An Almost Lurid Past

Photo: Nigel Parry/CPI. Grooming by Efrat/Solo Artists.

When John Lithgow was in his early thirties, a respected actor but not yet a star, he had a yearlong adulterous affair with “an extremely famous actress, a No. 1 on your list of the world’s most beautiful women.” It was a very public conflagration, “a crucible,” as he describes it, with a mix of chagrin and nostalgia—the “neutron bomb” that wrecked his first marriage and reshaped his life.

But of course, you’ve never heard this story. It happened decades before Gawker Stalker, before TMZ, before digital cameras and viral sex tapes. There was plenty of gossip back then, of course, and a cadre of powerful columnists to curate it—but nothing like the bubbling, 24-hour, anonymous, Twitterized cauldron of information we swim in today. And although many people witnessed his personal drama, the affair never gained traction as a rumor: “Liz Smith acknowledged it in one sentence, but with such dignity, like, ‘Let’s leave these people alone!,’ ” he recalls, then shakes his head, remembering. “It’s extraordinary.”

We’re seated on Lithgow’s sofa, framed by a glorious view of Central Park. The apartment is a New York dream, bright and airy, a design collaboration between Lithgow and his second wife, Dr. Mary Yeager, a professor of economic history at UCLA. Married for almost three decades, the couple have spent years negotiating a bi-coastal schedule, enduring frustrating separations whenever he does a theater production. But this home is where they will eventually settle down, Lithgow hopes, after years of “dismal sublets,” into a true New York life. He’s a terrific host, voluble and courtly: At one point, worried that I’m cold, he runs to grab a purple blanket to drape over our knees. For the past half-hour, we’ve been having a perfectly high-minded conversation about Lithgow’s latest role, as a gossip columnist in Douglas Carter Beane’s wicked new satire Mr. and Mrs. Fitch.But now I’m distracted, crazily scrolling through a mental list of the world’s most beautiful women, circa 1977.

Lithgow lucked out, I suggest, when his affair didn’t blow up into a tabloid scandal. After all, without his ever becoming a target for the paparazzi, his career has hummed along beautifully. There was that spate of high-profile movie roles in the eighties (Terms of Endearment, Footloose, Twilight Zone, Buckaroo Banzai, and, of course, The World According toGarp), then the hit sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun, a secondary career as a children’s-book writer, countless theater leads, and, most recently, his acclaimed turn as the Trinity Killer on Dexter, a truly sinister (and unsettlingly naked and weeping) performance for which Lithgow just won a well-deserved Golden Globe. A few years after his divorce, just before he hit that eighties streak, he was set up with Yeager, who had never heard of him. “Is he famous?” she asked their mutual friend, who told her that Lithgow (who was applying for unemployment at the time, in Santa Monica) was “the best actor in America.” He seems to have it all: a rare long-term marriage of equals, children (two with Mary, one with his first wife), and fame without many of the downsides.

But as Lithgow points out, there’s another way to look at it. A scandal that juicy might have juiced his career as well, made him “far more famous than I am, and possibly more bankable—not that my name and that adjective have ever been in the same sentence.” He once ran into an editor from the National Enquirer at a party, who told him, “I’m sorry, but we’re just not interested in you.” Lithgow laughs: an extended, booming, jolly, slightly frightening laugh. “Which is certainly the most peculiar compliment I’ve ever been paid—or the most interesting insult.”

And it’s true that, when you plug some crazy adultery into the timeline, you can almost imagine Lithgow’s career splitting along two paths, Sliding Doors–style. If his early fame had come from a sex scandal, would we see him as a bad boy? A rogue instead of a respected character actor? At 64, with his pale baby face and hulking physique, Lithgow has played a range of roles, but his specialty is what might be termed “twisted daddies”: authority figures whose normality is skin-deep. The Trinity Killer in Dexter provided a perfect climax to these performances, suggesting a well of malevolence behind Lithgow’s sweet-uncle features.

Mr. and Mrs. Fitch features fewer bathtub murders and more verbal cruelty: It’s Lithgow’s second time around as a gossip columnist, after playing the iconic J. J. Hunsecker (“the vicious dean of gossip columnists”) in Broadway’s The Sweet Smell of Success. Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle play enmeshed, long-married columnists, all-powerful gods of reputation struggling in the age of Twitter. It’s the third of Beane’s arch meditations on fame, and Lithgow relishes the script’s zingers, including one that resonates with his own career: “You know, theater. That thing that movie people do when they want to announce they’re available for television.”

But he was equally drawn to Beane’s portrait of the “the absolutely symbiotic marriage,” he tells me. Two weeks ago, when he won the Golden Globe, Lithgow addressed his wife by her full name in his speech: “Professor Mary Yeager of UCLA, my wife of 28 years, this one’s for you: I love you, baby.” Beaming at him from the audience, Yeager seemed like the rare civilian in a roomful of professional consorts. “She’s a tough woman,” he says admiringly. “She reacts to my fame by working harder! On the face of it, I am the big deal. In New York, people walk right past her to assault me. But the way we feel, her work is absolutely as important as my work.”

In L.A., Lithgow says, they primarily hang out with her academic colleagues. “Nobody even realizes I live out there, after 27 years,” he says. He’s writing a memoir—which may include some dish about that long-ago affair—and to publicize it, he’s opened a Twitter feed. “I’m a gossip whore like anyone else,” he laughs, and for all his ambivalence, he’s learned that there are ways to turn those dials. “You can add blind items about yourself,” he says with a smile. “And that way madness lies.”

Mr. and Mrs. Fitch
By Douglas Carter Beane.
Second Stage Theatre.
In Previews January 26.

An Almost Lurid Past