His roles have run the gamut from goofball alien on NBC’s hit sitcom “3rd Rock from the Sun” to the creepily malevolent Trinity Killer on Showtime’s “Dexter” — and John Lithgow (pronounced Lith-GO, in case you’re wondering) wouldn’t have it any other way.
On November 2 and 3, the versatile actor, multiple Tony Award-winning theater veteran and author (his memoir, “Drama: An Actor’s Education” was published in 2011, and he has many children’s books to his credit as well) will appear at the Elgin Community College Arts Center and the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts to stage his one-man show “Stories by Heart.”
Surprisingly, considering his career spans more than four decades and he knows numerous locally rooted thespians, the five-year-old show will mark Lithgow’s Chicago theater debut. “It’s not for want of being asked,” he says of his late advent, “but I’ve just never had the chance to say yes.”
During a recent conversation, Lithgow mused about acting, fame, marriage and why Chicago is a better theater town than New York.
Question:Writing is a very solitary experience. When you’re onstage, there’s audience energy to feed off. Because of that, is theater storytelling more gratifying?
John Lithgow: I think so. It’s a very immediate gratification. It’s a very communal event and you feel like you’re ending the evening with 400 new friends. We’re lucky people, we actors, at the best of times. Besides which, I’m a natural-born actor. I’m not a natural-born writer. Writing is this kind of agonizing process for me.
Q.You mentioned having 400 new friends at the end of the evening. How has that dynamic changed, especially since you’ve achieved enormous sitcom success, in terms of people wanting to be your friends?
JL: “3rd Rock” did change things a lot. It quadrupled my recognizability. Or maybe [by] tenfold. You become very much a common currency in households. And of course it fades after a while unless something else comes along. Well, the other thing that came along was “Dexter,” and I suddenly became a famous creepy villain. People are sort of excited by the fact that it’s the same actor who did both things and delivered two completely different entertainments.
Q:Chicago is a great theater town, as you know. A lot of people will say it’s even better than New York. Do you feel that way, having come up in New York?
JL: Absolutely. I literally envy Chicago actors. There’s just such a tremendous tradition and a very daring theater tradition. New York is a terrific theater town, of course, but there is a sense that a show has to be proven goods before you’ll buy a ticket for it. That’s not true of Chicago. The audience is in on the adventure.
Q: You’ve been married for decades to a college professor [Mary Yeager]. How has that enhanced your life and allowed you to remain together for so long?
JL: It’s somehow given me a private life, which is just as important if not more important than my public life. And I just think that that’s a very, very good thing for an actor. One of the real hardships of the acting profession is you tend to lend way too much importance to what you do. It’s important all right, but it’s not the very essence of your life. It’s very important to have some other things in your life. In a sense, you can’t depend on acting, because acting will let you down.