Lithgow Lets Loose on Stage and Page
An Interview with John Lithgow

By Carol Band

Well known as an actor, John Lithgow has garnered acclaim for his roles on both stage and screen. With numerous awards, including two Tony Awards and two Oscar nominations, Lithgow is one of the most versatile actors of his generation. But it was his role as the wacky alien dad and high commander in NBC’s hit comedy series 3rd Rock from the Sun that won him multiple Emmys, a Golden Globe Award and two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and made him famous in living rooms across the nation.

Although adults may know the 59-year-old Lithgow from his impressive body of work on Broadway, TV and in the movies, children are more likely to recognize his voice as that of the evil Lord Farquaad in the animated film Shrek. If they haven’t seen the movies, they might have sung along with his rollicking children’s CDs, or they might even have read one of his five immensely popular children’s books.

“Writing children’s books is not something that I pursued. It pursued me,” Lithgow explains. His first book, The Remarkable Farkle McBride, published in 2000, was purely accidental.

“I was writing a children’s introduction to the symphony,” he recalls. “Soon, I realized that I had the text for a book. And once the first one was successful, others followed.”

Since then, the prolific Lithgow has penned four other children’s stories, as well as a book for parents. His newest creation is a whimsical storybook, Carnival of the Animals. This, like his first book, also began with a piece of classical music.

When New York City Ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon set out to create a new ballet based on Camille Saint-Saens’ famous orchestral suite, “Carnival of the Animals,” he called on Lithgow to create a premise that would turn the composition into a story for children.

“I had worked with Christopher on [the play] Sweet Smell of Success,” Lithgow recalls. “He’s a brilliant choreographer and it’s a great piece of classical music, so I was glad to be a part of it.”

Coming up with a way to bring Saint-Saens’ music to life, however, presented a challenge.

“There needed to be a story idea that would link all of the different animals,” Lithgow explains. “So the Museum of Natural History was a logical choice. It’s someplace that I’m very familiar with and that I’ve been to often. I love the dioramas of the large mammals and the underwater scenes with the manatee. The museum was a favorite place to bring my own children when they were young.”

Lithgow’s narrative, written in rhyme, tells the tale of Oliver, a boy who sneaks off during a field trip to the Museum of Natural History and hides there for the night. In his dreams, he is visited by animals from the museum exhibits who bear an uncanny resemblance to the people he knows – including the school librarian and his parents.

Lithgow not only narrated the story during the ballet’s performances in New York, but he also danced the comedic role of Mable Buntz, the larger-than-life school nurse who appears as a dancing elephant, swathed in billows of gray chiffon. His performance was hailed by Variety as one of the ballet’s most delightful sequences.

“I performed during all seven shows in the spring and will do it again, the next time the ballet is staged,” he promises. It is scheduled to return to Lincoln Center for five performances in January. If you can’t get to New York City to catch the show, buy the book.

“The last two pages of the book show the cast of the ballet with me in my great gray gown as Nurse Buntz,” the author reveals.

Here’s how Lithgow’s poetry describes the scene:

Mable Buntz, the school nurse, lumbered into the hall,

The scourge of each virus and germ.

Though Nurse Buntz was decidedly wider than tall

Her size didn’t hamper her movements at all

When she daintily waltzed at the Elephant Ball

A flirtatious and pert pachyderm.

Each whimsical stanza introduces a musical composition that corresponds to the story. A CD with the orchestral score and Lithgow’s narration is included with the book.

All Kinds of Art

Lithgow’s poetry displays an obvious love of language and he doesn’t hesitate to introduce children to such words as “cantankerous,” “apparitions” and “tremulous.” The rhymes are clever, unexpected and seemingly effortless; Lithgow, however, describes the process as “agonizing.”

Although the Carnival of the Animals takes place in the Museum of Natural History, Lithgow says that unlike the character, Oliver, he would rather spend the night in an art museum.

“I’d sleep under a Vermeer,” he muses.

Lithgow adores art, and wherever he travels the local art museum is always on his itinerary. In fact, the actor cum author once intended to be a painter himself and, as a teenager, he was involved with the Art Students League in New York.

“I don’t know why, but early on, I wanted to be an artist,” he recalls. “That was a serious contention until I went to college. My parents were wonderful, very supportive of whatever I wanted to do. When I wanted to paint, they made sure that I had really good art supplies and access to good instructors.”

Theatrical Roots

It’s no surprise that Lithgow ultimately pursued a career on the stage though. His theatrical roots run deep. His mother was a former actress and his father was a theater director who once headed the Princeton McCarter Theater and, during John’s childhood, produced a series of Shakespeare festivals.

“Shakespeare is like mother’s milk to me,” Lithgow confides. “I was in 20 Shakespearean plays by the time I was 20. It was the family business.” In fact, young John made his stage debut at age 6 in his father’s production of Henry VI.

