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Authors: John Lithgow

Drama

BOOK: Drama
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DRAMA

An Actor’s Education

John Lithgow

 

Dedication

To Mary

 

Contents

Dedication

 

Preface

[1]
    A Curious Life

[2]
    A Kiss on the Neck

[3]
    Lachryphobia

[4]
    The Good Boy

[5]
    Enter Messenger

[6]
    The Beefeater

[7]
    Most Creative

[8]
    Big and Little

[9]
    Curtains

[10]
    Pinch Me

[11]
    Veritas

[12]
    Utopia

[13]
    Hard Times on the Great Road

[14]
    Three Lincolns

[15]
    This Scepter’d Isle

[16]
    D Group Days

[17]
    Getting Out

[18]
    Coming Home

[19]
    The Triumph of Nepotism

[20]
    Much Ado

[21]
    Reality

[22]
    Induced Insecurity

[23]
    A Fork in the Road

[24]
    Naked

[25]
    Mr. Pleasant

[26]
    Broadway Baby

[27]
    Adolescence

[28]
    My Biggest Mistake

Coda

 

Acknowledgments

 

About the Author

 

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

 

Preface

I
n the summer of 2002, my father was eighty-six years old. He’d been the picture of health all his life, but that summer he started to have some serious medical problems. There was an operation that could address these problems, but his doctors wanted to avoid it if at all possible. The operation involved major abdominal surgery, and they were afraid that it might be too much for an old man’s system. But finally there was no choice. His health was plummeting and his doctors decided that, to save him, they would have to operate. So a date was set, and on the morning he went into surgery, the family was told that he had only a fifty-percent chance of surviving it. These were scary words, of course. But in fact he
did
survive it, and we all breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief.

But by the time he was discharged from the hospital, we had started to worry all over again. The operation had taken its toll. It had weakened him terribly and had drastically slowed him down. Worst of all, it had taken away his spirit. This genial man, with his impish humor and his boisterous laugh, fell silent and plunged into a deep depression. It didn’t help that he and my eighty-four-year-old mother lived alone, with nobody looking after them. For years my brother, my two sisters, and I had repeatedly offered to set them up in a retirement community, but they had refused to even consider it. Instead they had ended up in a condo of their own choosing, outside of Amherst, Massachusetts, living like a little old couple in a cabin in the woods in a Grimm’s fairy tale. And when my mother drove my father home from the hospital, that’s where she took him.

There they were: my father struggling to convalesce, my mother struggling to take care of him—and
she
wasn’t in such great shape, either. It was a catastrophe. Something had to be done.

Of us four siblings, I was the only one out of work. I had time on my hands. So with my wife’s encouragement, I dropped everything, flew across the country, and moved in with my parents. My task was simple. I would tend to my father, help out my mother, organize Dad’s postoperative therapies, and figure out some system of ongoing care for both of them. The plan was for me to stay with them for exactly one month and have everything nicely in order by the time I left. I can do this, I thought. It’ll be easy.

It wasn’t. The first few days I was there, I practically fell apart. The situation was far worse than I had expected. I saw immediately that I was going to have to take care of my father, a frail old man, as if he were a little baby. He was too weak to sit up in bed. He was tormented by bedsores and a baby’s burning diaper rash. He couldn’t stand or walk without help. He couldn’t get to the dining room table, let alone manage a bathtub, a shower, or a toilet. Worst of all, he had been sent home from the hospital with terse instructions to painstakingly change his own catheter, reinserting it every day, and to keep careful, written records of the workings of his own internal plumbing—at eighty-six years old! It was my job to help him through all of this, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was in way over my head, it was exhausting work, and it was unbearably sad. Every night I would get on the phone to my wife, back home in Los Angeles, and just sob.

The days passed and things improved. But they didn’t improve much. My mother, my father, and I gradually fell into a predictable routine. I fixed their meals. I took Dad on short, halting constitutional walks. I bathed him, powdered him, and got rid of that awful rash. He’d gotten shabby and unkempt, so I trimmed his nails, shaved his stubbly beard, and cut his stringy hair. I prodded him to tell sunny stories of his early days and his young years with my mom. I coaxed him into word games and crosswords. I stumped him with scraps of Shakespearean trivia—anything,
anything
to cheer him up. But nothing worked. He made listless, halfhearted attempts to indulge me and my strenuous diversions, but nothing dispelled his feelings of gloom and doom. He felt tired and forgotten. He felt his life wasted and misspent. He’d lost his will to live. Without it, he was clearly not going to last much longer. I felt as if my mother and I were helplessly monitoring the slow decline of an old man who had just given up.

Then one day, halfway through my time with them, I had an idea. It was an idea that bubbled up through the soft-focus haze of my childhood, fifty years before. It was one of the best ideas I ever had.

