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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.
“Those were the most creative years of my life,” Lithgow says. “You could do anything you wanted. It wasn’t a question of getting hired or paid.”
Lithgow sang on stage for the first time in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, his first taste of musical drama foreshadowing future appearances on Broadway.
He designed sets and wrote scripts, gave dramatic readings of Shakespeare and Lord Byron and directed all kinds of performances—operas, house plays and even a ballet.
“In the real world you don’t get a chance to do that,” he says. “You have to pick something and specialize in it. That’s why when young people ask me how to become an actor, I say, ‘Go to college and try something else.’ You’ll never get that chance again.”
Lithgow says he began college without definite plans to pursue acting professionally.
“But halfway through Harvard, I realized I was going to be an actor whether I wanted to or not,” he says.
During his senior year, Lithgow won a Fulbright scholarship, and he used it to attend the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where he immersed himself in Shakespeare.
Lithgow gained a formal, academic training in theater, learning to speak in verse, tumble and sword fight.
Returning home, he joined the repertory theater run by his father—and eventually decided to strike out on his own.
“The rude awakening was when I went to New York and was out of a job for two years,” Lithgow says.
He drove a taxicab and produced a radio show in between auditions, and he eventually began to get cast.
Lithgow worked his way up the theater circuit, winning a Tony Award for “The Changing Room,” his first Broadway performance in 1973.
During his early years as an actor, he says he kept it to himself that he’d gone to Harvard.
“You know, it’s a curious thing,” he says. “It wasn’t really an asset, auditioning for commercials or soap operas. They kind of assume you to be a dumb and docile actor.”
But later, once his career had branched into film—winning him Oscar nominations for The World According to Garp and Terms of Endearment and appearances in Footloose and The Pelican Brief—he says he was glad to claim his college roots.
“Once I was doing well as an actor, I became very proud of my Harvard background,” Lithgow says.
His return to Cambridge as an overseer in 1989 may have helped Lithgow to turn his career in new directions.
“It was such a creative rush having an idea and getting it executed,” he says of bringing the Arts First festival to life.
Lithgow has taken other creative risks in recent years, venturing away from the world of film.
He’s probably best known these days for his work in television, starring in NBC’s series Third Rock from the Sun. He won three Emmys for playing Dick Solomon, the high commander of a group of alien explorers, posing as a physics professor.
Lithgow’s character stumbles through the trials of social life, puzzling over his “feelings” for other humans, experimenting with cigarettes and attempting to join an “ethnic group.”
But once the show was over, Lithgow says he wanted to try something completely new.
He went back to Broadway for the first time in decades, playing a manipulative gossip columnist in the 2002 Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success, based on a 1957 film of the same title.
He won a Tony Award for his performance, although the show closed within three months.
But perhaps his boldest move is soon to come.
When choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who worked with Lithgow on Sweet Smell of Success, asked him to write the words for a children’s ballet, he agreed.
Lithgow had already made forays into children’s entertainment, writing and performing a collection of songs, and even publishing children’s books.
Then Wheeldon asked him to play a small role.
Lithgow agreed—and next month, he’ll dance with the New York City Ballet in the Carnival of the Animals, playing a female elephant.
Lithgow laughs when he describes the crash course on dance that he has received over the past few months.
“They definitely started me out with the easy stuff,” he says.
But he has come a long way in a new medium. In one part of the ballet, Lithgow says, he is hoisted up and carried across the stage by 15 or 20 other dancers.
“It’s really an incredible feeling,” he says, “like floating.”
What made Lithgow try children’s theater?
“I always entertained my own kids,” he says. “And kids are a fantastic audience. They’re tough at first, but once you get their attention, they’re much better to entertain than adults.”
He says that the recognition he gained in Third Rock From the Sun has made it easier to get support for creative ideas.
He called up Carnegie Hall to propose the idea of an orchestra concert for children. By the end of a 20 minute conversation, they’d agreed.
Lithgow credits Arts First with helping him regain some of the creative energy of his undergraduate years.
“I won’t draw any direct links,” he says, “But here I am, dancing the role of an elephant with the New York City Ballet. Arts First has really made me put my money where my mouth is. I’ve branched out a lot since 1992.”
Lithgow sees his efforts to promote the arts as critical to the University.
“Harvard tends not to, or doesn’t want to, think of itself as an arts conservatory,” he says. “And yet arts are tremendously important to the college.”
Getting direct involvement in Arts First from the overseers, he says, made instant transformations that would otherwise have been impossible.
“Arts First happened because the overseers said it would,” he says. “It’s a lot easier if it comes from the top. Then people don’t have to work or fight quite so hard to get there.”
Lithgow has passed on his role as the board’s representative of the arts world, a position now held by John Rockwell ’62, an arts journalist with The New York Times.
But as Grand Marshal of Arts First, Lithgow continues the traditions which he helped to invent 11 years ago—including the parade along Quincy Street.
“I insisted on the parade,” he says. “The first year, it was just the Harvard marching band, [Office for the Arts Director] Myra Mayman and me.”
Lithgow says that when Mayman looked embarrassed, he whispered, “Just keep marching!”
The parade now includes hundreds of participants from the College and the local community.
“I’m just going to be the usual goof ball at the head of the parade,” Lithgow says of his role as Grand Marshal of this year’s festival.
He says he never prepares much for his on-stage conversations with recipients of the Harvard Arts Medal.
Instead, he tries to let their personalities come out.
In past years, Lithgow has bantered with Bonnie Raitt ’72, Pete Seeger ’40 and Peter Sellars ’80, and he says he was always impressed.
“For the kids listening,” he says, “I know it blew their minds to hear that these people were not just talented, but really socially engaged. They were interested in so much more than themselves,” he says.
This year, he will mediate a conversation with Mira Nair ’79, who directed the film Monsoon Wedding.
Lithgow says his goal as Grand Marshal is “to try and be disarming as possible, to create the most inclusive atmosphere possible.”
Coming from a man who has played an array of villains, an awkward alien, a gossip columnist and a priest, the vision of art Lithgow promotes is indeed an inclusive one: it spans not only a range of roles and disciplines, but also of participants.
“The great bugaboo of Harvard is that it’s viewed as being so exclusive,” he says. “Part of the goal of the festival is to change that. It’s why we wanted to have the parade, and use all the Harvard buildings for the concerts, just to fling the doors open.”
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