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The Columnist - Broadway

John Lithgow stars in the world premiere of David Auburn's drama.

The Columnist Star John Lithgow on 3rd Rock, Dexter and His Tony-Honored Fave Stage Roles

The Columnist Star John Lithgow on 3rd Rock, Dexter and His Tony-Honored Fave Stage Roles
John Lithgow
John Lithgow on his lightest and darkest roles, on stage and television.

John Lithgow’s Broadway career spans almost 40 years, bookended by a Tony Award for his 1973 debut performance as a British rugby player in The Changing Room and a 2012 Tony nomination for his dynamic star turn as closeted 1960s political journalist Joseph Alsop in The Columnist. In between, Lithgow has won a second Tony (for Sweet Smell of Success) and received Tony nominations for Requiem for a Heavyweight, M. Butterfly and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Television fans have savored this five-time Emmy winner’s uncanny skill at shifting from comedy (3rd Rock from the Sun) to drama (Dexter). For his Role Call, Lithgow chose to highlight his TV triumphs, plus four Tony-honored Broadway roles.

Role That Was Least Like Me
“I’m nothing like Joseph Alsop [in The Columnist; 2012 Best Actor Tony nomination], although he is a highly theatrical character and I’m a highly theatrical actor! He is very mercurial, volatile and full of secrets and contradictions, and that’s delicious to play. I’m 66 years old, which means that the events of David Auburn's play took place in the formative years of my life. People in my cohort tended to be anti-war liberal Democrats, and Joe Alsop was a hawk who used his column to put tremendous pressure on Lyndon Johnson to escalate the war; it’s a wonderful character portrait. The Columnist is the fourth journalist I’ve played—the fifth, if you count the movie The Pelican Brief—I guess because journalism is a great thing to dramatize. Journalists go after news like tigers go after red meat.”

Role Fans Ask Me About Most
“I think 3rd Rock from the Sun [1996-2001, as alien Dick Solomon; three Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy Awards] is just a piece of comedy genius. I still watch Ti-Voed episodes that I had forgotten. 3rd Rock was a television show, but it was also very much a theater experience. We had an ensemble of terrific farceurs, most of whom had roots in the theater; we worked closely with the writers and rehearsed to a fare-thee-well. It was a point of honor for all of us to give the studio audience a very polished, high-energy one-act farce once a week. and we took it very seriously, even though there was barely a serious moment in six years in 3rd Rock. It was so over the top, it was on the edge of embarrassment, but that’s what made the show so deliriously fun.”

Role That Opened a New Career Chapter
Sweet Smell of Success [as gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker; 2002 Best Actor Tony Award] was my first Broadway musical, and I worked with the best people in the field: [director] Nick Hytner, [librettist] John Guare, [choreographer] Chris Wheeldon, [composer] Marvin Hamlisch; it was like entering that world at the top of the food chain. It was a tremendous challenge for me, in my late 50s, to learn a whole new set of skills, playing a major role with a big load of singing and dancing. I got a phone call out of the blue from John Guare that they had settled on me because they felt the role required a terrific actor who can sing rather than a terrific singer who can act. It was a play with music and an extremely intense character. I guess they saw my dark side!”

Role That Was the Most Fun
“Oh, that was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels [as con man Lawrence Jamieson; 2005 Best Actor Tony nomination] mainly the glory of working with Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott, sublime musical comedy actors. For me, it was the theater equivalent of my 3rd Rock from the Sun experience, just giddy, hilarious fun. Laughing that hard is very, very good for you! I was so happy for Norbert when he won that [Tony] award. I knew he was going to win it, and I knew he deserved it more than I did, but I felt that I was very much a part of that victory. Norbert emboldened me, and I emboldened him—it was a fabulous comedy partnership.”

Role That Changed People’s Perceptions of Me
Dexter [as murderer Arthur Mitchell; 2010 Outstanding Guest Actor Emmy Award] was the polar opposite of 3rd Rock, and it was great fun to take everybody’s preconceptions of me into that dark place. I always said that I played the Trinity Killer, and his first victim was High Commander Dick Solomon! I loved the working relationship with Michael C. Hall, a great acting partner. Those scenes had such intensity. When you play a villain, you’re always on your character’s side; you play him as if the villain is the hero. Your character may have terrible compulsions, but you have to understand him and argue his case.”

Role That Was My Favorite
M. Butterfly [as Rene Gallimard; 1988 Best Actor Tony nomination] is usually my first answer when people ask the impossible question, ‘What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever done?’ David Henry Hwang’s play was what you always seek in theater: an intersection of great ideas and great emotions. It was the first major Broadway play that dealt with issues of living in America as an Asian American, of the West’s misperception of the East, men’s misperception of women, and how global politics can pervert foreign policy, These were large, bold ideas, but at heart, it was an intense and emotional story of misbegotten love between two men, in a production dripping with theatricality. People remember it as one of the most exciting pieces of theater they ever saw, so to be at the center of that was really something.”

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