Equally versed in comedy and drama, John Lithgow has won raves for his work in World According to Garp, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Dexter.
A multitalented performer, John Lithgow was born on October 19, 1945, in Rochester, New York. He first found success on Broadway in the early 1970s. By the 1980s, Lithgow had earned fame for his critically acclaimed roles in such films as The World According to Garp and Footloose. He scored big hits on television as well, starring in the popular 90s sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun and winning Golden Globe and Emmy awards for his guest appearance on Dexter in 2010. In 2016 Lithgow appeared in Netflix's The Crown and received a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal as Winston Churchill.
John Lithgow was born into a theatrical family. His father, Arthur, worked as a producer and director and his mother, Sarah Jane, acted. Lithgow moved with his family several times for his father's work, and it was in one of his father's productions that a 6-year-old Lithgow first took the stage. But while he appeared in a number of Shakespearean plays growing up, Lithgow was more interested in becoming a fine artist. "I actually didn't want to go into the theater; I wanted to resist it. It was the family business," Lithgow later reflected. "I grew up doing a huge amount of acting in my dad's companies; but through my whole childhood, I wanted to be an artist—a painter and a printmaker. But I got to college and fell into the theater gang, and that was that."
Lithgow switched career paths while a student at Harvard College, when he appeared in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Utopia Limited. The thespian was won over by the adulation from the audience for his performance. After that show, he decided to become an actor. After graduation in 1967, Lithgow went to England on a Fulbright Scholarship. There, he studied at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Star of the Stage
When he returned to the United States, Lithgow worked as a director for his father's theatrical company. He sought out acting roles, too, but with little success at first. In 1972, however, Lithgow landed a role that would launch his career: He played rugby star Kendall in The Changing Room, in a play by David Storey.
Originally performing at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, Lithgow stayed with The Changing Room when it moved to Broadway in 1973. The show brought him critical acclaim, and his first Tony Award. More significant stage roles soon followed, ranging from comedies, such as the humorous My Fat Friend with Lynn Redgrave, to dramas like the revival of Anna Christie with Liv Ullmann.
Film and Television Success
Lithgow's film career got its start with help from his friend Brian De Palma. De Palma recommended Lithgow for his first film role in Dealing (1972), and later cast him in his own thriller, Obsession (1976). But it was their next collaboration that raised Lithgow's profile in Hollywood. In 1981's Blow Out, he gave an impressive performance as a cold-blooded killer. Lithgow also wowed critics and audiences alike with his portrayal of a transsexual former football player in The World According to Garp, starring Robin Williams. He netted his first Academy Award nomination for the film.
Lithgow appeared to be on a cinematic hot streak, continuing to take on a range of parts. In the 1983 tearjerker Terms of Endearment, he played an awkward and bumbling banker who has an affair with Debra Winger's character. Lithgow then showed his stern authoritarian side in the popular teen film Footloose (1984), starring Kevin Bacon. In the film, he tackled the role of a preacher who bans rock 'n' roll in his small community.
In the 1990s, Lithgow became a great success on the small screen as well. He starred in the popular sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun with Jane Curtin, Kristen Johnston, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and French Stewart. As Dr. Dick Solomon, Lithgow played an alien who comes to Earth and disguises himself as a college professor. The show lasted for six seasons and brought Lithgow a wave of accolades, including three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe Award.
During the run of 3rd Rock from the Sun, Lithgow took time out for other projects. He released a collection of children's music, Singing' in the Bathtub in 1999. Lithgow also lent his voice to several animated films, including 2000's Rugrats in Paris and 2001's Shrek.
In 2009, Lithgow again shook up television with his creepy portrayal of the Trinity Killer on the popular Showtime crime series Dexter, starring Michael C. Hall. Lithgow took to the stage the following year with his own one-man show called John Lithgow: Stories by Heart, which he continued to tour well into 2011. Still working in films as well, he played James Franco's father in the film Rise of the Apes (2011).
Outside of acting, Lithgow developed a successful career as a children's author and songwriter. He wrote numerous books for young readers, including Marsupial Sue and The Remarkable Farkle McBride. In 2011, Lithgow aimed at more mature audiences with Drama: An Actor's Education. In 2016 the actor appeared as British prime minister Winston Churchill in Netflix's The Crown, for which he received a Golden Globe nomination for his supporting role.
Lithgow married Dr. Mary Yeager, a UCLA professor, in 1981. The couple had two children together, and currently divide their time between Los Angeles and New York City. He also has a son from his first marriage to Phoebe Jean Taynton.