Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Mark Lewis

Larger Than Life

A memoir by John Lithgow.

How lovely it might be to attend a dinner party hosted by John Lithgow.

As I read Drama: An Actor's Education, Lithgow's autobiography, I could easily discern his distinctive cadences and puckish personality (if, indeed, it is possible to describe a 6'4'' individual as "puckish"). As a breezy account of an extraordinary career in theater, film, and television, the book is top-notch.

"Theatrical" may be the best way to describe it. I had a genuine "Aha!" moment when, in reading the acknowledgements, I discovered that its writing was actually antecedent to a one-man show Lithgow developed and performed, first at various venues around the country, and finally at Lincoln Center in 2008.

Knowing that much of the book was meant to work as a script, one better understands its structure. The rising action of each chapter often pays off with lines reminiscent of one of the well-crafted sitcoms for which Lithgow is known by most who watch television. This style works best when he is dishing a theater story. ("A moment of history? Of course! It was the last time Meryl Streep would have to audition for anything.") The technique is less effective when he is punctuating the account of a difficult-to-capture event or era. ("We are capable of anything. A caustic three-word phrase barked out in an empty ice-house on the campus of The Stockbridge School was my first and most startling demonstration of that truth.") And it is perhaps least successful when he is working to create a through-line for the book by summarizing its central relationship, that between the author and his father, theatrical producer and director Arthur Lithgow. ("Was it Oedipal pigheadedness? Did I have too high an opinion of my own abilities? Too low an opinion of my father's? Whatever the reason, I never worked for him again.") Lights fade.

This is not to say that the stories of the actor's dad, generously leavening the book, are not occasionally illuminating and consistently entertaining. (Who wouldn't be fascinated to learn about a man who once appeared before a paying audience playing two Shakespearian characters simultaneously in the same scene?) It just seems too complex a relationship to be accommodated by this highly stylized memoir—not least because there is much of the father in the son.

The elder Lithgow, whose career was spent perched mostly on the middle rungs of the theatrical ladder, is described as an entrepreneurial figure, brimming with moxie, who spent the author's childhood moving the family precipitously between theatrical enterprises of one kind or another. And while the author claims never to have seriously considered acting as a career until he was a student at Harvard, it seems to this reader that he was a goner from early childhood, by fact of both nature and nurture. From the incidents recounted of his childhood and adolescence (in third grade, for instance, he complained bitterly about attempts to scale down the size of his hat for a turn as the Chief Cook of Sleeping Beauty's castle), the son seems to have been destined to follow the father into the theater.

Arthur Lithgow's jobs varied in quality and duration; with the exception of one academic appointment at a small midwestern college, they were never long. The family's barn-storming lifestyle provides a wealth of rich coming-of-age material, which the author shares with relish in the early part of the book.

But it is this theatrical zest that is sometimes an issue in the writing. Did the actor actually, upon hearing that his father was moving the family once again, storm tearfully into the night to stand in a moonlit field in the Berkshire mountains (note: nicely set, beautifully lit), and cry out at the top of his lungs, "WHY ME? WHY AKRON?" Perhaps. But episodes like this lead us to question the veracity of events detailed elsewhere in the book, and we wonder how exactly we are meant to receive Lithgow's memories.

This takes me back to the dinner party of my imagining. The stories told here are spun wonderfully well—in exactly the way one might love to hear them around a dinner table with friends. Lithgow is a gifted raconteur. But in that setting (as in a theater—or a pub!), we would grant the teller a certain license, whereas in the book—especially given some deeper notes the author is trying to sound—we're not sure quite how far to extend that license.

There are times in the book when this trouble with tone is more pronounced than others. I was put off by the coy use of a pseudonym for an actor Lithgow worked with on a film early in his career. Referring to the actor as "Rock Masters" in a chapter entitled "Mr. Pleasant," Lithgow savages his outdated technique and puffed ego, seems to feel generally superior to him in numerous ways, and then tries to soften the effect with a line that says, "But I took no pleasure in his decline. I actually liked the man." Well, perhaps. But if there was no pleasure taken in the experience of witnessing an actor in decline, there does seem to be significant pleasure taken in recounting it, and the winking attempt to veil identities in a career as well documented as Lithgow's—and in the age of Google—seems both disingenuous and uncharacteristically lacking in generosity.

Similarly, his evasion of the Vietnam draft by lying in an interview takes on the tone of a tale, and I was left feeling that the shame he confesses experiencing (in the last line of the chapter) rings a little hollow. And when he writes off his serial marital infidelities as a young actor—he had never experienced adolescence, he tells us, and he found himself in a world where there is simply a great deal of temptation—it seems like an inadequate reckoning.

None of this takes away from the book's main achievement, which is to provide us with an opportunity to consider the rare career of an actor who has enjoyed remarkable success across three genres. Lithgow has a gift for characters who are outsized or, because of their strangeness or their darkness, difficult to consider. In the hands of a less gifted actor, these stories might not be told; Lithgow has handled them consistently and gracefully over his long career. I sometimes wished, in reading this book, that he had been able to treat his own life with as much honesty, precision, and care.

Mark Lewis is associate professor of communication and co-director of Arena Theater at Wheaton College.

Most ReadMost Shared