John Lithgow

Active - 1972 - 2021  |   Born - Oct 19, 1945 in Rochester, New York, United States  |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Thriller, Children's/Family, Science & Technology

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Biography by Sandra Brennan

A distinguished actor of stage, television, and movies who is at home playing everything from menacing villains, big-hearted transsexuals, and loopy aliens, John Lithgow is also a composer and performer of children's songs, a Harvard graduate, a talented painter, and a devoted husband and father: in short, he is a true Renaissance man.

Once hailed by the Wall Street Journal as "the film character actor of his generation," Lithgow is the son of a theater director who once headed Princeton's McCarter Theater and produced a series of Shakespeare festivals in Ohio, where Lithgow was six when he made his first theatrical bow in Henry VI, Part 3. His parents raised Lithgow in a loving home that encouraged artistic self-expression and took a broad view of the world. As a youth, Lithgow was passionate about painting and at age 16, he was actively involved with the Art Students League in New York. When the acting bug bit, Lithgow's father was supportive. After Lithgow graduated from Harvard, he received a Fulbright scholarship to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art; while in England, Lithgow also worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and for the Royal Court Theatre. He returned to the U.S. in the early '70s and worked on Broadway where he won his first Tony and a Drama Desk Award for his part in The Changing Room (1973). Lithgow remained in New York for many years, establishing himself as one of Broadway's most respected stars and would go on to appear in at least one play per year through 1982. He would subsequently receive two more Tony nominations for Requiem for a Heavyweight and M. Butterfly. He made his first film appearance in Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972). The film itself was an inauspicious affair as were his other subsequent early efforts, though by the early '80s, his film roles improved and diversified dramatically. Though capable of essaying subtle, low-key characters, Lithgow excelled in over-the-top parts as the next decade in his career demonstrates.

He got his first real break and a Best Supporting Actor nomination when he played macho football player-turned-sensitive woman Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp (1982). In 1983, he provided one of the highlights of Twilight Zone--The Movie as a terrified airline passenger and earned a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in Terms of Endearment where he appeared with Shirley Maclaine and Jack Nicholson, as well as playing a fiery preacher in Footloose. That year, he won his first Emmy nomination for his work in the scary nuclear holocaust drama The Day After. In 1984, he played the crazed Dr. Lizardo in the cult favorite The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. In Ricochet (1992), Lithgow proved himself a terrifying villain with his portrayal of a psychopathic killer hell-bent for revenge against Denzel Washington, the man who incarcerated him. In 1990, he made Babysong video tapes of his performing old and new children's songs on the guitar and banjo. Though he had already established himself on television as a guest star, Lithgow gained a large and devoted following when he was cast as an alien captain who, along with his clueless crew, attempts to pass for human in the fresh, well-written NBC sitcom Third Rock From the Sun (1996). The role has won him multiple Emmys and Golden Globe awards. When that show's run ended in 2001, Lithgow kept busy with roles in such high-profile features as The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004) (in which he essayed the role of comedy legend Blake Edwards), Kinsey, Dreamgirls, and Leap Year. Yet through it all the small screen still beckoned, and in 2010 the Lithgow won an Emmy for his role as Arthur Mitchell (aka The Trinity Killer) on the hit Showtime series Dexter. A poignant turn as a once-brilliant scientist stricken with Alzheimer's disease revealed a gentler side of Lithgow in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and in 2012 he reminded us that he could still get big laughs with roles in both This is 40 (Judd Apatow's semi-sequel to Knocked Up) and the Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis political comedy The Campaign.

When not busy working on the show, in theater, or in feature films, Lithgow is at home playing "Superdad" to his children and his wife, a tenured college professor at U.C.L.A.

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  • Made his stage debut at age 6 in his father's production of Henry VI, Part III.
  • Received a Fulbright scholarship to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. 
  • A 2004 Grammy Award nominee in the Best Spoken Word Album for Children category for his Carnival of the Animals.
  • Inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2005.
  • Has written children's books (among them Marsupial Sue and I'm a Manatee), recorded children's albums (including Singin' in the Bathtub and Farkle and Friends) and hosted children's concerts at Carnegie Hall.