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.
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.
One of the most startling things in this Lithgow interview is his regret that he ever did his first two film roles - violent ones that launched his career in Hollywood. Both were parts as homicidal maniacs in the Brian De Palma films ``Obsession'' and ``Blow Out.'' Lithgow says now, ``I think a lot of Brian's films are very alarming. He may have put it behind him, but certainly five or six of his films of 10 years ago were almost obsessive meditations on violence, mostly to women....''
In ``Blow Out,'' in which Lithgow played a sadistic killer, he remembers, ``We shot all night the night I did that execution murder. I stabbed that Liberty Bell [design] into the abdomen of that girl. ... I was just sickened by that experience. I think nowadays I would not play such a part.'' He adds, ``But at that stage I was ready to do a role in one of Brian's films.''
Lithgow took his first bow at age 3, as one of Nora's children in Ibsen's ``A Doll's House,'' with his mother playing Nora and his father playing Torvald. Born in Rochester, N.Y., he teethed on Shakespeare when his family moved to Ohio, where his father directed Shakespeare festivals. By the time he reached Harvard, Lithgow knew his role in life was acting. On a Fulbright, he studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, then interned with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court Theatre. Since he hit his stride as an actor, he has collected awards like seashells: Oscar nominations for ``Garp'' and ``Terms of Endearment,'' a Tony Award for ``The Changing Room,'' and an Emmy Award for his TV performance in ``The Doll'' as part of the ``Amazing Stories'' series.
In an age of films like ``Rambo'' and ``The Terminator,'' the rugged-looking Lithgow plays roles that usually have an underlying vulnerability, no matter what package they come in. He admits that ``one of the things that's unusual about me as an actor - whether it's an asset or not - is a funny incongruity between my size and my sensibility. I'm built like a professional athlete, and I have the sensibility of a 12-year-old girl.'' By that he means, ``I'm an emotional person. Things affect me very deeply and quickly.'' His temperament works for him, he says, because ``the whole business of acting is exhibiting emotions and tapping other people's emotions. It's all a matter of just marshaling all that, controlling it, and using it.... It's like losing control and then using it. That's what people are seeking when they're coming to see a story being told. The movies that people love the most are the the ones that make them laugh out of control or cry out of control. They want to be transported.''
Lithgow, whose emotions as a father also spill over into his acting, was here in Washington doing ``M. Butterfly'' at the National Theater before Broadway. He said he had just put his two small children on the plane back to California, ``and all day long I've been feeling fragile.'' These children, Nathan and Phoebe, are by his second marriage, to UCLA history professor Mary Yeager. His teen-age son, Ian, by his first marriage (to Jean Taynton), is toying with the idea of acting.
Lithgow has also done some directing and is writing a screenplay, a period comedy he hopes to finish during some time out after ``M.Butterfly'' and before his two new films open. In addition to ``Distant Thunder,'' he's also done ``Out Cold,'' a black comedy with Teri Garr and Randy Quaid, in which he plays ``a boob of a butcher who mistakenly thinks he's murdered his partner. It's a very bizarre and, I think, hilarious film,'' directed by Malcolm Mowbray, who did ``A Private Function.'' But the question is: Will we recognize John Lithgow in it?