John Lithgow on the love that was basis for "Stories By Heart"

In his new one-man Broadway show, the celebrated actor recalls how literature helped him connect to his father, as a child, and when his dad neared death.

CBS News

Currently starring on Broadway in a one-man show: the versatile actor John Lithgow, performing what may be his most daring role yet. Lee Cowan has saved us a seat:

John Lithgow isn't one to ignore a camera, but it took him a while to notice ours during our shared cab ride in Manhattan recently.

There were actually three: "Oh my God, why didn't you tell me? I didn't play to that camera once!"

Yes, cab cameras are a first for this veteran, but hardly cabs themselves. In fact, he used to drive one during his struggling actor days. It was one of the hardest jobs he ever had. "Well, you see our nice leg room here?  He doesn't have that legroom. And he's not 6 foot 4! It practically crippled me. Literally, I would limp home."

We were on our way to Broadway, where Lithgow is mounting a one-man show.

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Actor John Lithgow, with correspondent Lee Cowan.

CBS News

He's been honing it for years, trying to avoid the pitfalls of being all alone up on stage, as his terrible tale of the open fly illustrates.

"I said, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, my fly is open. Did anybody notice this?' And a few people raised their hands. And I said, 'Why didn't you tell me?!'" he laughed. "And they roared with laughter, and the show never went better! I zipped it up and performed."

The perils of a one-man show!

The two took their seats on stage, and Lithgow began to explain just how his new play got its start.

"Those of us who reach 60, 70 years old, if you're lucky you still have your parents with you, and it's a big, big part of your life, taking care of them and easing them into death," he said.

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Correspondent Lee Cowan joins actor John Lithgow on the New York stage.

CBS News

That was the crossroads that Lithgow was at in the Summer of 2002, when his then-86-year-old father, Arthur Lithgow, crumpled after a major surgery: "He was a very buoyant, jolly man. And after that operation, he just gave up. You know, he just fell into silence and depression, and we all knew if he doesn't cheer up, he's just gonna give up and he's gonna die. So that was my task -- I had to cheer him up."

Arthur Lithgow was also an actor -- a director and producer, too – who'd caravaned with his family across the Midwest pioneering regional theater, especially with his Shakespeare festivals.

"It's where I was an apprentice actor and propmaker and mopper of stages and stitcher of curtains and costumes," John said.

In fact, it was his father who first put him on stage at the tender age of two. "I'm told I was very good!" Lithgow laughed. 

When his father wasn't directing his son, he was reading to him, usually from a tattered book of collected short stories.

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Arthur Lithgow.

Family photo

"It's the closest we ever felt to him," he said. "He was a workaholic just like me, with his head in the clouds, just like me. Always thinking about the next play or the next performance."

But in that moment of reading, Lithgow said, "we were very close to him."

So close that years later, when Lithgow found himself sitting at his dad's bedside wondering just how to cheer him up, it occurred to him that reading those same stories back to him might just be the best medicine of all.

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John Lithgow.

CBS News

"It did wonders for an old man near death," he said.

Such wonders that Lithgow thought a theater audience could benefit from a bedtime story or two as well.

He calls it "Stories By Heart." There are two he performs, including the one that lit up his dad: a P.G. Wodehouse tale called "Uncle Fred Flits By," where Lithgow plays no fewer than 11 characters.

Cowan said, "It's a daunting thing, right?"

"It's very daunting, and it's very presumptuous. To think that you can hold an audience for two hours all by yourself, it's downright arrogant!"

It's the first time Lithgow has played himself. That's a marked departure from the roles he traditionally takes that are nothing at all like him.

He can be wildly unsettling, as when he played a serial killer on Showtime's "Dexter." Cowan asked, "After you played the Trinity Killer on 'Dexter,' did people look at you a little differently in public?"

"I would say yes!"

He goes crazy playing crazy, like when he played the horrified passenger in director George Miller's episode of "Twilight Zone: The Movie." "Nothing was ever enough," Lithgow recalled. "He would constantly say, 'I want more! I want to see your face crack!'"

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John Lithgow as a killer in Brian De Palma's "Blow Out" (left), and as an airplane passenger might NOT be going crazy in "Twilight Zone: The Movie."

Filmways/Warner Brothers

His willingness to try anything carries with it risks, and for "The World According to Garp," critics told him there were plenty with the character of Roberta Muldoon.

"I loved that role!" he said. "People thought, 'Whoa, that's a career-ender.'"

"And you never worried about that?" Cowan asked.

"Not in the slightest."

The World According to Garp (5/10) Movie CLIP - Roberta Muldoon (1982) HD by Movieclips on YouTube

He was the only American to play an Englishman in Netflix's "The Crown"  and what an Englishman indeed!  "Listen, for a character actor, this was heaven," he said. 

The physical attributes of Winston Churchill were his; for the voice, however, he had a bit of help.  

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John Lithgow as Winston Churchill, with Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, in "The Crown."

Netflix

"There's this guy named Christopher Lyons over in England who's the great toothmeister among actors," Lithgow said. "He created these two little blobs that clicked onto my back teeth that just swelled my face, but also changed my diction to his interesting, sloppy speech impediment."

"Well, his whole mouth was an echo chamber, it seemed like," Cowan said.

"Yes, yes … everything was just resonant and nasal."

Despite all the drama and all the villainy, Lithgow is perhaps best known for making us laugh, by playing his an alien disguised as a college professor in "3rd Rock From the Sun."

It was a role so all-encompassing it even changed the way Lithgow looked at himself.

Cowan asked, "You said you genuinely don't like watching your work, but with '3rd Rock,' it's different?"

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John Lithgow with Kristen Johnston, French Stewart and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "3rd Rock From the Sun."

NBC

"That's true," Lithgow said. "Watching yourself, there is a certain anxiety that you're making of fool of yourself. But if your intention is to make a fool of yourself, I never did it better than on '3rd Rock From the Sun'!"

His dad had seen him through all of it, watched him win Tonys and Emmys and be nominated for not one but TWO Oscars.

But as Lithgow sat at his father's bedside all those summers ago, performing as best he could the stories from his youth, all that really mattered was time.  

"It was one of the most important months of my life," he sighed. "When my father was suffering like that, he had this feeling, particularly by the end of that month when -- it was so sweet -- it was time to go.

"But when it was time to leave, it was like leaving your children at summer camp. I mean, he was so worried that he wouldn't be able to sustain his high spirits. It was very, very tender."

His dad's spirits held for another year-and-a-half, and in a way those spirits are still on stage in those stories … a personal tribute from a son who, it turns out, heard every word. 

        
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