Nov. 14--He may be best-known for portraying the clueless alien commander on the hit sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun," but actor John Lithgow is very serious about storytelling.
With his sonorous voice and frequently humorous delivery, Lithgow has made a name for himself as a teller of tales, particularly for children, with nine best-selling books and CD sets.
He offers his talents to a broader audience on Saturday with "Stories by Heart," a one-man theatrical presentation of two stories at Zoellner Arts Center.
Lithgow's 40-year career in theater, television and films has earned him Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe awards, but he says he traces it all back to the stories he was told as a child.
"As an actor, I have been a storyteller my whole life," he says. "I have a sense that it all started with my roots in childhood."
The busy actor, who recently finished a Broadway show, is doing voice work for an ABC series, just released another book and is working on two films, says he still "can't resist" returning to telling stories.
"This is the thing that I do that is the closest to the heart of the matter," he says. "This has been my little concert piece that I always come back to."
The Lehigh Valley is fortunate to have a spot on Lithgow's brief tour. It is the first time the Rochester, N.Y., native has been to Bethlehem. He says he only is able to do five shows right now between other commitments.
"This show is amazingly fun to do," Lithgow says, "and it takes me to towns I've never been to before."
Lithgow will take the stage with just a chair, stool and table and a well-worn book from 1939 as his only prop. Both stories he tells are from a big fat book called "Teller of Tales," an anthology of 100 short stories compiled by British author W. Somerset Maugham from which Lithgow's father read to him.
Lithgow says when his aging father's health was failing, he had the idea of reading him a bedtime story from the well-loved book to cheer him up. He told his father to choose a story and his father chose "Uncle Fred Flits" by P.G. Wodehouse. It was revelation for Lithgow.
"I rediscovered the story," Lithgow says. "It is fantastically funny and it made my father laugh. It crystallized what I do and why I do it. That became the germ of the one-man show."
Lithgow used the story, and another favorite, "Haircut" by Ring Lardner, to create the show in 2008 for The Lincoln Center Theater Company and takes it out on tour when he has time.
He says the two stories are wonderful companion pieces and are well-suited to theatrical performance.
"I frame the stories with narratives of own life and my thoughts on storytelling," he says.
Lithgow began his acting career on Broadway in David Storey's, "The Changing Room," for which he won a Tony Award. Since then he has appeared on Broadway 20 more times and been inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. He was last on Broadway in 2012 in David Auburn's drama "The Columnist," portraying Washington political columnist Joseph Alsop, a performance that earned Lithgow his sixth Tony nomination.
Lithgow has acted in many films, including "The World According to Garp" and "Terms of Endearment," both of which earned him Academy Award nominations. His recent films include "The Homesman" with Tommy Lee Jones and Steven Spielberg's sci-fi "Interstellar," both slated for release in 2014.
He has also been nominated for 11 Emmy Awards for his work in television and won five, including three for his character of Dick Solomon in "3rd Rock from the Sun" and one for his role as the Trinity Killer on Showtime's "Dexter."
He is excited about the rare chance to return to his storytelling roots at Zoellner.
For "Uncle Fred Flits By," Lithgow says he goes "full out" to bring 10 characters to life, including a parrot. The story follows the chaotic adventures of Uncle Fred, when he and his nephew Pongo take shelter from the rain in someone's unattended house and Uncle Fred makes himself at home.
"I'm arguing and switching like quicksilver from one character to another," he says. "The reaction has been wonderful."
In the second story, "Haircut," Lithgow portrays only one character, a gossipy barber in small-town Michigan who gives a shave and a haircut to a stranger in town. He says the two pieces contrast with each other but are both ideal for theatrical readings.
"I'd much rather act on stage," he says. "It becomes a shared experience."
He says he always asks audience members to raise their hand if they are familiar with the stories. Usually there are very few.
"These stories were well known a long time ago and now are virtually forgotten," he says. "When I ask if anyone knows them, there is a moment of elation that I am going to be introducing them to two wonderful stories."
Audiences also will get a taste of Lithgow's musical side. He says he will sing a "raucous, horrific folk song to set the stage" at the beginning of the second act of the show.
Lithgow has released three children's music CDs, including the Grammy-nominated, "The Sunny Side of the Street" and is launching a tour with an orchestra for his recently released book, "Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo," which features his trademark rhyming text.
Lithgow says he see a resurgence in the art of storytelling. "I think people miss stories," he says.
Lithgow also does the voice of the computer generated White Rabbit for the ABC show "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland" and suggests that the proliferation of television shows based on fairy tales that also include ABC's "Once Upon a Time," NBC's "Grimm" and Fox's "Sleepy Hollow" are a pushback to reality TV.
"People are hungry for stories," he says. "It is a very healthy backlash. Stories are what my evening is about and it's as much for me as it is for the audience."
'STORIES BY HEART'
-- What: Star of film, television and stage John Lithgow performs a one-man show in which he combines his stories of his own life with two great stories that were read to him as a child.
-- When: 8 p.m. Saturday
-- Where: Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, 420 E. Packer Ave., Bethlehem
-- How much: $23-$75
-- Opening act: Larry Sceurman, Karen Maurer, Robin Reichert, Ingrid Bohn, Judy England McCarthy and Charles Kiernan of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild tell stories at 7 p.m.
-- Recommended age: 10 and up
-- Info: 610-758-2787 or http://www.zoellnerartscenter.org.
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