NEW YORK — There is a certain cosmic sense of humor in John Lithgow's latest role on Broadway.
The actor, who recently admitted evading the draft for the Vietnam War while in his 20s by peeing on himself and acting crazy during an Army interview, now plays a fervent pro-Vietnam War defender in "The Columnist."
"I deeply appreciate the ironies of the play," the 66-year-old Tony- and Emmy-Award winner says with a knowing smile from a couch in his dressing room at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Lithgow plays columnist and political pundit Joseph Alsop, a feared and respected figure in mid-century Washington whose opinions were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers and who counseled presidents — whether they liked it or not — for decades.
In the play by David Auburn, the audience is introduced to a complicated Alsop, a New Deal liberal who was a knee-jerk anti-communist, one of the first to decry the red-baiting tactics of Joe McCarthy and also a closeted gay man who the Soviets tried to blackmail into becoming a spy.
Lithgow, who knew vaguely of Alsop while growing up, fought for the part as soon as he read it, hoping to add it to his rich list of fascinating characters, from the High Commander in "3rd Rock from the Sun" to the anti-dancing minister in "Footloose" to playing a serial killer on "Dexter."
"You read a play like this, you just do it. You drop everything and just do it," says Lithgow. Of Alsop, he adds: "His contradictions are so fascinating and that's what you look for characters — dualities and secrets and compensations."
But is it not odd for an anti-war, draft-dodging protester to play a fierce supporter of the United States effort in Vietnam?
"I'm a character actor," he replies with a laugh. "The best parts to play are the ones most different from me. I'm the guy who played the Trinity Killer, for God's sake, and loved every minute of it."
The role demands every ounce of Lithgow's intellect and humor, requiring his Alsop to be naked in one scene, screaming into the phone the next and then purring lines like: "Everyone knows me, everyone fears me, so if you're with me you are guaranteed a good table at restaurants."
Lynne Meadow, artistic director of Manhattan Theater Club, which produced "The Columnist," says Lithgow brings everything you'd want in an actor: experience, collaboration, intellect and passion. "He is the very definition of a leading man. He leads. There's no one in this company who wouldn't follow him. I joke that each season I try to lure him back."
Playing a journalist is nothing new for Lithgow, who won a Tony for playing a Walter Winchell-type columnist in the 2002 musical "The Sweet Smell of Success." He also earned a Tony in 1973 for his Broadway debut in "The Changing Room."
On screen and stage, he's been a transsexual football player ("The World According to Garp"), a man duped by a transsexual ("M. Butterfly"), a shy lover ("Terms of Endearment"), and pure evil ("Cliffhanger" and "Ricochet"). He was last on Broadway in "All My Sons" in 2008-09 and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" in 2005-06.
"I'm the cock of the walk in New York theater. I'm not a big deal in movies. I've been in some wonderful movies recently but in small roles," he says. "And I like to play big parts."
Lithgow says he's thankful that Alsop, who died in 1989 at age 78, is not that well known. "It's very liberating to play someone who no one remembers," he says. "No one's comparing me with some image."
The play opens with Alsop in his heyday and then charts his decline as his pro-war stance grows increasingly out-of-touch, and younger reporters like David Halberstam dismiss him as a "preening D.C. socialite with a press pass." How he handled his sexuality and an attempt to blackmail him is also addressed.
Auburn initially was thinking of writing a play about the uncomfortable connection between journalism and policymakers during the run-up to the Iraq war. Deciding the issue was still too raw, the playwright stumbled on Alsop, who in many ways was a brilliant example of the incest between those two worlds.
To get into character, Lithgow listened to Alsop interviews and a White House phone recording in which the columnist began lecturing President Lyndon Johnson about the composition of the Warren Commission. "You heard him browbeating Lyndon Johnson as if he was an unschooled little brother. How arrogant can you get?" says Lithgow. He also tapped into the rarified, clubby, world he and Alsop shared: Both are Harvard University graduates. "I know these people extremely well," says Lithgow.
The actor had been expecting to be on Broadway this season with his one-man show "Stories by Heart," in which he's been touring. He put it aside to play Alsop and may mount his autobiographical show in the future.
That show grew out of the loss of his father, actor and director Arthur Lithgow, in 2004. It also spawned a memoir, "Drama: An Actor's Education," which came out last year and included the revelation that he'd had eight affairs with different co-stars — including Liv Ullmann — in the 1970s while married to his first wife and that he'd shown up to his draft physical "an ashen, quivering, foul-smelling mess" to appear crazy. The book ends in 1980 with Lithgow at age 35.
"I dug deep and told my story, warts and all. That's a nervous-making thing," Lithgow says. "I think I'm a little bit hard on myself, in retrospect, but I would rather be harder on myself than other people. I don't really see any point in defaming other people."
These days, Lithgow is loving the New York theater scene, particularly a trend in strong plays, including "Clybourne Park," ''Other Desert Cities," ''4000 Miles," ''Sons of the Prophet" and "Blood and Gifts."
"I have never seen so much great playwrighting going on. It's astonishing," he says. "Everywhere you look, there's some wonderful new playwright suddenly working and being paid attention to. The trouble is, now I'm in a play, I can't see all I want. Such is the cost of doing business."
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