Most Creative: John Lithgow’s Harvard Years

Watercolor of Winston Churchill in The Crown by John Lithgow
Self-portrait as Winston Churchill in The Crown. 2016MT-55

It’s been a year of milestones for actor and Harvard alum John Lithgow, who this week celebrates his 50th class reunion. Last April, he was fêted with the 2017 Harvard Arts Medal at the kick-off of Arts First, the annual festival of student creativity he helped launch 25 years ago.

Fresh from on-screen successes in Netflix’s The Crown and NBC’s crime mockumentary Trial & Error, Lithgow has earned a reputation as a consummate performer; his two Tonys, five Emmys, and a laundry list of accolades make it impossible to imagine otherwise. Yet the former history and literature major once nursed ambitions of becoming a painter. His undergraduate years, he recalls, were “the most active and creative of my life.”

The artistic license of those formative years has proven impossible to recreate. “It was the last time I worked in the theater for the pure, unfettered joy of it,” he has written. “Some of the work was excellent, much of it was dreadful, but its quality was never really the point. Joy was the point.”

Here’s a joyous look back at just a few of Lithgow’s extracurricular entanglements, compiled from his memoir, Drama: An Actor’s Education, with illustrations from the Harvard Theatre Collection.

John Lithgow as Gloucester in King Lear
John Lithgow as Gloucester in King Lear, 1964. MS Thr 546 (70)

KING LEAR. While still a freshman, Lithgow played the ancient Duke of Gloucester in King Lear (in a wig once worn by acting great John Gielgud). The Crimson praised his blinding scene as one of the production’s finest moments, adding, however, that he “too frequently swings his long arms to less purpose.”

Poster for King Lear and Julius Caesar
Poster for King Lear and Julius Caesar, 1964.

Lithgow supplied original woodcuts to illustrate the poster and program.


John Lithgow in Edward II
Paul Schmidt and John Lithgow in Edward II, 1964. MS Thr 546 (69)

EDWARD II. The same year, Lithgow was cast in the title role of Christopher Marlowe’s play about the murdered English monarch. He also performed in staged readings of Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta to mark the 400th anniversary of the births of Marlowe and Shakespeare.


Poster design for The Forced Marriage by John Lithgow
Poster design for The Forced Marriage, 1965. MS Thr 396

THE FORCED MARRIAGE. Lithgow not only acted in but designed and directed productions across campus. For his directorial debut of a one-act farce by Molière, the cast performed in masks of his own creation, which the show’s reviewer pronounced “the work of a master cartoonist.” They also appear in Lithgow’s design for the production poster, since torn from his college sketchbook.


John Lithgow and Elizabeth Cole in Tartuffe
John Lithgow and Elizabeth Cole in Tartuffe, 1965

TARTUFFE. “If John Lithgow weren’t the star of this show it wouldn’t be worth seeing. … When you grow up you can tell people at cocktail parties you saw him before he was. Which won’t be true, actually, because he is already. Which is why he can carry a whole production.” –The Harvard Crimson


John Lithgow and Janet Walker in Utopia, Limited
John Lithgow and Janet Walker in Utopia, Limited, 1964. MS Thr 546 (147)

UTOPIA, LIMITED. A forty-second ovation during a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta finally changed Lithgow’s mind about becoming a professional actor.


Woyzeck
Woyzeck, 1966. MS Thr 546 (160)

WOYZECK. His senior year, Lithgow directed and designed a dark, expressionistic production of Georg Büchner’s fractured drama about a barber who murders his mistress.


The Plough and the Stars
The Plough and the Stars, 1967. MS Thr 546 (113)

THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS. Speaking of “dreadful,” the sets for Sean O’Casey’s play are a reminder that not everything Lithgow put his hand to turned into a hit. Lithgow himself described his designs as “the ugliest, most ungainly sets ever seen on the Main Stage of the Loeb Drama Center.”


John Lithgow and Tommy Lee Jones in The Lady’s Not for Burning
John Lithgow and Tommy Lee Jones in The Lady’s Not for Burning, 1967. MS Thr 546 (71)

THE LADY’S NOT FOR BURNING. Lithgow has shared the stage with a surprising number of classmates who later became career artists, including Tommy Lee Jones, Stockard Channing, and Lindsay Crouse.


John Lithgow as Abraham Lincoln in White House Happening
John Lithgow in White House Happening, 1967. MS Thr 546 (155)

WHITE HOUSE HAPPENING. “At some point, every skinny 6’4” American character actor is asked to play Abraham Lincoln,” Lithgow once quipped. “The only time I actually did it was in the summer of 1967, when I was twenty-one years old.” After graduating from college, Lithgow starred in a far-fetched drama written and directed by Lincoln Kirstein. Kirstein’s Lincoln plotted his own assassination and kept his illegitimate mulatto son as a steward in the White House.

John Lithgow: Actor as Artist is on display at Houghton Library through July 29 September 7.

Thanks to John Ross, Harvard Class of 1967, for identifying the photo from Edward II.