'Stupid mistake' changed John Lithgow's life -- for the better

by Luaine Lee [McClatchy-Tribune News Service]

9 October 2006


PASADENA, Calif.—Actor John Lithgow doesn’t believe in Fate. He believes in what he calls “happy and unhappy accidents.”

The accidents started when he became an actor. He didn’t do that because he was burning with theatrical ambition. Nor did he star in “3rd Rock from the Sun” because he longed to do comedy. He didn’t manage a 25-year marriage to Mary Yeager because they had a lot in common. Nor did he choose his latest role on NBC’s sitcom “Twenty Good Years” because he wanted to do television again.

“The only really stupid mistake I ever made, the only stupid choice I ever made as an actor was, in late 1979 I chose to do a little play off-Broadway at the Public Theater written by a friend of mine instead of (Harold) Pinter’s `Betrayal’ on Broadway,” explains Lithgow, his long legs stretching half-way across the couch on which he sits.

“I did this little play that was a total flop, lasted three weeks. `Betrayal’ was this huge hit. I was miserable. I only found out afterward that my agent, who helped persuade me to make this choice, also represented the director of this little play. I was, like, `How could I be so stupid?’

“Well, I was available, it turned out, to do a little job that rehearsed in Los Angeles for three weeks and then shot in Texas. And during those three weeks in L.A. was when I met Mary. If I’d made the right choice, I would’ve done `Betrayal’ for a year. I wouldn’t have these two wonderful children (with Mary). I wouldn’t have this 25-year marriage. My whole life would be completely different, yet I would not have made the one mistake that I made.”

Lithgow has been bumbling into success all his life. He had no intention of returning to sitcom-land when he was asked to costar in “Twenty Good Years,” premiering Oct. 11.

“The subject: 60-year-olds panicking about growing old, I loved that subject,” he smiles. “And I thought, `Where else am I going to find something that suits me so well at this stage of my life?’ So I said sure, I’ll get on the train and we’ll see if we get to the station. I’ll go along with the development process. That was a year ago August and it all fell into place at the very last moment after falling apart several times.”

Lithgow grew up the son of the director of the Antioch Shakespeare Festival and appeared in small parts as a youth. He had no desire to be an actor, but while he was studying at Harvard, he fell in with the theater crowd.

He dabbled in several small theatrical projects. “I had one particular performance, which was so sensational as a sophomore in college. Of all things it was playing the lead in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, `Utopia Limited,’ a very obscure one. The number I did was such a huge hit, it opened the second act, that the audience wouldn’t stop applauding. I was alone onstage, and they just continued to roar and applaud. I always said it was during that applause that I decided to be an actor ... Some of the best jobs I ever had have been jobs where I said, `Why have I been resisting this?’ In a way the best way to do anything is to be drafted.”

Already divorced and the father of a son, Lithgow had no intention of marrying when he met Mary, a UCLA professor of economic history. “We’re extremely different from each other,” he rolls his eyes.

“She’s a professor and I’m an actor, and those two people were never intended to marry. Their lives are so incongruous with each other. She’s feisty and combative, and I’m kind of phlegmatic and accommodating. We’re just very different. But I can’t imagine living without her, nor she me,” says Lithgow, who’s already talked with Mary—who’s at their place in Montana—three times today.

“We were fixed up together by an old mutual friend. She was teaching in L.A. and I was acting in New York with no intention of ever leaving. And when I got married to her I came to be a faculty spouse, not to be a Hollywood star.”

But he did become a Hollywood star—again by a happy accident. The film, “The World According to Garp,” in which Lithgow (who’s 6-foot-4) played a transsexual former football player, earned him an Academy Award nomination and Hollywood’s undivided attention.

“It was amazing,” says Lithgow, who’s dressed in a beige suit, a lavender and navy striped tie and socks to match. “Within the year I was a big movie star but I had never intended to move to L.A. `Garp’ came out two months after I moved out here, and boom! That was an all-New York operation except for Robin Williams; everybody in `Garp’ was a New York actor.”

He adapted nicely. “I felt good about everything ... it’s been a crazy adventure. Everything I’ve done isn’t what I expected to do, but it’s all been fun.”


CBS’ sitcom “The Class” is about third-graders who’ve grown to be attractive Gen X’s. They meet again after 20 years for a reunion. Jesse Tyler Ferguson—who plays Richie Velch, whose life has been spinning downward since grade school—says it was a revelation when he attended his own high school reunion. “They all got very fat. But I had a FedEx Kinko’s commercial running at the time so they knew I wasn’t doing very well. I can’t wait until my 15th year when they roll out the red carpet for me. Or NOT.”


William H. Macy serves as narrator on PBS’s kids’ show, “Curious George.” Macy is married to “Desperate Housewife” Felicity Huffman and they have two daughters, ages 4 and 6. Even though they make their living on television, Macy says he and Huffman don’t allow the children to watch the tube. “My wife and I are big, fat movie stars, so we have wonderful nannies,” he says.

“We decided that they wouldn’t watch TV until they can read, which is imminent. Sophia is just about to learn how to read. And we did it just because we can. Television is very powerful, and I think more to the point, that’s what’s great about `Curious George’—your kids can watch `Curious George,’ you can leave the room, and you don’t have to worry. It’s not that—I love the Pixar films, but one must admit that they are—they’re filled with double entendres. They’re designed to please parents and keep them in the theaters and for the children. `Curious George’ is for kids, which is not to say that it’s not funny.”


Howie Mandel, host of “Deal or No Deal,” says the show has changed his life. Even though Mandel has been a standup comedian for 26 years, he says this is the most exciting job he’s ever had. “I’ve never been more blessed in my life, especially at this time in my career and in my life. This is so out of left field for me. And it has obviously opened up a lot of opportunities and a lot of notoriety—more than any other job I’ve ever done besides, you know, it’s just a pleasure to go to work each day. It is so much fun.”

Mandel suffers from an obsessive-compulsive disorder and has a phobia about germs. It’s something that he doesn’t mention on the NBC show. “I just don’t shake hands (with contestants),” he says. The fact that I get to talk about my OCD, I do that a couple times a week with a professional therapist. I don’t need a national TV show.”


© 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

//Mixed media