Lithgow’s poetry displays an obvious love of language and he doesn’t hesitate to introduce children to such words as “cantankerous,” “apparitions” and “tremulous.” The rhym

“When I became interested in theater, my parents were wonderfully supportive but also full of dread because they knew what was in store for me.”

Lithgow attended Harvard University and received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. While in England, he performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court Theatre. From there, he returned to New York and began acting on Broadway, building a career that has spanned three decades.

Best Role of All

But nothing has brought him more satisfaction than his role of being a parent to Phoebe, age 20, Nathan, 22, and Ian, 32 (from his first marriage). “My only regret is that we didn’t have more kids,” Lithgow sighs. “I came from a family of four kids, but my wife and I just started too late.”

Lithgow might have started late, but his three children never seemed to notice. “I enjoyed my kids and also just entertained them,” he says. “I sang and played guitar – really mediocre guitar.”

He dismisses his musical ability, but his CDs, Singin’ in the Bathtub and Farkle & Friends, have been praised by critics, parents and kids alike. Listen to these CDs and it’s easy to hear the artist’s inner-child singing loud and clear.

“I’m a fun father, but not a good father,” he admits. “The hard decisions always went to my wife.”

Some of the best times Lithgow recalls were family car trips.

“My children are older now, but we used to take great car trips,” he recalls fondly. “My wife is from Montana and we have a second home there. When the kids were younger, we drove from L.A. to Montana quite a few times, stopping at all the national parks. When the kids were little, we planned everything in advance, but after a while the trips became quite impulsive. We went white-water rafting and camped out. No videos, no television. Sure, the kids wrangled and fought in the backseat, but they were great trips.”

“We had wonderful birthday parties, too,” he adds.

That’s no surprise. In A Lithgow Palooza! 101 Ways to Entertain and Inspire Your Kids, published earlier this year, John describes a party he designed for his daughter Phoebe’s 16th birthday: “It was a paper chase that covered the entire campus of UCLA.” He has also staged treasure hunts at the National Gallery of Art, constructed an enormous castle out of refrigerator boxes and spent an entire day building a mammoth sand castle.

Promoting this spirit of play is one of the reasons that Lithgow wrote the Palooza book. “I wanted to give parents some ideas of ways to relate to their kids. Then, if it doesn’t work out, they can blame it on me,” he chuckles.

The Power of Example … and a Good Story

Lithgow admits that it isn’t always easy to play or to engage your own kids in an activity. “As kids get older, they don’t always want you around. Sometimes, the best you can do is to set an example,” he adds a bit more seriously.

One of the best ways to do that, he says, is to pick up a book. “If you read in front of your kids, it’s very likely that they’ll become readers, too.”

Lithgow credits his own parents for fostering his love of literature and books. “I have fond memories of my dad reading chapters aloud from great thick books: The Jungle Book, something called A Teller of Tales and, of course, Dr. Seuss – probably the first editions,” Lithgow jokes. “He read the funnies to us, too.”

Lithgow carried on his father’s tradition of reading aloud by reading to his own kids. “I never read them anything that I wrote,” he confided, “but I read them all of the great books: Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, everything by Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss as well.” Lithgow’s passion for books has landed him a gig as this year’s spokesperson for National Children’s Book Week (Nov. 15-21). In true Lithgow fashion, he penned a poem that will be featured on promotional “Let’s Book!” bookmarks.

I need a good book
I need a good story

I need a good book

The kind that explodes

Off the shelf

I need some good writing

Alive and exciting

To contemplate all by myself

I need a good novel

I need a good read

I probably need

Two or three

I need a good tale

Of love and betrayal

Or perhaps an adventure at sea

I need a good saga

I need a good yarn

A momentous and mightily

or slight one

But with thousands and thousands

and thousands of books

I need someone to tell me

The right one.

If you want to spend some quality time with your children, curl up with a book by John Lithgow … or slip in one of his CDs and sing some silly songs … or laugh out loud at Shrek … or catch an episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun … or rent Harry and the Hendersons … or watch Lithgow dance in Carnival of the Animals. The High Commander won’t steer you wrong.


Books by John Lithgow

Carnival of Animals, Simon & Schuster, 2004.

A Lithgow Palooza! 101 Ways to Entertain and Inspire Your Kids, Fireside Books, 2004.

I’m a Manatee, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Micawber, Simon & Schuster, 2002.

Marsupial Sue, Simon & Schuster, 2001.

The Remarkable Farkle McBride, Simon & Schuster, 2000.

CDs by John Lithgow

Farkle & Friends, Rhino Records, 2002.

Singin’ in the Bathtub, Sony, 1999.

On the Web
For more information on John Lithgow and his many creative activities, check out

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    Carol Band is a regular contributor to United Parenting Publications.

    October 2004

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