Lithgow Plays a "Fallible Father" in All My Sons

Special Features   Lithgow Plays a "Fallible Father" in All My Sons For his return to Broadway, John Lithgow embraces the challenge of playing the morally bankrupt patriarch in All My Sons.
John Lithgow
John Lithgow

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The first Tony winner for Best Play (like the third) was Greek tragedy with its postwar American shirtsleeves rolled up — an anguished Arthur Miller drama about a man who falls short in the eyes of the world and, excruciatingly, the eyes of his offspring.

Joe Keller in All My Sons is a rough first draft of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, the Miller masterwork that followed two seasons later and forever established him as a top-tier playwright. But it was the success of All My Sons that got him to this pinnacle: Miller had previously put in four fast performances on Broadway with a misnomer called The Man Who Had All the Luck and vowed to pack it in and "find some other line of work" if he failed a second time. Happily, American theatre was spared that tragedy, and Miller found, in addition to fame, a father–son conflict that would animate many a play to come.

"All fathers are fallible," John Lithgow says sweepingly but correctly. "I've played a few. I am a fallible father. In fact, now, I'm a fallible grandfather. But all people are fallible. The power of this play, I think, is that it implicates every member of the audience. That's how Miller brings us into the play. All of us have a major sin of omission. Thing is, we all don't have sins of omission that cost people their lives."

In the revival opening Oct. 16 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, Lithgow is a rather gregariously camouflaged Killer Keller — the father in free fall whose gathering guilt over a moral misstep made years before propels him, by way of apology, to "a Willy Loman exit." The play's plot came from an Ohio newspaper article, pointed out to Miller by his then mother-in-law, in which a woman informed on her father for selling faulty parts to the U.S. military during World War II. Dramatically recycled, these "faulty parts" became damaged airplane cylinder heads that inadvertently caused the deaths of 21 WWII pilots. Keller passed the buck (and the prison term) on to his business partner, but this dark secret is now slowly starting to surface, "seeping out," says Lithgow, "like a leaky car battery.

Katie Holmes with John Lithgow in All My Sons
photo by Joan Marcus

"Initially, I was not all that crazy about doing All My Sons. My only memory of it was a not-very-good rep production years ago. Thank God my agent insisted I meet Simon McBurney!" He and director McBurney got together in London and spent a day going through the entire play. "Simon is like a Geiger counter at finding a play's worth." Lithgow considers Keller "an enormous challenge. He's ordinary, uneducated working-class. For me, this is something that I act." To do it, he's accessing two early roles he took from Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre to Broadway: the rugby player in David Storey's The Changing Room and the punch-drunk boxer in Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight.

"Do you remember I won a Tony, like, three weeks after I got to Broadway?" he laughs incredulously. "The Changing Room opened March 6, and by the end of the month, I had a Tony. I thought, 'At this rate, I'm going to win about 20 of these.'"

As life turns out, only now is he getting around to his 20th Broadway role. Along the way, he directed a Broadway revival of Boy Meets Girl. "Curiously, I started out as a director. I worked for my dad when he ran the McCarter and was on my way to being a director. In fact, I'd even been hired as a regional director when I finally got a full-season contract for several shows at Long Wharf. I always regarded that as the big fork in the road. The Changing Room was one of those plays. I never dreamed I'd ever even be on Broadway. I figured I was an American rep actor and would stay there the rest of my life. It was an incredible rush to do Broadway. My whole body was so supercharged. But it was almost embarrassing to win an award for such a group effort."

A second Tony (for Sweet Smell of Success) welcomed him back to Broadway after 14 years away. Hardly MIA, he was on that other coast, raking in four Emmys (three for "3rd Rock from the Sun") to go with his two Oscar nominations (for "The World According to Garp" and "Terms of Endearment").

He harbors an almost paternal pride in the run of young actors he's worked with since his return to New York theatre — Brian d'Arcy James in Sweet Smell of Success, Ben Chaplin in The Retreat from Moscow, Danny Burstein in Mrs. Farnsworth, Norbert Leo Butz in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and, now, Patrick Wilson in All My Sons — "all extraordinary actors who already have a considerable résumé.

"I was happier seeing Norbert win the Tony than having me win it, I swear to God. And hearing Brian has been cast as Shrek and that Danny's doing great in South Pacific — it makes me so happy. I remember when I was first doing New York theatre, I got to act with Jason Robards — we did a TV version of The Country Girl for Hallmark — and I remember the marvelous feeling of acting with someone that great."

Lithgow returns to present tense with a smile that's warm and wise. "That's right," he says softly. "I'm an old guy. I'm the age Jason was when I arrived in New York."

(l.-r.) <i>All My Sons</i> co-stars Dianne Wiest, John Lithgow, Katie Holmes and Patrick Wilson.
(l.-r.) All My Sons co-stars Dianne Wiest, John Lithgow, Katie Holmes and Patrick Wilson. Photo by Andrew Eccles