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John Lithgow comes from as pedigreed an acting background as you’ll likely ever find on this side of the pond. Hailing from a family steeped in theater, Lithgow grew up primarily in Ohio, before studying at Harvard University, then winning a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
In the ’70s, Lithgow lived and worked in New York City, landing Tony Award-winning roles on stage while becoming a favorite of director Brian De Palma. De Palma featured Lithgow as a supporting player in his films Obsession and Blow Out, before Lithgow would move away from stage work towards working almost exclusively on screen in the ’80s.
This transition to screen showed the true breadth of Lithgow’s acting talents, as he moved between trendy films like Footloose and family-friendly fare like Harry and the Hendersons before being delightfully-typecast in villain roles in the ’90s — which proved to be some of his best work.
Still, Lithgow’s tremendous intellect and theatricality helped him expand his oeuvre, as his television career exploded with hit series like 3rd Rock From the Sun. Now a favorite in premium series such as The Crown and The Old Man, Lithgow still continues his movie work — and his greatest film roles have come throughout his highly-decorated, half-century-long career on the silver screen.
The following are John Lithgow’s 10 greatest roles in film.
10 Earl Talbot Blake — Ricochet (1991)
John Lithgow kicked off his early-90s run of truly tasteless villains by acting opposite no less than Denzel Washington in Ricochet. Washington plays an ex-LAPD cop whose personal and professional life are upended when a former assailant whom he locked up (Lithgow as Earl Talbot Blake) plots a prison escape and revenge against the now-prosecutor.
It was an early introduction to the bona fide movie star version of Denzel — made possible by a worthy adversary in Lithgow, who was just finding his feet as one of the ’90s preeminent villains.
Lithgow Has Long Utilized a Semi-Psychotic Je Ne Sais Quoi
Earl Talbot Blake lived up to his 3-name-creepiness as a killer so wound up on a vendetta that he will clearly sacrifice himself to exact revenge. Lithgow sold that far-flung idea during the ’90s era when serial killers had to have actual motives. Climbing across the Watts Towers in the film’s crescendo, we saw that Lithgow wasn’t afraid to creep audiences right out of their seats, while asserting his impressive physicality.
9 Donald — Interstellar (2014)
One of Lithgow’s more tender roles of the last decade, his character in Interstellar becomes Joseph’s (Matthew McConaughey) moral compass, using his role as Donald, the father of Joseph’s deceased wife, to counterbalance Joseph’s outsized ambition. Lithgow didn’t require much screen time in Christopher Nolan’s environmental post-apocalypse, creating a constant reminder for the film’s hero of the life on Earth he was choosing to leave behind.
Lithgow Has Proven to be Perfect in Patriarchal Roles
Whether it was his prototypical ’80s dad in Harry and the Hendersons, his extra-terrestrial TV patriarch on 3rd Rock From the Sun, or this grandfatherly role, Lithgow has always impressed as the head of a family. His stately demeanor and Midwestern warmth have lent authenticity to his most famous dad and grandpa roles.
8 Carter/Cain — Raising Cain (1992)
‘Lesser known’ generally equals ‘better loved’ when it comes to John Lithgow roles — especially when he’s playing a homicidal criminal suffering from multiple personality disorder. Such is the case in Raising Cain, a somewhat forgotten Brian De Palma film (though you might have mistaken it for a David Cronenberg movie). Lithgow employs all of his character range in a performance that sees him inhabit four distinct roles in one film, including the fragile Carter and the formidable Cain.
How Raising Cane Set the Stage for Cliffhanger
Raising Cain was profitable —but not an outright success — coming during De Palma’s most commercially-cognizant period, but met with little critical fanfare. All the same, it proved to be one of the best outlets for Lithgow’s incredible penchant for characters, and his exceptional turn as Cain led to a casting in his most beloved villain role the year after, as Eric Qualen in Cliffhanger.
7 Benjamin Arthur Hull — Love is Strange (2014)
If Brokeback Mountain was the most stirring and awarded example of leading men playing gay characters against type, Love is Strange was certainly the cutest. Lithgow and Alfred Molina play Ben and George, an aging same-sex couple who finally concede to marriage after 39 years of devotion. When a homophobic firing leads to their lives being upended, the two dig deeper into their loyalty towards one another.
Lithgow Has Always Taken Risks on Roles About Alternative Lifestyles
Brave though it was, Lithgow’s role in Love is Strange was nothing new for an actor who has played gay and trans roles on stage and screen since the ’80s. The New York-centric vibe of the film appealed to both actor’s sensibilities — as they don dapper linen suits on walks through Greenwich Village and contemplate the mortality of love and life — together.
For all you macho alpha types: you’d do well to avoid the film’s third act, unless you want to be roto-rooting your nostrils like Lloyd and Harry during that Pacific Bell commercial in Dumb and Dumber.
