Especially these days, there’s something in us that looks for people to just be nice. This is coupled with a fear that the person secretly isn’t nice. John Lithgow both personifies the former, by all accounts, and is excellent at exploiting the latter. He does sometimes play genuinely nice guys, but he has a particular genius for playing guys who seem nice but in fact are hiding some secret or another. And it pains me to be the one to tell you that they actually recorded an entire voice track for Hercules wherein he was Hades and replaced him with the Definitely Not Nice James Woods.
He’s only halfway to an EGOT, with several Primetime Emmys and a pair of Tonys under his belt. At that, though, it feels as though he’s the sort of actor awards people would forget about. He’s lost two Grammys for Best Spoken Word Album For Children to Tom Chapin, oddly, and the one for Best Spoken Word Album to Bill Clinton. His Oscars were lost to Louis Gossett, Jr., and Jack Nicholson. While I’m not completely surprised that he won Emmys for being Dick Solomon, his Terms of Endearment nomination was, let’s face it, for playing a guy it’s easy to walk all over. I haven’t seen The World According to Garp, though.
To be fair, I also happen to think that Dick Solomon is an underrated role. There’s more to the character than a raging ego. There’s also the fact that, no, he doesn’t really know anything about being human and is settling into it. The process is uneven, mostly because there were multiple writers for the show who all had differing ideas at how it would go. But the role primarily works as well as it does because Lithgow is just so good in it. Honestly, the show’s quality owes a lot to Lithgow, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Wayne Knight. It’s a credit to them that the show lasted six seasons during which it went through more than fifteen time slot changes.
There are a lot of his roles that I haven’t seen; I only saw The Twilight Zone this year. (It’s a good performance in a bad movie.) But he’s one of the actors I’m not sure I’ve ever seen give a bad performance. I mean, I won’t be seeking out Daddy’s Home Two even leaving aside The Mel Gibson Thing, but I’m sure that Lithgow’s performance in that will not be phoned in. I don’t think I’ve ever seen evidence that Lithgow phones it in, ever.
I really need to see his Quixote, because that’s a great role for him. Before the Harry Potter movies came out and before I heard Rowling’s insistence that all the British characters in them be played by British people, I’d mentally cast him as the, well, quixotic Sir Cadogan. I’ve just a weakness for John Lithgow as the man lost in whatever his own madness is, be that as Dick or as “Let’s blame it all on dancing” Reverend Shaw Moore of Footloose. Him playing self-important is fun, too, which is why I’ve long been disappointed that his scenes as Harry Zell were cut from L.A. Story.
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