Jun 16, 2022
By Kyle Mullin
Photography by FX
Just when you thought John Lithgow couldn’t show more range—from the bumbling alien of 3rd Rock From the Sun to his Emmy winning serial killer portrayal on Dexter, to Winston Churchill on The Crown—the actor is now making his biggest departure after 50 years in show businesses.
Long beloved for playing to the back row, first on Broadway and then for decades in film (Footloose) and TV (The Day After), Lithgow is refreshingly understated on the new FX spy thriller The Old Man. Lithgow’s stodgy, yet diligently ingenious FBI Assistant Director Harold Harper is tasked with apprehending his former colleague Dan Chase, played by Jeff Bridges. Bridges is sure to snag headlines with his chillingly convincing execution (in every sense of the word) of the series’ brutally realistic fight scenes. But Lithgow is equally against type while conveying multitudes by stiffening his shoulders or cocking an eyebrow.
Below, the 76-year-old Lithgow exudes spry enthusiasm and a winking theatricality while imitating Hollywood legend George Roy Hill (who directed him in 1982’s The World According to Garp), sings Bridges’ praises, dishes about the iconic sitcom role he was too “snobbish” to take on, and shares what it’s like to keep things fresh by dialing his performance down.
Kyle Mullin (Under the Radar): There’s a scene in the premiere where your character warns a younger agent not to mess with him, while casually eating French fries. It was more intimidating than Jeff Bridges beating someone to death with his bare hands!
John Lithgow: Ahh, good. Delighted to hear it. I hope John Steinberg, our writer-producer, hears that. Because eating the French fry is right there in his script. I would like to take credit. But we all depend on our writers.
Does that nonchalant menace say something interesting about your character?
Well, it’s been very interesting playing this part. Because you know me, probably, from very extravagant characterizations like Winston Churchill, or Roberta Muldoon. Or me on 3rd Rock From the Sun. These are very acted performances [smiles and waves his hand with a faux formality].
Harrold Harper does not perform. He is an FBI man. His job in life is to be as inconspicuous as possible. And yet, from the very first time you meet him, you know he’s boiling inside. He’s sobbing over the very recent death of his son. Then he gets a phone call and learns he has to deal with an international scandal from 30 years ago, that has come back to bite him in the butt.
So there’s a lot going on with this character. And yet, his whole job in life is to show nothing. Well, that’s a very fascinating tension. And by now, I’ve talked so pretentiously, that I don’t even remember your question. But I think it had to do with my approach to the character. And the trick was: express as little as possible. And yes, you mentioned how scary he can be, in a contained way. That of course was exactly what I was after.
How fulfilling was that, considering your many prior broader roles?
I loved it. The grass is always greener. When I took 3rd Rock From the Sun, I had just played too many villains in Ricochet, Cliffhanger, and Raising Cain. It was time to do something ridiculous [widens his eyes and raises the pitch of his voice, with a grin]. I don’t often get a chance to make shrewd decisions. I pretty much take whatever good offer I can get, and consider myself lucky. But there has been a kind of pendulum swing. My great aspiration is to do something as different as possible from the last thing I did.
As that pendulum swung, you worked with many big names. This time, you’re being directed by Jon Watts, who helmed the latest Spider-Man movies, for The Old Man’s first two episodes. I was struck by his lingering shots that capture the subtle, but provocative changes in your posture when you’re on the phone with Jeff Bridges’ lethal assassin character.
It was quite a pleasure to work with Jon. Because he seemed so delighted and relieved to work on such detailed, character driven material. He would make fun of himself for being the big action-fantasy franchise director. Of course, he’s done a splendid job with the Spider-Man films. But for him, it was wonderful to do something that people don’t expect of him. Like I was just saying—the pleasure of doing something different, and surprising people. He was just in such a lovely mood.
Not only that, he essentially directed two films at once: the Jeff Bridges story, and the Lithgow story. A fugitive romance, and an FBI procedural. And he loved going back and forth between them. He’s a very nice guy. He doesn’t say a lot. In my experience, the best directors don’t have to say a lot. He just created a wonderful atmosphere on the set. Of course, he only did the first two episodes—then along came all these other great directors, but Jonathan created the template.
TV is attracting many such big directors and actors these days. You won an Emmy for Dexter just as prestige TV was taking off. Working in that industry now, I imagine, is something different entirely?
Yeah things have changed radically. But I would say the big change, my big crazy decision, was doing 3rd Rock From the Sun. I was never going to do a sitcom or episodic TV show of any kind, I was such a snob. [Takes on a haughty tone.] “It’s either Broadway or cinema. That’s it.” I didn’t even pay attention to the fact Frasier in Cheers had been offered to me. “A supporting role in a TV series? No, no, no.” But 3rd Rock was pitched to me by good friends of mine, Bonnie and Terry Turner. And they sold me on the premise in five minutes. It suddenly sounded like so much fun. It took about two years from the time I said yes to when it aired. Between then I’d tell my friends: “I’m working on this great project. It’s about four aliens from another planet. They’re trying to figure out how humans behave.” And they looked at me like I was out of my mind. Like: “Goodbye career!”
Well, it was a fantastic time. 3rd Rock was a brilliant, game changing show. And in those six years network TV began to change. The same sea change has come along with streaming. It’s even more radical. Now all the talent wants Netflix deals, or to write for an Amazon series. The most unlikely actors are playing a major role in a new series. People’s viewing habits have changed so much. Movies have given ground to home entertainment. But we’re getting way off the subject of The Old Man. My apologies [gives a self-deprecating grin].
Not at all! We could talk about what it was like working with Jeff Bridges?
When I started working with Jeff [on The Old Man] I went back to watch his early films that I hadn’t seen, but only heard about. Of course, I remember The Last Picture Show, but I also saw Bad Company. And that fabulous back lot western he did, [1975’s] Hearts of the West, with Blythe Danner and Alan Arkin. He was such a wonderful, kind of coltish young actor. That raw bone, dumb kid kind of thing he had, was so endearing. And it’s just wonderful to see what’s become of it in his old age. Because he’s hung on to so much of that. He is one of the most watchable actors there are. And such a pleasure to work with.
He’s so relaxed. He takes it very seriously, and he’s having so much fun, all at the same time. And he’s the least defensive, not driven by his ego at all. Not for a second. A pure pleasure.
A lot of your early scenes together are over the phone. Was that an interesting dynamic?
The wonderful tightening of the screw, the gradual heightening of suspense in this first season, is: “When are these two guys finally going to be forced to engage, and be in the same scenes together?” And the only time they interact at all, at the end of the first episode, is when I’m on the phone with him for about eight or nine minutes, telling him what he has to do. And he’s listening, then telling me “to hell with that.” Then off we go, into our great adventure.
Well, we rehearsed that scene. But when it came time to shoot it, I was standing in the middle of the night, in the freezing cold, at like three in the morning, having worked for about 10 hours. We finally got around to shooting this damn thing at an airport way up in the Valley, where there was a private jet landing about every three minutes, just destroying the flow of the scene. And I was playing the scene, Harper talking to Chase, and the voice of Chase was the script supervisor! Jeff was up in Santa Barbara, fast asleep. But that scene is so compelling, you’d think we rehearsed it for a month.
I dunno, that’s TV for you. I shouldn’t even be telling you this!
Well you did a fine job, considering all those obstacles. Thanks for taking the time. You know: I’d often watch 3rd Rock with my family as a boy, so I’ve been a longtime fan.
Oh! Thank you. 3rd Rock holds up pretty damn well, doesn’t it?
[The Old Man premieres tonight on FX and will also be available on Hulu.]
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