This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


John Lithgow isn’t one for being typecast. He is probably best known to British audiences for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in The Crown, but during his career he has also played, among others, a bumbling alien in 3rd Rock from the Sun and a serial killer in Dexter.

“A lot of it comes from the fear that nobody will want me,” he says about his acting choices, which have included roles in films as diverse as Footloose, Shrek and Blow Out. “I have a kind of restless creative energy.”

The latest outlet for this restlessness is new Disney Plus series The Old Man, a brooding cat-and-mouse spy drama in which Lithgow plays Harold Harper, an FBI man charged with apprehending his former colleague turned rogue CIA spy Dan Chase, played by Jeff Bridges. The two veteran actors (both in their 70s) had admired each other’s work for decades but this is the first time they have acted together.

“I think Jeff is right up there as the biggest reason for me to do this show,” Lithgow tells me. “He’s amazing, and I thought it would be an interesting combination of two actors. He’s got this wonderful, off-hand, relaxed and unfussed style; I am sort of brainy and come from theatre.”

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Lithgow might have been excited by the prospect of working with Bridges, but he was made to wait. The Old Man tells two separate stories that don’t come together until late into the series, and not only was filming paused firstly for the pandemic, but then also after Bridges was diagnosed with cancer.

By the time Lithgow and Bridges were finally able to act together, almost two years had passed since production had started. “It was very disorienting to pick up after 18 months,” Lithgow says. “I had practically forgotten my character’s name, so it was in many ways like a brand new job.”

John Lithgow in The Old Man
John Lithgow in The Old Man FX

The drama is set in the present day but past traumas weigh down on both the lead characters. Harper, whom Lithgow plays, is reeling from the death of his son when he receives a phone call and learns he has to deal with an international scandal from three decades earlier concerning Bridges’ character.

“The inciting event for this whole series is something that happened 30 years ago during the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan,” Lithgow says, “and then Russia invaded Ukraine. You just sort of felt it in the air; it supercharges the story and makes it a much more resonant series. It’s like history had caught up with us.”

This isn’t the first time Lithgow has appeared in a television drama concerned with history and war, of course. How did he feel about portraying Winston Churchill, a role played in recent years by, among others, Brendan Gleeson, Albert Finney, Gary Oldman, Simon Russell Beale, Robert Hardy and Timothy Spall?

“Yes, of course I was intimidated,” he says. “I sat [The Crown director] Stephen Daldry down after I’d accepted the part and asked him, ‘Why did you think to cast me?’ and he said, ‘Well, Churchill’s mother was an American.’ He didn’t mention the fact that I was about a foot and a half taller!”

John Lithgow as Churchill in The Crown
John Lithgow as Churchill in The Crown

Lithgow prepared for his turn as Churchill by doing a huge amount of reading and concluded that rather than focusing on Churchill’s political views, he would explore his emotional life.

“What interested me most in him was his childhood,” he says. “He was such an unhappy and neglected child and couldn’t have a lower self-esteem. He just grew up feeling like such a disappointment. I just got the sense of this extremely insecure man, desperate to compensate.”

I’m talking to Lithgow just as Boris Johnson is in his final weeks as prime minister. Would Lithgow fancy a go at portraying Johnson? “I remember when I was doing press for The Crown and Johnson was making a slightly earlier fool of himself,” he says. “And I said, ‘Oh man, do I want to play Boris Johnson.’ And if Peter Morgan is in charge, I’m up for it.”

Lithgow was born in New York to an actress mother and a theatre producer father who staged Shakespeare festivals. “I think of myself as pure American, but my formative years were all around a Shakespeare Festival, hearing an awful lot of lofty Shakespearean language. I then went to Harvard and on to England.” He is also a staunch supporter of Liverpool Football Club.

Lithgow studied drama in London between 1967 and 1969. That must have been fun, I say, to be in Swinging Sixties’ London. “I loved being there during that time,” he says. “It was a fantastic time for English theatre. I was seeing two and three plays a week, minimum. I saw Laurence Olivier, I saw Maggie Smith, I saw Ralph Richardson. I was drunk on it.”

Lithgow returned to the United States after studying and made his film debut in 1972. In the years since, he has starred on stage as well as film and television and has been nominated for an Oscar twice, and has six Emmys. I had read that he had turned down the role of Frasier Crane in Cheers and wondered if that was a regret.

“I never really regretted that because I couldn’t have been as good as Kelsey Grammer,” he says. “It was offered to me but I didn’t even pay it any attention. I was told that the offer had come in and I just brushed it aside, but I don’t regret it at all. I did 3rd Rock from the Sun and they were six of the happiest years of my life."

Acting remains at the heart of Lithgow's work but in recent years he has explored new outlets for his creativity. He has written a series of New York Times best-selling poetry collections, complete with his own illustrations, that satirise the Trump administration and look back through history to find Trump’s precursors.

“I turn to things when I feel nothing is going on,” he says. “The advice I always give young actors is give yourself a goal or a project that requires a lot of work and work toward that – you’ll never get there for the best reason in the world, which is that someone will hire you to act.”

It’s now 50 years since Lithgow made his film debut but, talking to him, I’m struck by how enthused and grateful he remains. He has not succumbed to jadedness. “I consider myself extremely lucky,” he says. “I move from job to job and it’s like collecting the very best people everywhere.” He’s particularly pleased that with The Old Man he has, in his 70s, got to act alongside someone he has admired for so long.

“There is a long scene in the last episode that took us six days to film,” Lithgow says. “It was just Jeff and me in a car crossing a desert. The crew would ask us if we wanted to get out and stretch our legs and we said no, we were having a great time. I mean, I got to sit in a car with Jeff Bridges for six days – and it was work!”

The Old Man is streaming on Disney Plus now – sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year now.

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