From Third Rock to Twelfth Night

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In 1996, John Lithgow won his first Emmy. Not for his definitive Don Quixote. Nor his magisterial Franklin D Roosevelt. Nor, even, his brilliant Baudelaire. No, the role that finally brought him home the TV bacon was Dick Solomon, an egomaniac alien learning about Earth by posing as a physics professor in the hammy family sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. When Lithgow’s name was read out, he lolloped to the podium – he’s 6ft 4in – agog. “But it’s so bad!” he gasped.

The following year, he won again, for the same role. Two years on, he repeated the trick. The shock seemed as constant as the winning streak, both for Lithgow and, it seems, for many of his peers. “As far as I can make out,” he said in his 1999 speech, “every actor in Hollywood thinks what I do on 3rd Rock is completely disgraceful!”

Hollywood can be snooty about extraterrestrial-based sitcoms – they never exactly showered Mork and Mindy with praise. Consider, then, how much stronger that feeling is among, say, Royal Shakespeare Company regulars. Imagine the reaction round the country when the news broke that Lithgow was to play Malvolio at Stratford. Coffee spluttered, marmalade dropped in horror. Another Yank comedian come to murder the Bard!

Such people have evidently never seen 3rd Rock. For if anything gives you a taste of what it might have been like at the Globe on the opening night of Twelfth Night, it’s an episode of 3rd Rock. With its panto acting and flashy slapstick, its broad jokes and bawdy audience, all roaring and baying like it’s 1601, it’s low comedy of the very highest class.

Dick Solomon is a direct descendent of Malvolio: both puffed-up buffoons brought low by erroneous self-regard. “They are pompous men,” confirms Lithgow, “and both of them have that pomposity pricked. The difference is that Dick is an innocent – I always thought of him as having the brain of a genius and the impulses of a puppy. Malvolio, on the other hand, is all about severity and repression. He’s a puritan.” He pauses. “But who knows, they’re probably going to end up identical anyway. Ha ha ha!”

Unleashed, the Lithgow laugh is quite something to encounter: vast, barking, developed. At 61, he looks like a massive, attractive Christmas decoration: twinkly eyes, beaming pink cheeks dusted with snowy stubble (he’s sprouting mutton chops for the play), white Issey Mikaye shirt, stripy Paul Smith socks.

He also seems, perceptibly, famous; out of place in the RSC’s grotty London rehearsal studio. Later, watching him stroll up Clapham High Street on his way to the Tube – this time accessorised with sunglasses and a woollen beret from South America – the oddness is amplified.

The culture shock has been two-way, too. “I’ve found it a struggle getting used to being just as a poor actor instead of a visiting movie star. Not being driven everywhere. It’s an insight into why English actors want to work in the States so bad!” That laugh again. “But now I’m loving it.”

And he does look happy enough – relaxed and unassuming, kind, courteous and thespily absorbed in the mechanics of the play, the “organic growth” of rehearsals, the comic calibrations of his role. For while Dick’s downfall was always played for laughs, Malvolio’s – he winds up in the madhouse – is less immediately amusing.

“Comedy is a delicate balancing act between frivolity and cruelty, and this goes way over into cruelty. At first Malvolio’s such a bitter pill you’re delighted to see him brought down. But then it all gets much subtler because it goes too far. They grind him to dust. That last line – ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!’ – it’s unbelievably resonant.”

Lithgow’s main difficulty will doubtless be in making Malvolio loathsome enough. In 2000 he starred in a Broadway musical version of The Sweet Smell of Success, the failure of which was partially credited to Lithgow being too likable for the role. In 2005 I saw him in a splendid musical version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and, sure enough, the audience’s affection oozed from the stalls, despite his playing a despicable conman. Lithgow is innately lovable – a product, perhaps, of the mismatch between his physical size and easy emotions. “It’s true. I have this great big athlete’s body but I have the sensibility of a 12-year-old girl. I’m so overly empathetic. I weep at life insurance commercials.”

But Lithgow’s appeal is also a matter of design. Born just after the war to Arthur, a classical actor who ran Shakespeare festivals on the east coast, and his ex-actress wife, Sarah, John grew up “the third child [he has two elder sisters] with this compulsion to be good, to be special and creative”. After city-hopping for more than a decade the family settled in New Jersey for the last two years of John’s schooling. John was the gangly new boy but before long he was elected school president.

