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John Lithgow on His Best Work, Breakthroughs, and his New First Act

John Lithgow in his one-man show, Stories by Heart.

The Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor John Lithgow first performed his original one-man show in 2008 at Lincoln Center -- on the dark nights. 

Over the years, Stories by Heart has evolved, but its underpinnings are the same.  The show emerged after Lithgow moved home to care for his aging parents and discovered that reading bedtime stories to them made them laugh, and he speculates, may even have lengthened his father’s life.    


RLH:  You said [reading bedtime stories to them] reminded you of why you do what you do.  So why is that?  Why do you do what you do?

JL:  Well, I deal in emotional exercise -- giving people a chance to connect with performers.  There’s something in us that longs to see stories acted out.  We do it every day.  And there is no culture has ever existed that hasn’t had some version of that transaction between a performer and an audience.  In my mind, it’s a gift.  An actor gives a performance and he gives an audience the experience of emotional connection and emotional stimulation and excitement whether it’s making them laugh or cry or scream out in horror. 

It’s very gratifying – but that gratification should be only half of the gratification that the audience gets out of it. So that’s why I do what I do.

RLH:  Have you ever been offered a role that you never would have thought of yourself playing, and you read the script and thought, “Ooh.  I’m not even sure I can pull this off”?

JL:  Yes.  Many times.  And so many of those times I’ve done the best work I’ve done.  It all started with one of the first Equity jobs I ever had when I was only 24 or 25 years old.  I was asked to play Lenny in Of Mice and Men and I thought, “Geez, why are they hiring me?  I guess it’s because I’m tall.” 

But I wasn’t going to say no.  And it turned out to be an amazing experience. 

I do think that very often people think of things for you that you would never think of for yourself.  In fact, I think it’s almost axiomatic if you’re scared of doing something, it’s likely to be a breakthrough for you.

RLH:  Have you, will you ever reach a point where you say to yourself, “I got this,” and “I know what I’m doing and if people like it, that’s great.  And if they don’t, I don’t care.  This is a good experience for me.” 

JL:  It’s tough, the acting business, because sometimes it’s so glorious and sometimes it’s so miserable.  And those miserable experiences – you just have to take something away from them – even if it’s just a friend.  I’ve done a couple of horrible movies where I’ve huddled with somebody else and spent the entire time complaining.  Well, what did I get out of that experience?  A friend for life. 

Gosh, I was sort of exiled to Brazil once.  Five months in the Brazilian jungle making a movie that nobody ended up seeing...

RLH:  What was that movie?

JL:  Well, I’m not – as I say – I’m not telling you (laughter)… I knew immediately this was not going to be what I hoped it would be.   Well, what did I do?  I decided to learn Portuguese and travel around every time I got five or six days free and see as much of Brazil as I could possibly see.  And I ended up regarding it as a really great, vivid experience even though it was a very disappointing work experience. 

RLH:  You recently changed the first act of your one-man show, Stories by Heart, which plays Kenan Auditorium at UNCW this Friday… you swapped out a Ring Lardner story for something else.  Tell us about that change.

JL:  It’s a two-act evening, and each of the acts features one major short story – which I do as a kind of one-man performance.

It’s a wonderful horror story called The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, which is a pretty familiar old horror story.

This is how I end Act One now.  It just gets the audience.  I just have them riveted now.

And, of course, the next one is hilarious.  It’s a P.G. Wodehouse story -- Uncle Fred Flits By.

RLH:  Once again, John Lithgow, thanks so much for joining us today.

JL:  Well, it’s a pleasure talking to you, Rachel...


John Lithgow's one-man show, Stories by Heart, plays Kenan Auditorium at UNCW Friday, April 17th. 

As of 5 PM April 15th, a spokesperson at the Kenan Box Office reported good seats are still available.

For tickets, call the Kenan Box Office:  910.962.3500 or 800.732.3643 or follow this link: