Lithgow shares tales with University of Akron audiences

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal arts writer

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Actor John Lithgow talks about entertaining children as he takes questions from theatre students and others at Sandefur Theatre in Guzzetta Hall at the University of Akron on Thursday, April 18, 2013, in Akron, Ohio. (Michael Chritton/Akron Beacon Journal)

John Lithgow brought his larger-than-life personality and rich tales of the actor’s life to students at the University of Akron’s Sandefur Theatre on Thursday afternoon before his evening talk at E.J. Thomas Hall.

About 70 attended the informal question-and-answer session with the man whose career has spanned the stage, TV and film.

Lithgow, who lived in Akron from 1959 to 1961 as a teen, made his first visit back to the city since those days, when he was an apprentice in his father Arthur’s theater companies at Stan Hywet and the former Ohio Theater in Cuyahoga Falls.

Doing Shakespeare with his father gave Lithgow his start doing “crazy character work,” said the actor, best known for his role as childish alien Dick Solomon in TV’s 3rd Rock From the Sun.

Originally trained for the stage, Lithgow said that at age 67 he still has to work on pulling himself back when working in TV or film. He is currently filming the upcoming movie The Homesman with the understated Tommy Lee Jones.

“You know me — a big, big actor. I’m always too much,’’ the energetic Lithgow said.

“I will give you so much more than you want,” the actor said he tells directors, who then can ask him to “take it down.”

Lithgow said he has been drawn to the concept of duality in some of his more complex roles, from the seemingly nice, inconspicuous killer Arthur Mitchell in Showtime’s Dexter to the double life he recently portrayed as Joseph Alsop in The Columnist on Broadway. The drama was written by David Auburn, son of Mark and Sandy Auburn, who were in Thursday’s audience at UA.

“I love that duality. It’s at the heart of really interesting acting,” Lithgow said.

The actor’s advice to theater students included this: “You’ve got to be free to be completely ridiculous. Go way too far” during the rehearsal discovery process.

That sense of play continues for Lithgow, who revealed that he often thought like a dog when portraying his emotionally stunted alien character in 3rd Rock. These days, he does everything from drawing and singing in live children’s shows to dressing as an elephant in a gown in the ballet Carnival of the Animals with the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Lithgow said acting is a rough profession, full of rejection and failure. He cited the fact the 2002 Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success, in which he won a Tony Award as J.J. Hunsecker, was a commercial flop some critics disliked.

“Don’t ever let other people define the value of what you’ve done,” said Lithgow, who said performing in the Marvin Hamlisch musical was an extraordinary experience.

Editor's note: While in town, Lithgow visited Stan Hywet and other places he recalled. Come back to the Beacon Journal on Sunday to read about his tour of Akron.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or

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