Lithgow’s Artistic Insight

Emmy winner, overseer says years at Harvard were ‘most creative’ of his career

It’s not exactly Cliffhanger, but for actor John Lithgow ’67, Harvard has been a place for taking risks.

During the production of the 1993 movie, in which he played a villain opposite Sylvester Stallone, Lithgow flew back to Cambridge to attend one of his first meetings as a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers.

“You can imagine the contrast,” he says.

For Lithgow, who was the first representative of the arts world on the board since Robert Frost, the role of overseer seemed a daunting one.

“At first I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’” he says. “I was quite intimidated.”

But Lithgow got over his stage fright to put forward ideas to change the way that Harvard recognizes the arts.

“I proposed an arts festival, an arts committee and an arts medal,” he says.

All three were soon reality.

This year, when Lithgow returns to preside over the 11th Arts First festival, he’ll host an event that’s grown to include scores of performances.

Lithgow’s view of art as essential to college education is based, he says, on his own experience.

“It’s entirely a reference point for my own life,” he says. “Arts were so exhilarating and were such a chance to experiment. They made my life so much more vivid and exciting.”

Having grown up in a family of actors, Lithgow decided to try out for plays during his first week at Harvard.

“I got cast, and that was it,” he says. “I did a huge amount of acting.”

Lithgow was a history and literature concentrator, but says plays took up at least two thirds of his time as a student.

“I’ve always loved acting, but I felt I loved it most at Harvard,” he says.

Much of the rest of his time was spent exploring other forms of production.