John Lithgow's memoir, the appropriately-titled Drama: An Actor's Education (Harper Collins) is the story of a lifetime quite literally lived in the theater. The very first page features a photo of Lithgow's first stage performance, at age three in a Japanese-inspired production of The Emperor's New Clothes. What follows is a mirthful and witty account of his colorful childhood, through his time at Harvard and early acting career, landing at his first major film success, The World According to Garp.
Much of the book revolves around his father, Arthur Lithgow, a producer of Shakespeare festivals who eventually became the artistic director of Princeton's McCarter Theatre. Owing to the ever-tenuous employment of the actor-manager, the Lithgow clan moved every two years or so, making the author somewhat of a theater brat. This would greatly influence his more conservative life choices in his twenties, even in the midst of the tremulous 1960s.
Indeed, while his Harvard classmates were getting high to the music of Bob Dylan, Lithgow was reveling in the dorky lyrical splendor of Gilbert and Sullivan. A true Anglophile, Lithgow spent the late 1960s studying drama in London, returning home with a lilting British accent. As it happens, this would serve him well commercially: six of his early Broadway roles were British characters. As Joe Papp once bluntly relayed to him, "Everybody thinks you're a limey!" Since then, Lithgow has become renowned for his crisp and commanding, yet thoroughly American diction.
Married at age 21 and a father shortly after, Lithgow experienced what he calls a "late adolescence" in his thirties, admitting that out of 20 major plays in which he appeared in the 1970s, he conducted love affairs with women in eight of them, eventually leading to the breakup of his marriage. (Lithgow seems to intend this a cautionary tale to live young while it is still appropriate.)
In addition to being a talented actor, Lithgow proves to be a skilled wordsmith; his wit and charm drip off the page. He once worked as a curtain puller for Marcel Marceau during a one-night stop at the McCarter, and Lithgow recalls how he mishandled the pulley system, nearly causing the whole curtain to come down. "Predictably, the famous mime said nothing." As he has long proved on the stage, John Lithgow is a master storyteller.