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Actor John A. Lithgow ’67 is no stranger to the stage. Headlining 18 Broadway shows and gracing the silver screen for 25 years, Lithgow has returned to his alma mater to dazzle a slightly different crowd: the Class of 2005.
Currently starring in the Broadway rendition of the 1988 movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and earning his 5th Tony nomination for his lead role, Lithgow will debut at today’s Afternoon Exercises as the first professional actor to speak at a Harvard Commencement.
“I, perhaps more than most, think of it as a performance piece,” Lithgow says. He acknowledges that his speech will address the arts, adding that, in the spirit of memorable performances, he has “a few surprises for people.”
Lithgow is best known for his role as the quirky Dr. Dick Solomon, an incognito extraterrestrial on NBC’s hit sitcom “Third Rock from the Sun,” for which he won three Emmy Awards, one Golden Globe Award, an American Comedy Award, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards.
But Lithgow is hardly alien to Harvard’s campus and arts scene.
Acting on the Harvard Alumni Association’s Board of Overseers for six years, Lithgow began pushing the arts agenda over a decade ago when he launched the Arts First festival—Harvard’s annual celebration of visual and performing arts—and instituted the Harvard Arts Medal.
Now Lithgow returns nearly every year as the festival’s Grand Marshal and concurrently works with the Office for the Arts (OFA) to host discussions and visits by other renowned artists.
“I think John has really represented Harvard well and demonstrated to people that Harvard is a very supportive environment for the arts and in terms of his own career,” says Thomas S. Lee, program manager for the OFA’s Learning From Performers program.
THE SPAWN OF SHAKESPEARE
Even as a child, Lithgow was submerged into a life of theatrics. Soon after his birth, Lithgow’s family moved from New York to Ohio, where his father, once the head of Princeton’s McCarter Theater, produced local Shakespeare festivals.
Wasting no time, Lithgow landed his first role at age six in “Henry VI, Part 3.” Lithgow also expressed a passion for painting, which contributed to his involvement with the arts.
Upon arriving at Harvard, Lithgow’s college roommate David B. Ansen ’76 was a bit surprised to see the “tall, gangly dude from Ohio” standing in the middle of their Wigglesworth dorm. A shared interest in theater fueled their instant friendship.
“He was one of those guys that could do anything,” Ansen says. “He acted, directed, painted, played the woodblocks, sewed. You name it, he could do it.”
Lithgow eventually worked his way up to becoming president of The Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players, directing as well as executing leading roles in “Iolanthe” and “Utopia Limited.”
The eager thespian also found himself on the executive committee of the Harvard Dramatic Club as well as starring in productions put on by the Leverett House Opera and Adams House Drama Society.
“I was a sort of equal opportunity enthusiast, working all around campus,” Lithgow says. However, of all the theatrical organizations, Lithgow never once dabbled in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals.
“I considered it beneath my dignity—and look at me now,” Lithgow says.
During his senior year, Lithgow suffered some setbacks when he directed a production of George Buchner’s “Voitzek” at the Loeb Drama Center that was met with scathing reviews.
“I’d say that was the low point, my last big production,” Lithgow says. “I liked it but nobody else did.”
But things looked up for his career when Lithgow was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Living in England afforded Lithgow the opportunity to intern with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court Theatre.
“I think what I’ve done in my career has had a lot to do what I did at Harvard,” Lithgow says. “I think it made me a curious person and put me in the bait of learning.”
Lithgow pursued his stage career after returning to New York, winning a Tony for his first Broadway performance in “The Changing Room.” While accumulating clout in the world of theater, Lithgow also garnered national attention for his on-screen acting after his 1982 role in “The World According to Garp.”
“He’s hardly your typical actor in the movies,” says Ansen, now a movie critic and senior editor for Newsweek. “[Most movie actors] are really only themselves when they have someone else’s lines to speak, but John is not that way. He is very smart and very eloquent and has never let his celebrity turn his head.”
WHO’S THAT ELEPHANT?
Since his early Harvard days, Lithgow has diversified his resume—adding father of three, children’s book author, and dancer for the New York City Ballet to a long list of starring roles in blockbusters and hit musicals.
His children’s picture books, including “I’m A Manatee” and “Marsupial Sue,” are all New York Times best sellers and have spurred Lithgow to pen works for parents as well.
“I really started entertaining kids when my own kids were born,” Lithgow says. “That led to albums and concerts that gave in to children’s books.”
Recently Lithgow worked with New York City Ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to animate his award-winning children’s book “Carnival for Animals.” Stomping out his mark in the world of classical dance, Lithgow made a center-stage cameo as an elephant in the ballet.
From the New York City stage to the Harvard podium, Lithgow shines in the spotlight.
As Ansen sums up, “It’s been wonderful seeing him conquer the world.”
—Staff writer Ying Wang can be reached at email@example.com.
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