John Lithgow, character actor. Maybe you can't place the face, but the roles are indelible
JOHN LITHGOW, the tallest chameleon in the world, is due any minute now, and I am not sure who to look for. He could be the gentle banker moonstruck by Debra Winger in ``Terms of Endearment,'' or Roberta Muldoon, the hulking transsexual football player in ``The World According to Garp,'' or the Disneyesque daddy in ``Harry and the Hendersons,'' or the lethally mad scientist, Doctor Lizardo, in ``Buckaroo Bonzai.'' He might even be French diplomat Ren'e Gallimard, his starring role in the play ``M. Butterfly,'' which opens Sunday on Broadway. Like Robert Duvall, another celebrated American actor, Lithgow wears the faces of his characters so convincingly in films and theater that his own face is often unrecognized by fans. So heads don't turn as John Lithgow lopes into the Caf'e Espresso for conversation and chocolate espresso. Lithgow in person is different from every role you've ever seen him in.Skip to next paragraph
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At 6 feet, 4 inches, he's nearly tall enough to bump into chandeliers. He looks like a graying college basketball player-turned-professor, until you note the rakish tilt of his Irish tweed cap. That suggests a rebel in John Ford's movie ``The Informer.'' He is dressed in darkness - black tweed overcoat, gray-and-black striped shirt and trousers, inky sweater, and elegant black Botticelli boots, which he displays proudly. All this darkness frames a bright face, faintly ruddy like a skier's, with large, expressive hazel eyes and a ready laugh. Under the smile and the pleasant, open face are glints of a gritty toughness not visible in some of his roles.
Lithgow shares the secret of his disappearing act in roles. ``What I feel that acting is, is being completely different this time out, and being surprising, and putting together a set of extraordinary new characteristics this time.'' He feels most at home playing star character roles instead of star leading men.
A good example of the role very different from himself but which he puts on like a cloak is in ``Distant Thunder,'' to be released this fall. ``Well, I mean you don't set out to be unrecognizable,'' he begins, then explains how he met a lot of the ``bush vets'' this Rick Rosenthal film is about. They are Vietnam veterans ``defeated by the war, turning their backs on society and living in the woods.'' Lithgow studied them, found ``a pastiche of characteristics'' to use for his role: Many are former alcoholics who fuel on coffee and have nicotine-stained teeth and fingers, matted hair, and beards. Some of them have killed people in war and ``have a kind of contained and tightly coiled violence in them,'' he explains. ``One thing they all have in common is these real bad voices, and I sort of took this voice...'' - out it comes - hoarse, rasping, filtered through sandpaper, like a stranger at the table. ``And then I just try to inhabit him. Before you know it, you've left ordinary John way behind.
``I just go through that procedure every time out. It's one of the difficult things about playing in `M. Butterfly.' He's not one person; he's a chameleon up there on stage,'' says Lithgow, who plays the French diplomat in love with the Peking Opera's ``Madama Butterfly,'' later revealed as a gay geisha who ensnares him into spying for the Chinese. Lithgow gives a powerful performance in a role that playwright David Henry Hwang based on an actual French espionage trial.