John Lithgow (b. 1945) — the much-honored star of Hollywood (“Terms of Endearment,” “The World According to Garp”); Broadway (“The Changing Room,” “Sweet Smell of Success”); and television (“3rd Rock From the Sun”) — wanted to be a painter when he was growing up. By the time he graduated magna cum laude in English from Harvard, however, he had reverted to the family business and become an actor, like his father, a cynosure of regional theater.
John’s fine, reflective autobiography, “Drama: An Actor’s Education,” tells the story of his efforts to become his own man in the profession. As he navigates its more treacherous effects on the psyche, he fathers two families of his own and maintains close ties to his parents and siblings, most especially to his dad, whom the author both adored and felt guilty about surpassing in terms of conventional success.
Lithgow wrote this page-turner as part of his effort to absorb his father’s death, in 2004. At its unflinching, self-deprecating, wry, sensitive and generous best, the book owes its charm to its openhearted tone. Occasionally, the writing sounds a little formulaic, like a commencement speech, and the author momentarily seems to age into the public man he must sometimes feel himself to be. Then he’s once more the master storyteller, occupying the bravura double role of dispassionate analyst and perplexed analysand, as they try together to solve the mysteries of what it is to be a human being and an entertainer, too.
The point of the book seems to be that an actor’s education is as much a tutorial by offstage experience as it is a product of academic lessons in diction and gesture and practical experience in playing a range of roles. Lithgow accents the fact that his family had moved many times before he graduated from high school and that the challenge of presenting himself so often as “the new kid in town” — of having to reinvent himself in so many contexts — helped to prepare him for the theater.
From college on, however, the focus of his life lessons as an actor becomes the choices he has made and the emotional prices he has paid for them. For Lithgow, important professional milestones include his decision to pursue acting over painting and his decision to work in a new play by Thomas Babe at the Public Theater over the premiere of a smash hit by Harold Pinter on Broadway. These serve good anecdotes, especially as they draw in supporting characters such as the artist Ben Shahn (“If you want to be an artist,” he barked, “what the [heck] are you doing at Harvard?”).
The stories of Lithgow’s offstage agonies in making decisions go beyond anecdote into the depths of moral conscience. A painful example is his account of how, in order to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War, he assaulted his body and mind in various ways so as to flunk his physical. Although he won a 4-F classification, he lost a kind of innocence. Looking back, he sees the episode as his education in the difference between acting and lying.
On the other hand, Lithgow doesn’t plumb the technical and interpretive choices he made in the course of developing most of his roles. Nor, happily, does he attempt the impossible task of analyzing the charisma of his colleagues, even when he is observing them under a magnifying glass. One delightful instance: With his customary humility, he describes how he watched a young Meryl Streep audition for a Tennessee Williams play, rivet the attention of those watching and land the part:
“For her audition she wore a nondescript skirt, blouse, and slip-on shoes. She carried a second pair of shoes and a box of Kleenex. As she made small talk with Arvin [Brown] about the play and the character, she unpinned her hair, she changed her shoes, she pulled out the shirttails of her blouse, and she began casually stuffing Kleenex into her brassiere, doubling the size of her bust. Reading with an assistant stage manager, she began a scene from ‘Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton.’ You could barely detect the moment when she slipped out of her own character and into the character of Baby Doll, but the transformation was complete and breathtaking.”
Lithgow devotes the last pages of his memoir to joyous valentines for Mary Yeager, a professor of economic history to whom he has been happily married for three decades, and for his parents. And the gift he gives himself is his account of a Pirandello-like moment when, as a Harvard student cast as Abraham Lincoln in a play written and directed by Lincoln Kirstein, he saw Kirstein suffer a psychotic episode in rehearsal. Lithgow stood and, remaining in character, quietly coached Kirstein to go back to his hotel. Whatever tests in life Lithgow feels he failed, this one — the actor as healer — he passed with flying colors. We trust him.
Aloff teaches dance history and literature at Barnard College. She is the editor of “Leaps in the Dark: Art and the World,” a collection of writings by choreographer Agnes de Mille.
An Actor’s Education
By John Lithgow
Harper. 320 pp. $26.99