopkins and [director] Jonathan Demme told me, 'We've offered it to Hopkins this morning. I don't think he's going to do it, but if he turns it down, you're the man,'" recalls Lithgow. "And of course, he didn't turn it down, and it was an iconic villain performance and I stewed and pouted and sulked. But then a year later I was offered the part of Earl Blake [in Ricochet] and I said, “Okay, goddamn it, I'm going to play a hideous villain, too!”

The confusion doesn't end there, though. "I frequently get Frasier," says Lithgow. "They say they loved me on Frasier, which is ironic because way back in the '80s, I was asked to play Frasier [on Cheers], and I turned it down," he says. "It was a time when I had no intention of being on a sitcom. When people ask me whether my name is pronounced Lith-goe or Lith-gow, I always say, ‘You can call me anything you like, except Kelsey Grammer.’"

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The Crown

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