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Between a 'Rock' and a Bard Place

Broadway star to sitcom star. A real comedown, right? No way. John Lithgow is really strutting his stuff now.

June 02, 1996|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar

No one has said, "Look out, here comes the High Commander!" as John Lithgow, briefcase in hand, finds his way to an outdoor table on a weekday morning at a cafe in Santa Monica. At least no one has said it out loud. At 6 feet 4, Lithgow has always been hard to miss, but since January he has been especially hard to miss as the star of a hit TV show, the interplanetary sitcom "3rd Rock From the Sun," which NBC put on as a midseason replacement on Tuesday nights.

Once a cottage industry, John Lithgow has suddenly gone public. For a character actor, it's the difference between meeting strangers who think they've seen you somewhere before and hearing a cab driver's honk and knowing it's probably for you. This is what all actors want, is it not? But Lithgow is and is not all actors.

"I was in the men's room at a Broadway theater last week," he says, "and this old guy comes up to me and says [chesty New York geezer accent], 'I hate it when you do the silly comedies! It does a disservice to ya!'

"And I can only laugh," which Lithgow is doing right now over his cappuccino, amazed at the idea of it all. "Just the fact that you are that much of a conversation piece."

Being a TV star, he has discovered in a matter of months, has something in common with being a politician. "Everybody knows you and has an opinion on you. It reduces the world to a small town."

This after more than a decade of working regularly in the movies, with two supporting actor Oscar nominations (for "The World According to Garp" and "Terms of Endearment") on his resume, and a decade onstage in New York before that (including a Tony Award for "The Changing Room"). But it is on the great lawn of television that Lithgow is finding room to throw open the circus tent of characters he has spent a career amassing. Conveniently, they are all able to coexist within the person of "3rd Rock From the Sun's" High Commander, the histrionically inclined military leader of a team of explorers from another planet who has assumed the form of a bombastic college physics professor named Dick Solomon but who is guessing all the way at how to behave as a human being.

As it happens, Lithgow will briefly return to live performance this week in one of L.A. Theatre Works' radio-theater shows at the DoubleTree Guest Suites hotel in Santa Monica (Wednesday through Saturday, taped for later radio broadcast on KCRW-FM), reprising the role he played on Broadway in 1988 as the sexually duped French diplomat Rene Gallimard in the Tony Award-winning "M. Butterfly" by David Henry Hwang. And he says that during his sitcom hiatus next year, he wants to go back to do a play on Broadway, but at the moment all he can see on the horizon is the blue sky of his new life in television.

Before "3rd Rock From the Sun," Lithgow had never even appeared on episodic television, unless you count an installment of "Amazing Stories," for which he won an Emmy in 1986. But he never imagined he would be sitting here talking about his first season in a sitcom about aliens come to Earth that did so well in the ratings it blew Tony Danza to another night on ABC.

When the Carsey-Werner-based husband-and-wife writing-producing team of Bonnie and Terry Turner (Mike Myers' collaborators on "Wayne's World") sprung on him the idea for "3rd Rock From the Sun" at a hotel breakfast two years ago, he only flinched momentarily. "The first words out of his mouth were, 'It's about four aliens,' " Lithgow recalls Terry Turner saying, "and I thought, 'Uh-uh,' the button turned off inside me. But as he kept talking, within two to three minutes I immediately saw the satirical possibilities of this."

The Turners needed someone to be their High Commander, a tall order in as much as Terry Turner recalls he and his wife conceiving the role as "somewhere between Bugs Bunny and Errol Flynn." The Turners, former staff writers at "Saturday Night Live," had worked with Lithgow when he guest-hosted twice on the show and played such sketch characters as "the meanest Methodist minister in the world," a riff on his part in the 1984 film "Footloose." "A lot of people know him as a villain and dramatic actor," Terry Turner says, "but we always knew how good he was with comedy. As we were developing this, from the get-go, the character who emerged in template was John."

Good thing he went for it. The Turners say that they had no backup candidate.

The High Commander, by nature imperious but by circumstance clueless, is the sort of person who walks over to a stranger at a party and says, "I don't like your shoes and I don't think you do either," and has no idea why the person's mouth drops open. Like his three "family members" from outer space who have accompanied him on the mission, he has a huge brain but a child's innocence about earthlings and their complicated emotional lives. And therein lies the basis of the show's irony and its stranger-in-a-strange-land approach to sending up American popular culture.

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