Backstage with… John Lithgow

Posted: Mon Dec 10 2012

The American actor talks about '3rd Rock from the Sun' and the NT's 'The Magistrate'

American actor John Lithgow is best known for his role as hapless alien patriarch Dick in sitcom '3rd Rock from the Sun', and on stage for his Tony-winning performance in the musical 'Sweet Smell of Success'. He's currently starring as Aeneas Posket, the put upon title character of the National Theatre's Christmas farce, 'The Magistrate' by Arthur Wing Pinero.

Were you familiar with 'The Magistrate' before you starred in it?
I have a history with 'The Magistrate' actually - the first I ever heard of it was when I was studying in this country in 1969. I read a rave review of Alastair Sim down in Chichester so I made a pilgrimage and it was one of the great comedy performances I've ever seen. And then the next summer in the US I recommended it to a summer stock company and directed it myself - a terrible production!

Was it an ambition to work at the NT?
You have no idea how unintentional my career is! I don't plan anything: this just came my way on an email from Nick [Hytner, NT artistic director] on July 5, an email tinged with desperation after another show fell through [Richard Bean's 'The Count of Monte Cristo'].

You're staying over here for the holidays: are you a fan of pantomime?
When I was a student here many years ago I saw Danny La Rue do a pantomime and I was thrilled. I love pantomimes, the fact that at least one night a year the whole family goes to the theatre. I always invoked British pantomime to the writers of '3rd Rock from the Sun', that magic trick of structuring jokes that appeal to both adults and kids - adults very dirty and kids very daffy.

Do you look back fondly on '3rd Rock…', then?
Absolutely. I set aside my last rule, which was never to do a TV series - I was such a snob - instantly when I got pitched this series. And I remember nothing but pleasure and pride and I just loved it. And I still watch them when they come on TV now, it's my guilty pleasure.

Is the song you sing at the end of 'The Magistrate' the closest London will come to seeing you in a musical?
Well, stranger things have happened - I've actually been asked to do a musical over here but I won't tell you what it is.

Do you know 'Sweet Smell of Success' is currently having its UK premiere in Hackney?
I think I'm going to go to see it! I'm very curious about that - I knew it was only a matter of time before somebody seized on it as it's such a great piece of work. It's one of the great injustices of the theatre that people consign it to the category of Broadway flops. I don't consider it a failure, I consider it… the sweet smell of success!

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