John Lithgow has had many roles over the years: actor, children's author, and even minister. Lithgow discusses them all in the following One on 1 report with Budd Mishkin.
Of all of John Lithgow's roles, playing the part of minister was perhaps the most shocking to him.
His goddaughter arranged for the temporary ordination on the Internet so that he could officiate her wedding in the Hamptons.
"There was about a three-month period where I could have married anybody on eastern Long Island, but that's long since passed," says Lithgow. "However, I do see that people are treating me with a good deal more reverence."
Lithgow is in the final month of a limited run of the Arthur Miller play "All My Sons," preparing for what he calls his "post partum depression."
"I am accustomed to eight standing ovations a week and people cheering and roaring and crying and thanking me," he says. "It's intoxicating and corrupting."
In the play, he plays Joe Keller, a businessman who knowingly sold defective airplane parts to the government during World War II – with tragic results. Lithgow says it's a different role for him. He had doubts whether he was right for it, and if others would think he was right for it.
"Because of my background and my classical training and my recent history of comedy, I think people's perception of me is a kind of arch and affected actor," Lithgow explains. "I'm a very actorish actor."
That perception comes from a long career, in shows like "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels;" movies like "The World According to Garp," for which he was nominated for an Academy Award"; and the hit television sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun."
"I'm less comfortable watching myself in serious roles than being completely zany," he says. "I think I laugh harder at myself in ''3rd Rock' than anybody I know. That's my guilty pleasure, watching myself on '3rd Rock from the Sun.'"
But for a much younger generation, John Lithgow isn't the guy from "3rd Rock" or "Garp" or "All My Sons," he is recognized as a children's book author. His latest title is "I Got Two Dogs."
There are CDs and concerts for kids, as well.
The works grew out of his efforts to entertain his own four children, who when they were younger, occasionally offered dad some acting advice.
Lithgow is the classic bi-coastal actor. He says he lives in Los Angeles for love – his wife is a professor at University of California Los Angeles. They have an apartment in New York City because Lithgow is a constant presence on Broadway.
And, he will always be connected to the city thanks to one memorable line in "Terms of Endearment."
"I remember it jumping out of the script when I read it and speaking it on the set when we did the first camera rehearsal," he says. "I just knew, this is a great line."
Lithgow came from a theater family. And he started acting young, really young.
"I think I was about 2 years old. I literally don't remember anything about the experience. But I'm told I was very good," Lithgow says.
His father ran regional theaters. So, as a child, Lithgow moved around a lot.
By the time he graduated Princeton High School, he'd already attended about eight other schools in Ohio and Massachusetts. Then he attended Harvard University, where a solo in a Gilbert and Sullivan show sealed the deal.
"I'm alone on stage, waiting to begin the next scene and they simply didn't stop. And I was just standing there alone, listening to this applause wash over me," he recalls. "I've always said that it was during that applause that I decided to become an actor."
He went off to Great Britain to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Much like the son in his latest play "All My Sons," his feelings about his father, a man he once idolized, changed.
"When I was 23, back from England and full of all English academic theater training and thinking that nobody could touch me, I became very disdainful of my dad," says Lithgow. "I ended up really revering my father and I had a higher opinion of his career than he did. I had to bawl him out when he was an old man and say: 'you are a man of great achievement. Don't low-rate yourself.'"
Back in New York, Lithgow had little or no theater work for five years. He worked at the radio station WBAI producing and performing radio satires.
"We did this appalling thing we called A Desecration of the Memory of J. Edgar Hoover, the day after he died," he says.
In 1973, at the age of 27, he finally debuted on Broadway in "The Changing Room." Three weeks later, he won a Tony Award.
"There was a certain feeling of well, got that over with!" he says. "It's like I don't have to stew that I haven't won one of these. You know, they're very arbitrary, these awards. It's very easy to dismiss them, but it's a lot easier to dismiss them if you've already won one."
His days of unemployment were over, but the success was mixed with some sadness.
"My father began to hit professional difficulties at a time just as my first successes came along and I always felt a terrible anxiety about that or I did at first," Lithgow says. "That just disappeared when I realized how proud he was, how much he loved to see that."
He was working constantly in the theater, and then in movies, like "The World According to Garp" and "Terms of Endearment."
In the 1990s, he won Emmys for his role as Dr. Dick Solomon on the popular television sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun."
In the past 10 years, with his kids grown and out of the house, he's been a constant on Broadway, winning a Tony for "Sweet Smell of Success." But he says even as a successful actor, he has not lost the sense of impending rejection.
"The worst thing you have to deal with in this profession is being rejected by people you have contempt for. Not getting jobs that you don't even want," he says. "There's nothing quite so awful and you have to live with that all the time."
When Lithgow is not acting, he's often engaged in his original love – painting.
The spice of his career, and his life, is indeed its variety. He says his motto might be "one thing leads to another."
In the last 10 years, he's gained a new audience as a children's book author and performer, which led to a request to write and narrate a story for a ballet, and to dance in it.
"How could you possibly think that I had ever planned to be a guest dancer with the New York City ballet? It just came falling out of the sky and you just stay open to it and go along for the ride," says Lithgow.