In a 2011 interview, John Lithgow promised he would get back to Akron eventually. And eventually will be Thursday.
The award-winning screen and stage actor (3rd Rock From the Sun) will talk about The Power of Storytelling at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at E.J. Thomas Hall.
“I’m going to tell a little about storytelling, but then just basically tell stories,” said Lithgow, whose talk in the UA Forum program is sponsored by the Mary Schiller Myers Lecture Series. “And the stories will be about my days in Akron.”
Lithgow lived in the city from 1959 to 1961, attending both Simon Perkins and Buchtel schools, while his father, Arthur, oversaw a Shakespeare festival at Stan Hywet Hall and later at the old Ohio Theater in Cuyahoga Falls. In his 2011 memoir, Drama: An Actor’s Education, Lithgow said those years in Akron launched his theater career, and that he spoke his first line onstage as a grown-up actor in a festival production of Henry V.
The role: a French messenger. The line: “Ambassadors from Harry, King of England, do crave admittance to your majesty!”
And from that seed grew Oscar nominations, Tonys and Emmys.
His Akron years were “extremely vivid and formative years for me,” he said. “Just two years, but they were packed. And I think that’s the best way to connect with the crowd.”
Readers of Lithgow’s memoirs will also note that he bore some ill will toward members of Akron’s upper crust who fired his father from Stan Hywet, and that he has not been back to Akron since that time. But Lithgow said his feelings did not extend to the place itself.
“It’s not that I chose not to come back,” he said. “I just never had occasion to. … I feel nothing but warmth and gratitude for those two years in Akron. My father had his donnybrook with Stan Hywet, of course. It wasn’t exactly a comfortable fit there. But it was as much because of my father’s particularities as Akron’s.
“I have very, very fond memories, especially of the two schools I went to,” he said.
Besides the evening event, Lithgow will spend part of Thursday afternoon talking with UA students — as he has with other students along the way.
“It always comes up because young people kind of seek me out for advice. And I always tell them, whatever you do, don’t become an actor,” he said with a chuckle. “But I also tell them, if you’re going to become an actor you’re going to ignore what everybody says.” He will also “talk in general about how to approach a creative life. It’s a sort of precipitous decision. There’s no real order to your life if you choose that life.”
Variety of roles
Certainly Lithgow’s activities vary. He was in movie theaters not long ago in This Is 40 and The Campaign, and on the Broadway stage in The Columnist, a play about journalist Joseph Alsop, written by David Auburn, the son of Fairlawn’s Mark and Sandy Auburn.
He recently finished a five-month run at England’s National Theatre in Arthur Wing Pinero’s farce The Magistrate. Over the last decade he has from time to time narrated the ballet Carnival of the Animals, and will do so again May 9-12 for the Pennsylvania Ballet. He has a role in The Homesman, a new film directed by Tommy Lee Jones and starring Hilary Swank. And there is his work for children, including books and CDs of songs.
And, even though Lithgow played an array of roles (including villains) for years, he said everything changed in 1996 when 3rd Rock From the Sun premiered. That comedy about extraterrestrials studying humans at an Ohio college inspired by Kent State “was really my only great, big, popular success. And when that happens, your options open wide. … If you want to do something, chances are there will be people who will say yes to you once you become a television celebrity.”
Tickets to Lithgow’s talk are $10, $8 for seniors, UA faculty and staff, and $6 for UA students.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.