By Jonathan Mandell
26 May 2012
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
John Lithgow was a child during the Cold War, when Joseph Alsop, the man Lithgow is now portraying on Broadway in The Columnist, had sex with another man in a hotel room in Moscow. It was a set-up: Soviet agents photographed the encounter and then tried to blackmail Alsop, who was at the time one of the most influential newspaper columnists in the United States.
Lithgow was a teenager when, for just a few memorable seconds, he glimpsed John F. Kennedy at a campaign stop near Lithgow's childhood home in Ohio. "He just looked like he was made out of gold," the actor recalls. Joseph Alsop got a considerably longer and closer view; he was good friends with President Kennedy and even better friends with the First Lady.
"I was not very aware of Alsop back then, but I was certainly alive during that era," says Lithgow, 66. "I feel like a consultant for the rest of the cast."
The Columnist, the latest play by David Auburn (best known for Proof), acquaints a new generation with a powerful journalist and political commentator who was largely forgotten by the time he died in 1989. The ultimate Washington insider, Joseph Alsop used his access to produce a nationally syndicated column that was followed closely by political leaders and the public alike, starting in the Depression and ending during the Vietnam War. A self-declared New Deal liberal, he became one of the last of the Cold War warriors, a passionate hawk.
"I love playing someone so opposite from me," says Lithgow in his dressing room at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where he daily dons a bowtie, owl-rimmed glasses and a superior attitude for his 21st role on Broadway. "And I love a play that's both an intimate character study and a look at a vast area of politics and society.
"Alsop's a man full of complexity. He's extremely arrogant yet extremely generous. He's downright cruel, yet he's got a great sense of humor. He's self-assured, but he has a huge secret: he's a closeted gay man.
"His apparent contradictions extend to his politics, too. He loved FDR. He was Eleanor Roosevelt's cousin. He considered himself a kingmaker of John Kennedy. But he also passionately defended [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara, Johnson, even Nixon.
"Any character who has that essential duality and tension is fascinating."Continued...