“I’ve always found ways to move in and take charge. To connect with people, to get them to like me. It’s almost a political skill.” Was he a hit with the opposite sex, too? “I had a lot of interest,” he smiles, “but I didn’t really know how to act on it. Now it seems a terrible shame!”

After Harvard, Lithgow headed to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts on a Fulbright scholarship. He found work afterwards as an American dialect coach with, aptly enough, the RSC, instructing the likes of Michael Hordern and Peggy Ashcroft. He returned to America in 1972 “with an insufferable English accent” and swiftly became a Broadway staple. His debut in 1973, in David Storey’s The Changing Room, bagged him his first Best Actor Tony; a year later he was starring opposite Lynn Redgrave in My Fat Friend, in 1976 his leading lady was Meryl Streep. Hit followed hit, statuette followed statuette. His 1982 role as neurotic bisexual Bruce in Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy was specially prized.

Then, in the early 1980s, he had the first of a couple of key career peaks when he was Oscar-nominated two years running for supporting roles in Terms of Endearment and The World According to Garp.

Top job offers flooded in: Doc Brown in Back to the Future, Frasier Crane in Cheers, a role written with him in mind. But Lithgow declined to capitalise on his newfound fame. “I just couldn’t see myself in a sitcom at that time.” It was a mistake. The fortunes of Christopher Lloyd – who got the Doc job – and Kelsey Grammar, who played Frasier, soared. It must have been galling.

Even today, Lithgow admits to feeling “totally despondent if I feel like my stock has fallen . . . At the moment I’m fighting off job offers. You’re getting me at a happy time. But often I’m pissy and moany and panicked.”

By the time Lithgow’s second chance came round 10 years later he wasn’t so precious. Splashy baddie parts in Ricochet (1991), Raising Cain (1992) and Cliffhanger (1993) had re-established him in the public consciousness, and when his friends Bonnie and Terry Turner dreamt up 3rd Rock with Lithgow in mind he didn’t hesitate. Though the 3rd Rock salaries never hit the dizzying heights of Friends, Lithgow’s pay was evidently hefty enough for him to want to keep the exact figure to himself. But his finances still make him nervous. “It’s such a strange and supercharged subject. When you make a lot of money it screws up your relationships with everybody. Things get very confusing. People want it or resent it or feel there are strings attached. And I think I respond to that by pretending I don’t even have it, by living a life of an ordinary unmoneyed person.”

His marriage, too, enjoyed a heyday during 3rd Rock. Lithgow could work near home – his wife Mary is an economic historian at UCLA – and spend time with their children, Phoebe, 25, and Nathan, 24. His elder son Ian, from his first marriage, even had a recurring role as one of sitcom’s clueless students.

Meanwhile, the show’s early evening time-slot widened his fanbase to a younger audience. Lithgow started performing concerts for children. That led to CDs – Singin’ in the Bathtub (1999), Farkle and Friends (2001) and The Sunny Side of the Street (2007) – and storybooks, including Marsupial Sue (about an insecure kangaroo) and Micawber (a gifted artist squirrel) and Mahalia Mouse Goes to College.

Palooza Inc became the umbrella company for all Lithgow’s underage projects, named after his word for a TV-free kiddie activity, such as turning a tin of soup into a dolly – he’s compiled seven books of suggestions. The Palooza empire is now so enormous Lithgow has farmed out its running to three women who help spin his ideas into new products and develop his mission statement about promoting literacy and healthy parent/child relations. This expansion has meant the company is currently in the red – “I didn’t think it would make much but I didn’t plan for it to cost so much either” – though Lithgow reckons as soon as it’s back in profit he’ll donate the proceeds to charity.

Mothers must adore him, I say. “Sure. And teachers. They think I’m on their side. I consider teaching and parenting the two hardest jobs. They love to hear things like that. But it has the advantage of being true.”

Lithgow has a pronounced do-gooding impulse. You don’t have to study his work too closely to spot its hidden agenda. Mahalia Mouse Goes to College is, as his website puts it, “calculated to instil an interest in higher education in very small children”. The song “Ya Gotta Have Pep!” is perky pro-vegetable propaganda (“Broccoli. Will give you energy. Spinach plus/Asparagus. Take a tip from me!”).

