John Lithgow Delves Deep In New Memoir 'Drama: An Actor's Education'

10/11/2011 11:19 am ET | Updated Dec 11, 2011

If you're expecting to find out what Jane Curtin was like to work with in John Lithgow's new memoir, "Drama: An Actor's Education," you'll be sorely disappointed. Instead of only dishing insider gossip, the Oscar-nominated character actor delves into his childhood, which was spent moving around the country with his father, who directed and produced regional theater. He clearly imbued a great love of language in his son.

People will be surprised when they read this that you barely mention "3rd Rock From The Sun."

The book is about the first half of my life. I do jump forward a few times; I do mention "3rd Rock." First of all, it's the first time I've ever written a memoir. You set off not really knowing where you're going with it, and about halfway through you realize, 'My God, I've got to end this.' I just decided to end it half way through my life, in 1980, which was kind of a logical watershed year for me.

The book is really about your relationship with your dad.

Yes, it's substantially about that. My father was a man of the theater. I did a huge amount for him as a kid just for the fun of it, but then he gave me my first important experiences on the stage as a professional actor. I also went through the classic cycle of idolizing him and then discovering he wasn't Superman, and then ultimately discovering how much I revered him after all.

Was it difficult when you surpassed him professionally?

He was so completely happy for me. I believe that completely. He was genuinely proud and happy. To me, that was giving me such a gift -- the gift of my undiluted success in those early years -- because they were indeed the years when he was going through some of his worse professional disappointments, but he just absolutely wouldn't let me feel badly for him.

You first got married when you were 20. What were you thinking?

I thought I was a grown up. I thought I was a mature 35-year-old man when, really, I was a very callow 20-year-old. It's very startling to think about myself back in those days. I look at 20-year-olds now and I think, 'What! What was I doing?!'

I love that when you met your wife of 30 years, she thought you were gay.

It was her very, very first impression. You know I'm kind of a fey and theatrical person. I could easily see why she could make that mistake. My wife is a Montana farmer's daughter and kind of a tough, earthy gal. She had never met actors before and didn't know the world of theater.

And you're a tough guy, by theater standards.

Yes, by theater standards I'm ruggedly masculine.

You include a story about how you faked mental instability to get out of Vietnam.

I've never stopped being uneasy, if not ashamed, by it. I am hard on myself, describing that experience, but I felt I couldn't leave it out. It was such a crucial moment in my life and it was an age of anxiety. I'm an American man in my mid-60s -- which means I was 22 in 1968 -- and everyone who's that age shares some intense relationship with that war.

You felt bad about the dishonesty, but then again, the alternative was fighting in a war you didn't believe in.

It was an era of compulsory draft and a war that all of us thought was obscene and immoral. The choices were serve in that war, run to another country, go to jail or use your wits to get out.

You write that you did 20 plays and had affairs during eight of them.

The fact is, the whole process of acting is putting all kinds of emotions and urges into play. You look back on your crazy life and you think, 'My God, how could I possibly have had a relationship with that person?' And that person thinks the same about me. The thing is, you're going through all this play acting, and so much of life is play acting anyway. It just puts you on a kind of fast track to love and sex.

People may be surprised to read you were such a playboy.

But believe me, I'm not nearly the playboy that most actors are. Nobody ever reveals that.

You've been in so many great movies. Do you have a favorite?

I think the best movie I've been in was "Terms of Endearment." I thought when I was filming it that it was going to be a disaster, but it's clearly the best film I've ever been in. But I loved doing "The Twilight Zone" movie, "Buckaroo Banzai," "The World According to Garp." I had a wonderful time very recently on this "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." It's hard to pick your favorite; it's like trying to pick your favorite among all your children when you have about 30 children.

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