A few weeks ago I went in to Cambridge to meet some friends for the John Lithgow event that Harvard Bookstore was holding. Yes, I asked one of the event staff to take our photo; we were lined up outside First Parish Church, where the event was held. For high profile speakers, Harvard Books requests a $5 advance ticket to the event be purchased; this is essentially a $5 coupon which can be used toward any purchase in the store (or at the event).
The event was part of Lithgow’s book tour for his memoir, Drama: An Actor’s Education. He actually calls it not a memoir, but, a “cobiography” of him and his father, taking us to 1980, just before he starred in the film The World According to Garp.
What’s a cobiography, and how did Lithgow come to write one? For that answer I will try to decipher my notes, shown here for your amusement, scribbled on the back of a receipt from the hardware store (my local, independent hardware store, I might add!):
In September 2002, Lithgow [pronounced Lith-go with a long O, not Lith-gow rhyming with cow] moved in with his parents. His father, Arthur, was not doing well after a recent surgery, he was feeling very low, almost depressed, and Lithgow tried everything he could think of to lift his spirits. Arthur used to read to his children at night, and this was one connection they always had. Midway through that month, Lithgow combed the old bookshelves of his parents’ home and came across a book of classic short stories; all sorts of happy memories bubbled up when he pulled out that book. He couldn’t remember the specifics of the stories from years ago, but certain phrases started coming back to him. Reading P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By” that evening, Lithgow heard his father laugh for the first time in weeks. He said it was the most wonderful sound he’d ever heard.
And now, I turn to the preface of Drama, in which John Lithgow writes a bit more about that evening reading “Uncle Fred Flits By,” and how it moved him (tissue alert!):
Acting is nothing more than storytelling. An actor usually performs for a crowd, whether for a hundred people in an off-Broadway theater or for millions of moviegoers all over the globe. Reading to my parents on that autumn evening in Amherst was something else again. It was acting in its simplest, purest, most rarefied form. My father was listening to “Uncle Fred Flits By” as if his life depended on it. And indeed it did. The story was not just diverting him. It was easing his pain, dissolving his fear, and leading him back from the brink of death. It was rejuvenating his atrophied soul. Lying next to him, my mother could sense that, by some mysterious force, her husband was returning to her.
Before he went to sleep, Dad thanked me for the story as if I had given him a treasured gift. But he’d given me a gift, too. It was the gift of a father’s love. I was fifty-six years old and had known him all my life. In all those years, our relationship had changed kaleidoscopically. We had been up and down, happy and sad, close and distant. Our fortunes had risen and fallen, ebbed and flowed, rarely at the same time. But in all those years I had never felt as close to him, nor ever felt as much love for him, as I did that night.
Lithgow had so enjoyed reading “Uncle Fred” that he challenged himself to memorize it. He told us of taking his dog for a walk while reciting 15-20 minutes of the story at a time, building onto it, paragraph by paragraph. At the end of a month he had learned the complete text to “Uncle Fred Flits By” (and his dog was well-exercised), and performed it for some friends. They wanted more – they enjoyed Wodehouse’s short story, but wanted to hear more about how Lithgow came to be performing it; they wanted the backstory and more about Arthur.
In Spring 2008, Lithgow began a very limited engagement run of “Uncle Fred” at the Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. As he tells it, one evening,
“people” from HarperCollins were in the audience. They were taken by his storytelling (both the performance of “Uncle Fred” and the personal backstory), and contacted him about writing a memoir. The rest, as they say, is history.
It is a wonderful book, whether you call it a memoir or a co-biography. Warm and heartfelt, Lithgow talks about Arthur’s influence (a Shakespearean stage actor, Arthur instilled a love of the theater in his family; his vocation – and the travel it required – also made it a challenge for the family to feel “settled” in any one area), and how he informed many of his decisions. Lithgow writes of his years as an undergraduate at Harvard (another section from which he read that evening), and early years working in theaters in New York and London.
After reading (and we kept answering “Yes!” when he asked “Shall I go on?”), there were about 20 minutes of Q&A. I didn’t take notes for these, but do remember one funny story in response to a question about being recognized on the street and how fame has affected him. Lithgow smiled and asked if we remembered the opening credits of The World According to Garp (the naked baby kind of floating in air). We nodded in unison, and he continued – about eight years after the movie came out he was at a public pool and a woman came up to him and asked “Are you John Lithgow?” He answered ‘yes,’ and prepared himself for an onslaught of questions or the request of an autograph. “I knew it!” exclaimed the woman. Then turning and pointing to the boy next to her she told Lithgow “This is Brandon, he was the baby in Garp!” Lithgow nodded and smiled … but the woman wasn’t finished. She then spoke to the boy, “Brandon, this man was in your movie!” Fame, apparently, is all relative!