There’s something oddly archaic about Lithgow’s liberal arts vocation, his – noble but dusty – insistence on the importance of the humanities, on creative nourishment for the growing soul. In fact, Lithgow is rather an old-fashioned type all round. In America at least, his accent and education have led to his being thought of as something of a “posh American” – one of those Wasp-y, quasi-British, faintly fey types who swan around in cravats and haven’t been much seen since The Philadelphia Story.

Lithgow, who probably bleeds greasepaint, bemoans the Hollywood cult of youth, says he’d never be tempted to have plastic surgery – “I don’t suffer that fear that makes people literally disfigure themselves”. The ageing process doesn’t worry him. “You must do what you should be doing at any moment. You must get to know your own capacities and limitations. And I feel like I’m succeeding in that in a halting sort of way. Plus, as an actor, things get more interesting the older you get.” He looks gleeful suddenly. “We’re in the late chapters here. And those are always the best ones.”

In a good book, perhaps. For many people, they can be the worst, or at least the quietest. But Lithgow is an optimist about the future, just as he has a Panglossian streak when it comes to the past. “I’ve had a couple of very scary medical moments. But you look back and you’ve found out who your essential friends are. Unquestionably the hardest time in my life was when my first marriage broke up. I had some catastrophic relationships. It was a trough. And yet I look at that time and think, my God, that’s when I found out who I am and what I’m capable of. You need your life to fall apart at some point, and the sooner the better.” He fixes me steadily, slightly zen-like. “You must start dealing with failure as soon as you’re conscious there is such a thing.”

Shakespeare – or Touchstone, at least – would doubtless approve of such a sanguine, seven ages philosophy. And be it the lean and slippered pantaloons, or Malvolio’s yellow stockings, you know Lithgow will wear them well. A little old-fashioned maybe, but that’s OK.

Off the stage, on the page: unlikely children’s authors

Prince Charles

The Old Man of Lochnagar is based on a story HRH used to tell his brothers about an old man who lives in a cave overlooking Balmoral. The underwater haggis and miniature green people of Gorm are early indicators of Charles’s concerns about genetic modification.

Lynne Cheney The vice-president’s wife has written four patriotic alphabet books – the format and the sentiments have made this ripe fodder for parodists.

Jamie Lee Curtis

When you’re the daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh you’ve probably grown up asking a lot of questions, and Curtis has made a successful sideline career out of answering them. Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born tackled adoption; It’s Hard to Be Five was self-help for the under-sixes.

Sarah Ferguson

Inspired by her then-husband’s airforce career, Budgie the Little Helicopter(1989) was a big earner for Fergie in her post-royal days, spawning a TV series, merchandise and even a hit single.

Ricky Gervais

David Brent doesn’t seem an obvious babysitter and it’s likely that Ricky Gervais’s Flanimals series has found a more appreciative readership among The Office fans than among their offspring. Sales will doubtless soar higher when the TV version hits our screens.

Geri Halliwell

Earlier this year the reformed Spice Girl signed a deal with Macmillan for six books chronicling the adventures of Eugenia Lavender. The plots are still under wraps but Halliwell has admitted Princess Posh Victoria is based on Mrs Beckham and Uncle Gordon on her friend Gordon Ramsay. Let’s hope she remembers to tone down the language.

Spike Lee

Lee teamed up with his wife for Please, Baby, Please, a hectic story about the day in the life of a naughty toddler. The title comes from a rather less wholesome line in his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It.

Madonna

When the indefatigable singer donned a frilly frock and threw a tea party to flog The English Roses in 2003, it shifted some half a million copies worldwide – probably more courtesy of curious parents than retro-loving tots. Spin-off books are almost into double figures.

Kylie Minogue

Last year, the Aussie icon published Showgirl Princess, about a young girl juggling fame with the tragedy of mislaying a nice pair of shoes. Keen readers noticed that the heroine, Kylie, bore certain similarities to the author. Critics were dismayed by the rampant consumerism.

John Travolta

Travolta’s aerophilia reached new heights in 1997 with Propeller: One-Way Night Coach, about a boy’s first plane ride. Sales didn’t take off.

Sting

In Rock Steady (2001), the tantric bassist gave Noah’s Ark a “funky twist”. Two volunteers take a “very special trip/ To commune with Mother Nature on a big wooden ship”. Printed on recycled paper, proceeds went to the Rainforest Foundation.

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‘Twelfth Night’, Stratford-upon-Avon, until October 6; www.rsc.org.uk

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