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THE SUNDAY CONVERSATION

With John Lithgow

Playing a serial killer on 'Dexter' is not so alien for him, actually.

September 27, 2009|Maria Elena Fernandez

How could John Lithgow get as far from "3rd Rock from the Sun" as possible? By playing Arthur Mitchell , a serial killer on Showtime's "Dexter" who has been murdering women for decades and whispering the same sweet nothings -- "It's already over" -- to each victim before she dies: Fans of Lithgow's work will see a lot of him in this role.

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What brings you to the world of "Dexter"? Were you a fan before you joined the show?

No, I'd seen bits and pieces of the first season. But, you know, if you don't see something from the beginning with these season-long stories, you don't have the thread. So I always figured I'd catch up with "Dexter" sometime. Well, Dexter caught up with me.

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Yes, it's that kind of show.

[Michael C. Hall] has created this amazing character -- he's pulled off that incredible trick: sympathy for the devil. You're on Dexter's side even though he's a murderer.

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But he does lie to everyone around him.

It's such a fantastic device. There are so many secrets that the audience knows but the other characters don't. Everyone is withholding something or misunderstanding something. It's this wonderful combination of gore and comedy and actual heart and emotion. You actually do care about these characters. I really can't think of another show that pulls that off. Maybe "The Sopranos."

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How did this happen?

It came to my agent, of course. But the very next morning I was sitting listening to a very long and detailed pitch from Clyde Phillips and John Goldwyn, the executive producers of the show. And I think it was about a 45-minute-long bit of storytelling. Clyde was just telling absolutely everything about my character and how everything unfolds, all of the things that I can't tell you or anybody else. And he just had me on the edge of my seat.

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So they had you at the pitch meeting?

No, I said no. It was simply that my wife and I had this wonderful summer planned. I spent the whole year in New York doing theater and so we'd been apart an awful lot and we really wanted to spend the summer together. But, you know, three days after I turned it down, I accepted it after all. Everybody, including my wife, said, "You gotta take this job." And then I set about to watch all 36 episodes and I was just crazy about this show. Became completely addicted to it. As everybody else seems to be.

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Do you find that people are surprised you've taken this role?

Not really. I love to mix things up. As far as television goes, I have been so defined from "3rd Rock From the Sun" for the last several years. But I've let a lot of years go by and I thought this was a great way to follow that up.

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How does he rank: Is he the most evil character you've played?

Not by a long shot. I've played a whole host gallery of villains. In "Cliffhanger," and "Ricochet" and "Raising Cane," and "Blow Out." The nice thing about being a character actor with a long career is eventually people forget what you did. You come back and surprise people.

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If I remember correctly, a long time ago, there might have been a (nude) scene on "Third Rock"?

I posed nude in an art class. I was so excited by the notion of nudity. Aliens got excited about all kinds of things.

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So when you knew that you'd be nude in this role -- that was just old hat?

Oh yes. My first job on Broadway was "The Changing Room" in 1973 and it all took place in the locker room of a rugby team. And I had a long scene stark naked on stage. I won a Tony Award for that so I look for every opportunity to take my clothes off ever since. People don't always necessarily want me to, of course.

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maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com

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