Tonys 2012: Six-time nominee John Lithgow on original plays and a modern-day ‘Columnist’

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Image Credit: Joan Marcus

John Lithgow is already a legend, but he keeps getting more legendary — racking up a sixth Tony nomination for his titular turn in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of David Auburn’s The Columnist. Throughout a lengthy career in film and television, Lithgow has remained a native to the stage, earning his first Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play in 1973’s The Changing Room and his second for Best Actor in a Musical for 2002’s Sweet Smell of Success. EW sat down with the decorated theater veteran to talk Tony nominations, what it means to win and whether his eponymous Columnist could last in the digital age.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been through this process so many times before—do you manage to learn something new during Tony season each year?
Mainly people ask me to talk about myself, and there’s very little about myself that I haven’t already learned. But this is special this year, I think, because every one of the award nominations I’ve had, of course, have been defined by the role that I’ve been nominated for, and this year it’s for The Columnist. But what absolutely thrills me is that this role and this play are being honored with [these awards], and they are brand new. It’s a premiere that was just sort of unleashed on the public on Broadway, which I think is incredibly courageous and adventurous. In this particular case, when nobody has seen this play before—it didn’t come from London, it didn’t come from regional theater or off Broadway—I think that’s what makes me most proud this time around.

And some might argue that there’s a dearth of originality these days on Broadway, so when you have a truly original play, it must be a thrill.
Yes. And the good news is, there’s not a dearth everywhere else. There is some incredible new writing going on. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed it, but there are like ten new playwrights… something is in the water! There are so many great new plays, not necessarily on Broadway, but off Broadway, too! Jon Robin Baitz, [for one].

How did you react when you found out about the nomination?
Oh, I was ecstatic. It’s an incredible rush to get this news every time. I don’t get jaded, believe me. And I figured I was on the bubble. There were an awful lot of great performances, and I had not been nominated for any of these other awards leading up to the Tonys, so I pretty much persuaded myself that it wasn’t going to happen this time, and I’d made peace with that. Good thing to do that, because then when the news comes, it’s pure pleasure!

What would that mean to you to win a third Tony?
It would be great! I mean, as I told you, I am not jaded. I love winning these things! [laughs]

Is there anyone you haven’t met yet whom you’d love to meet on Tony night?
Let’s see. Actually, I made sure that I met a few people [at the Tony Awards nominee luncheon] that I hadn’t met yet, like Nina Arianda. I hadn’t met her, and she’s a fabulous new talent. The nice thing about this gang is that I do know most of them. Kelli O’Hara’s a great friend; in my own category James Corden has become a great new friend, and Jimmy Jones, Frank Langella. It’s just great. It’s a great bunch.

What will you remember about Tony nomination day?
Just this onslaught of e-mails, my God. I got carpal tunnel syndrome sending out thank yous.

How do you think Joseph Alsop, the columnist you play in The Columnist, would fare today? Could he be a blogger?
Well you know, it’s interesting to think, what is the modern day comparison to Joe Alsop? The power of the print media and the syndicated column is not what it used to be. I mean, you have the op/ed columnists in The New York Times and The Washington Post, but there’s no Joe Alsop today, and there’s no Walter Lippmann. That was a different era of journalism. I mean, it’s a crazy thing to say, but the closest comparison I can make is to Rush Limbaugh, in terms of just pure reach. Different in every conceivable way from Joe Alsop, and Joe Alsop would have had nothing but contempt for Rush Limbaugh, or the way he delivers his media reach. But Alsop had that kind of power. People really listened. They read what he wrote. And he loved throwing in comparisons to the Peloponnesian War and Greek war heroes. That’s another huge difference from today. He’s an educated man who just loved to strut his stuff.

How do you get your mind off the Tonys?
I have to get my mind off it in two hours when I do my show. So don’t worry about that!

Read more:
This Week on Stage: Tony nomination fallout, plus Bebe Neuwirth and Christina Ricci romp with the Bard
Broadway box office: ‘Nice Work’ and ‘Once’ get biggest post-Tony bumps
Broadway’s ‘Leap of Faith’ announces May 13 closing

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