6 Lord Farquaad — Shrek (2001)
It’s surprising that a voice as recognizable as Lithgow’s hasn’t frequented more voice roles in animated films, but it could be argued there was no need — after his perfectly off-putting role as the uber-entitled Lord Farquaad in Shrek made him a legend of CGI.
Yes, that stodgy, semi-British accent was put to great use as Shrek’s highly-narcissistic adversary, and the role ended up being one of Lithgow’s most widely beloved — seemingly modeled after megalomaniacs like Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride.
How Lithgow’s Theater Background Made His Mid-Atlantic Voice Shine
We’re still not entirely convinced that Lithgow didn’t spend at lease part of his childhood in the United Kingdom, as his background from a family of itinerant stage folks was never more apparent than as the highly-theatrical Farquaad. It’s as great an example of his British acting background as any role he’s had.
Lithgow has also impressed using the full-on English accent playing the likes of Winston Churchill, but his best Anglo-centric role is likely as Shrek’s frustrating foe. It’s never much of a reach for Lithgow to go full Britannia.
5 John Valentine — Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Very simply one of the best showings of paranoid delusion in an acting performance, Lithgow sold his role as John Valentine, in the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” segment of the infamously cursed Twilight Zone: The Movie production.
The role presaged shows like American Horror Stories, while extending the legacy of the original Twilight Zone television show. Lithgow plays an airline passenger who spots a flying gremlin outside his 747’s window, unsure if the threatening spectre is reality or his imagination.
Why Lithgow Excelled in Hyperbolic Roles
Lithgow hailed from a theater family. His father, Arthur Washingon Lithgow III, was a theater director — stirring an early interest in the stage for John, who earned multiple Tony nominations early in his acting career, eventually winning two. Lithgow’s theatrical approach lent itself well to over-the-top performances in film, and his Twilight Zone role was certainly the most unhinged.
That trusty old plot device of the city kid moving to a small town got its greatest voice in the hit 1984 movie Footloose, replete with some highly-Caucasian dance moves, and the Bible-thumping Old Guard represented by one Reverend Shaw Moore — the role that made John Lithgow a household name.
Reverend Moore squared off against a spry Kevin Bacon, but Lithgow brought some humanity to an authoritarian role when he stops short of book burning in the film, as even his own daughter seeks to upend the town’s conservative vibe.
John Lithgow was firmly ensconsed in “That Guy” status until Footloose became a smash hit, creating opportunities for Lithgow closer to the top of the call sheet in films like Harry and the Hendersons and The Memphis Belle. It also planted an early seed for his epic run of villainous characters in the ’90s — roles he continues to occupy to this day.
3 Doug Strutt — Beatriz at Dinner (2017)
Written in 2015 when Donald Trump was still considering a run for the presidency, Beatriz at Dinner suddenly became known as the first film of the Trump Era when “The Donald” unexpectedly became Commander-in-Chief after its release.
White Lotus creator Mike White wrote the film, and cast John Lithgow in the role of Doug Strutt, a character who embodies everything that White saw wrong with American society. The big-game-hunting hotelier becomes analogous to Trump in the film, made all the more prescient by Trump’s rise in politics soon thereafter.
How John Lithgow’s Politics Matched the Film’s Tenor
Turns out Lithgow shared Mike White’s distaste for the divisive Trump, even dedicating two books, Dumpty and Trumpty Dumpty to satirize the former President’s conflict-ridden term in executive office. Lithgow has never shied away from wearing his politics on his sleeve, even when it’s called for playing characters with the type of politics he so vehemently opposes.
2 Roberta Muldoon — The World According to Garp (1982)
One of only two roles that earned the actor an Oscar nomination, Lithgow’s role as Roberta Muldoon in the John Irving adaptation The World According to Garp has been championed by trans critics and fans alike for its humanity. At a time when trans roles were often derisive, Lithgow played Muldoon with a depth and likability that wedged the door open for a new perspective on how these roles should be approached.
Where Lithgow Drew Inspiration for the Muldoon Character
Speaking to PBS about the character, Lithgow remarked “John Irving inspired me… I read the novel two years before I even knew there would be a film. It was a great honor to play the role… and the response I got from [the transgender community] was inspiring.”
1 Eric Qualen — Cliffhanger (1993)
“Do you know what love is? Sacrifice.” Eric Qualen uttered the cold-hearted line before dispatching his companion Kristel, execution style, in Cliffhanger. Such was the nature of the character, a former British military officer whose problematic high-altitude heist leads to a game of cliff-side cat-and-mouse with Sylvester Stallone.
Why We Love Eric Qualen — Even if Lithgow Didn’t
Remarking to the Hollywood Reporter on the role that helped make him a recurrent villain in the ’90s, Lithgow said “I was just dreadful in that film, but that didn’t matter. It was such fun.” Sorry, Mr. Lithgow, we respectfully disagree with your self-assessment — as Qualen is second only to Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) of Die Hard in the ’80s-’90s-movie bad guy pantheon.