In my grade-school years, my family moved a lot. There was an old burnt-orange sofa that traveled with us everywhere we went. That humble piece of furniture figures in some of the fondest memories of my youth. It was where I first heard stories. My siblings and I would cuddle up to my father on that sofa at bedtime and he would read to us. He read the comics in the newspaper with near religious regularity. He read Kipling’s
The Jungle Book
, a chapter a night. He read Dickens’
A Christmas Carol
every year on Christmas Eve. He read doggerel poems by Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, and Ogden Nash from a set of bright-orange volumes called
Childcraft
. For all four of us, our most intimate memories of our father—his crinkly smile, his plummy voice, his husky smell, and his short-sleeved seersucker shirts—are connected to those lazy, luxurious evening hours on that scratchy wool sofa, all of us on the verge of sleep.

Most memorably, he read to us from a fat book called
Tellers of Tales
. This was a fifteen-hundred-page tome, edited by W. Somerset Maugham, that contained a hundred classic short stories. The book had been printed in 1939. By the fifties our copy was already faded and worn, its pages yellowing. Its spine was sprung, too, but my father had craftily repaired it with crimson-colored duct tape. He had even taken pains to neatly write its title in white ink on the taped spine. Characteristically, he had written it upside down by mistake.

When we were growing up, that homely old book was a kind of family Bible in the Lithgow household (wherever that household happened to be at the time), and story hour had all the gravity of a sacred rite. We would pick a story and my father would read it—savoring the wit, ramping up the suspense, and performing all the characters full-out. He worked a kind of hypnotic magic on us. We would hold our breath at the hair-raising suspense of “The Monkey’s Paw.” We would sniffle and sob when Krambambuli, the loyal Alsatian mountain dog, died of a broken heart. For the first time we heard the words of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, Dorothy Parker, and on and on and on.

Did we have an all-time favorite? Oh yes. It was the funny one. It was called “Uncle Fred Flits By,” by P. G. Wodehouse. This one was something special. Over the years I forgot most of the details of this story. Its plot and its settings all became a blur. But I remembered “Pongo.” I remembered “the pink chap.” I remembered something about a parrot. And I remembered the outrageous Uncle Fred and his crackpot schemes, especially as portrayed by my father, a man with an abundant history of crackpot schemes of his own. Mainly I remembered how flat-out hilarious the story was. When we were growing up, any mention of “the pink chap” was enough to send everyone into fits of laughter, long after I’d forgotten who the hell the pink chap even was.

C
ut forward to a half century later in Amherst, Massachusetts. There I was, a middle-aged man spending a month with my ailing parents in a cramped condo, immersed in memories of my early youth. It was probably just a matter of time before I hit on the idea of reading bedtime stories to them. I remembered
Tellers of Tales
, and I searched their dusty bookshelves for it. And there it was, only a little worse for wear, as if it had been waiting all those years for just such a moment. That very night, when they were all tucked in, my mother in their big sixty-year-old bed and my father in his little rented hospital bed drawn up next to her, I sprung my surprise. I showed them the old book and I told them to pick a story. And what do you suppose they picked?

“Uncle Fred Flits By,” by P. G. Wodehouse.

So I read it to them. I launched into the first paragraph with only the dimmest memory of what I was reading. As the story unfolded, more and more of it came back to me. I was astonished. It was hysterical. I had never read anything like it. It practically caught fire in my hands. The characters revealed themselves, the complications kicked in, and one by one I recognized all those moments that we had thought were so damned funny all those years ago.

And then it happened. My father started to laugh. It was a helpless, gurgly laugh, almost in spite of himself. It was like the engine of an old car, starting up after years of disuse. I kept reading and he kept laughing, harder and harder, until he was almost out of breath. It was the most wonderful sound I’d ever heard. And I’m convinced that it was sometime during the telling of that story that my father came back to life.

I
’ve thought long and hard about that moment. Starting the next day, Dad rallied. His health and his good spirits began to return. He lived another year and a half. Eighteen precious months. That may not sound like a long time, but it was much longer than any of us had dared to hope for. Better still, it was a happy time. The cloud of doom that had darkened his thoughts for so long finally dispersed. Those eighteen months provided a graceful coda to his life. They were months filled with visits from family, visits from friends, reminiscences, taking stock, fond farewells, more stories, more laughter. And I can’t help thinking that it was Uncle Fred that got him going again. It was as if my father had fed off the irascible spirit of a long-dead author’s fictional creation: that fabulous flimflam artist, Uncle Fred himself.

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.

He had given me another gift, too, although he never lived to see it bear fruit. The period I spent with my parents was one of the most significant in my life. In that memorable month, that Wodehouse story was the most memorable hour. I had spent my entire adult life acting in plays, movies, and television shows. I had told stories. I’d had a gratifying, fun, and prosperous career. Only infrequently had I paused to plumb the mysteries of my peculiar occupation. That night, however, everything came into focus. Sitting at my parents’ bedside and reading them a story, trying to help two old people feel better, came to seem like a distillation of everything my profession is about. In the years to come, my thoughts kept returning to that evening, even after my father was long gone. Finally, spurred on by the events of that night, I decided to write this book.

BOOK: Drama
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