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John Lithgow: A mentor on and off camera

Josa Lukman

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, August 7, 2020  /  02:35 pm
John Lithgow: A mentor on and off camera

Friendly face: With nearly five decades of experience, John Lithgow is a mentor on and off camera for many aspiring actors. (AFP/Valerie Macon )

In the span of his long acting career, one thing is sure; John Lithgow is a mentor, both literally and figuratively.

Lithgow’s latest role as Elias Birchard “E.B.” Jonathan in HBO’s latest period drama Perry Mason is a case in point.

The series premiere on June 22 was watched by some 1.7 million viewers across all the platforms on which it aired – the strongest premiere night of any HBO series in nearly two years – and the show has been renewed for a second season.

A struggling attorney in post-Great Depression Los Angeles, Birchard is a mentor to the eponymous character Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys), a private investigator hired for a high-profile child kidnapping and murder case that has gripped the city.

Reimagining: Matthew Rhys (right) stars in 'Perry Mason' as the eponymous character, a down-on-his-luck private investigator working for lawyer Elias Birchard Reimagining: Matthew Rhys (right) stars in 'Perry Mason' as the eponymous character, a down-on-his-luck private investigator working for lawyer Elias Birchard "E.B." Jonathan (John Lithgow). (Courtesy of HBO/.)

Lithgow said he does consider himself a mentor for younger actors.

Debuting on Broadway in 1973 in The Changing Room, he managed to land his first Tony Award: Best Featured Actor in a Play.

As part of his extensive experience, he has worked with actors including Jason Robards and Henry Fonda, which he described as “meeting your heroes”.

“Both of them were so extraordinarily welcoming and encouraging, and I do begin to realize in my old age – I’m 74 years old – that I hold that position in the lives of a lot of young actors and actresses, and I love that,” he said during a web interview that included The Jakarta Post.

“I am a kind of mentor figure, and I take that role very seriously. Whenever I meet young actors, they ask me for advice, like young acting students who haven’t gotten their start yet in the business. I always tell them, ‘I bet we’ll work together some time,’” he added, noting that on about ten occasions he had worked with actors who reminded him of the early-career advice he had given them.

As for his mentor role on-camera, Lithgow said that when he was offered the part, there were many reasons he accepted it, including the script’s “bold and radical” approach.

Perry Mason means a lot to people in America. I don’t know how much the series means to people across the Pacific, but we all remember it in our childhood: Raymond Burr [who starred in the 1957 series], [played] a very serious and stolid lawyer, and [there was a] famous Perry Mason moment in every episode,” he said.

“In many ways, it was a kind of template for a lot of lawyer shows that followed, but [the HBO series] completely stood all those expectations on their head.”

In character: John Lithgow stars as Elias Birchard “E.B.” Jonathan, a struggling attorney and a semi-regular employer of Penny Mason.In character: John Lithgow stars as Elias Birchard “E.B.” Jonathan, a struggling attorney and a semi-regular employer of Penny Mason. (Courtesy of HBO/-)

Lithgow said Perry Mason wasn’t even a lawyer; he was a down-on-his-luck private investigator working for a lawyer, whom Lithgow played.

“And the lawyer he worked with was over the hill – he might have been a good lawyer in his prime, but he wasn’t a good lawyer anymore, and he is nothing without his private investigator,” he explained, adding that the show was an origin story about how Mason overtook his mentor.

Over the years, Lithgow’s roles have been as varied as they come. They include Lord Farquaad in the animated film Shrek (2001), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Netflix’s The Crown (2016) and former United States president Bill Clinton in the play Hillary and Clinton (2019).

However, Lithgow’s best-known role is arguably the alien commander Dick Solomon in the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, which ran from 1996 to 2001.

The role, as he put it, was “a perfectly wonderful experience” involving six consecutive years of laughter.

“It was quite an unexpected choice. I was just as surprised as anyone when I was offered to play the star in a sitcom, and I was even surprised by myself when I accepted it. It was not something I was ever going to do. I considered myself a much more serious actor than that,” he said.

However, two friends with whom Lithgow worked on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s – husband-and-wife screenwriting duo Bonnie and Terry Turner – asked him to join the sitcom, which they had created.

Lithgow said the two made 3rd Rock from the Sun with him in mind, and they wouldn’t have done it if Lithgow hadn’t signed on.

“They were just looking for something very special, a kind of crazy sense of humor and someone with plenty of acting skills equally comfortable being serious and being very zany. 

“As they described it, they were looking for somebody who was a combination of Bugs Bunny and Errol Flynn: a cartoon character and a romantic hero,” he recalled.

He found the concept hilarious and thought it would be an opportunity to showcase his skills, including dancing, singing and a bit of Chinese.

“How did it change my life? It made me much, much better. Now when people get that familiar with you in their homes, they feel like a part of your family, and I’ve been greeted on the streets like an old friend ever since.”

Despite the sitcom’s massive popularity, Lithgow said his most memorable role was in the award-winning 1988 play M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang.

Starring alongside BD Wong, he plays a French civil servant who falls in love with a star of the Peking opera, not knowing that the woman is a spy and actually a man cross-dressing in order to seduce him and extract information.

“An extraordinary, preposterous story, but David Henry Hwang took that and turned it into an extraordinary metaphor for the differences between the East and the West in particular, but Western men and Eastern women,” he said.

“I found that a life changing experience. I always say it was the most important new play – the boldest new play I’ve ever been in in New York – and of course, I am essentially a theater actor, so it was bound to be something from the world of theater.”

Grief: In the series, Perry Mason is hired to work on a sensational child kidnapping and murder case that has gripped the city of Los Angeles.Grief: In the series, Perry Mason is hired to work on a sensational child kidnapping and murder case that has gripped the city of Los Angeles. (Courtesy of HBO/-)

Lithgow said his latest role in Perry Mason reminded him of his performance in a play called The Front Page in the late 1980s.

A revival of a 1928 play of the same name by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page tells the story of tabloid reporters in Chicago covering the courts.

“Tough, very gritty play with a huge ensemble. It’s a play written for about 25 actors, and it can only work if everybody in it is a terrific character actor. I was in a great production in the role of Walter Burns, this very tough newspaper editor,” he said, noting that the role was played by Cary Grant in the 1940 movie adaptation His Girl Friday.

“To me, it reminded me of that experience: a great piece of ensemble acting, and I can spend the next five minutes listing all the great actors in the cast of our Perry Mason. [...] These are just such expert actors and they were all so wonderful at playing that period and that style. That’s what made it so special. I really consider it one of the most fun jobs I ever had.”  (ste)

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