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John Lithgow: Sharing his storied life

John Lithgow is a gifted storyteller, so I was happy to catch up with him in 2010 as he prepared to bring his "Stories By Heart" tour to Westchester.

John Lithgow knows what it's like to have people interpret his words.

The Emmy and Tony award-winning actor, perhaps best known as the lovable alien Dick Solomon on TV's "Third Rock from the Sun," is also a writer of children's books (six and counting). He supplies the words and the publisher pairs him with an illustrator.

"I'm always amazed at what the illustrators do," he says. "They completely transform what I've written and I think this is probably the same thing — and hopefully it's a good thing."

"This" is Lithgow's storytelling tour — "Stories By Heart" — which comes to Peekskill's Paramount Center for the Arts for one night only on Thursday.

He'll perform P.G. Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred Flits By," about a young Englishman who goes on an eventful romp with his crazy uncle, and Ring Lardner's "Haircut," about a 1920s small-town Michigan barber.

These particular stories call on Lithgow to exercise different storytelling muscles.

While he's telling "Haircut," Lithgow mimes an old-time shave and a haircut on an unseen customer.

"It's all in this one voice, and bit by bit, he tells the story of this character, Jim Kendall, this real card who has been killed by accident. He tells this stranger all about it and this very funny story slowly turns very dark without the barber knowing it," he says.

"The barber's not that bright, he just tells the story like a funny story, but bit by bit the audience realizes, 'Oh my gosh.' It's a fascinating tension that you create in the audience. It could have been written to be performed for an audience."

Bringing "Uncle Fred" to life means changing his voice to play 10 different characters, including a parrot.

Lithgow has been crisscrossing the country bringing these page-bound stories to life.

"In the last few days, I've been in Galveston and Tyler, Texas and tonight I'm doing it for Kentuckians," he says in a phone call from Lexington, Ky., last week. "In a way that's exactly why I'm doing it. I'm eager to try it with extremely different audiences.

"The best these stories have ever played was in White Fish, Mont., where I launched it," he says. "My wife is from Montana and we have a summer cabin there. Boy, they loved it. I never got a better response than I got from Montanans. How about that?"

While he has only been performing these works for the past few years, he was raised on them.

"Both are in this wonderful old volume of short stories that my father used (when he would) read bedtime stories to me and my siblings when we were kids," he says.

Years later, the actor returned the favor and read these stories to his ailing father.

While the seeds of a storied life were planted in his childhood, the roots of this tour took hold after the actor read Wodehouse's "Uncle Fred" story at Symphony Space in New York City, part of Isaiah Sheffer's wonderful "Selected Shorts" radio program to which Lithgow is a frequent contributor.

"When I first did it at Symphony Space, I just read it," he says. "It hadn't occurred to me to turn it into a solo show. But at that point, it was just dawning on me what a great piece of theater this could be."

To turn it into theater, Lithgow turned to Jack O'Brien, who directed him in Broadway's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."

"Jack was there to support me and to reinforce the idea of the whole evening being about storytelling and this big question: Why do we all want, need and love stories?"

Lithgow then took "Stories By Heart" to London's National Theater, where audiences were more taken with Lardner's story of a Midwestern barber than they were Wodehouse, one of their own.

"Wodehouse for them was familiar stuff and it was fun to hear an American energy attacking P.G. Wodehouse," he says. "But 'Haircut' for them was like a visit from the Moscow Art Theatre, something exotic.

"Nobody in England can get the Midwestern vernacular right," he says, beginning to laugh. "It's always very weird. If you ever saw Laurence Olivier play Big Daddy in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' it was simply dreadful." Lithgow erupts in a fit of laughter: "It's excruciating."

Then he turns the laughter back on himself, recalling an early brush with a British accent.

"My first show on Broadway was 'The Changing Room,' where I played a North Country rugby player. We all talked with these thick North Country accents and we thought we were so great and the production was a big hit and won all these awards. (Lithgow won the Tony.) Apparently, Lindsay Anderson, who directed the first production in London, ran out after about 15 minutes. We were devastated. But of course he walked out. He must have found it awful."

While Wodehouse and Lardner aren't alive to react to Lithgow's interpretation of their work, other authors have responded favorably to his treatment.

Sherman Alexie, an American Indian writer, bounded to the stage to hug Lithgow after the actor read his "Indian Country" on "Selected Shorts."

"For a 'New Yorker' event once, I read a famous comic piece by Calvin Trillin, written in the voice of a librarian uttering corrections," Lithgow recalls. "He absolutely loved it and I was so relieved because you know that he heard the voice in his mind when he was writing it. He reacted somewhat like Alexie had: 'My God, I never heard it that way. I was thrilled.'”

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