LOS ANGELES — John Lithgow was going to pass up the chance to play serial killer versus serial killer on Dexter. An Italian vacation, a cruise and his son's wedding awaiting him.
He made it to the ceremony but postponed the trip, and he credits his understanding wife of 28 years, UCLA history professor Mary Yeager, with pushing him into the plum job.
"She's the one who said, 'No, you've got to take the role,'" he said.
Lithgow guest-stars as Arthur Mitchell, the so-called Trinity Killer, whose victims come in threes and who both repels and attracts Michael C. Hall's Dexter Morgan in the Showtime drama. (The show also stars Louisville native Jennifer Carpenter as Dexter's sister Debra, recently shot by Mitchell.)
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Mitchell fits the profile of those whom forensics expert/serial killer Dexter has judged deserve to die, but he's also a singular role model. Tempted to learn how the Trinity Killer has evaded capture, Dexter begins to make mistakes as he deviates from his protective "code," leading to a plot twist in Sunday's episode, "Slack Tide."
Lithgow, who has a nearly courtly manner and is deemed a sweetheart by colleagues, enjoys bringing the death-obsessed Mitchell to life.
"This man is very two-faced, like Dexter. A serial killer by definition is a man who presents himself in a very different way to the world," Lithgow said. "So it's an actor's field day figuring out what you reveal and what you don't."
It's difficult to push such a portrayal too far, given the behavior of real-life murderers, he said.
"Every one of these stories that suddenly springs up in the news, you read it and think, 'My God, how could this possibly happen? How could a human being behave this way?' — which in a way is really liberating," Lithgow said. "You can't outdo the truth."
Third Rock From the Sun viewers fondly remember Lithgow as the egotistical, foolish alien leader passing as an Earthling, but he has played more than his share of bad guys in movies.
The actor helpfully lists some of the titles, including Blow Out and Obsession for Brian De Palma, and Cliffhanger, in which Lithgow adopted a British accent and a particularly chilling demeanor.
Lithgow's last TV series was the short-lived comedy 20 Good Years, about two men trying to make the most of the time left them, a venture Lithgow called "very sweet and disappointing, of course, as any failed series is."
"I had a fabulous time with (co-star) Jeffrey Tambor, one of my favorite character actors. But it was a show for middle-aged old folks in a young world, so it made us feel kind of autumnal and melancholy," he said.
Theater has been his main focus since Third Rock ended nearly a decade ago, including Stories by Heart, a one-man show that Lithgow developed and performed at Lincoln Center for two seasons and was bringing to England's National Theatre post-Dexter.
The work combines short stories that Lithgow recalls his father reading aloud to the family with anecdotes about the actor's own life. He calls it a "simple but heartfelt evening."
"Basically, I have a conversation with an audience that turns into a performance before their eyes. It's kind of a meditation on the whole nature of performance and why we performers do it, and why anybody would want to watch."
When told it sounds like an evening not to miss, Lithgow takes a good-natured dig at himself.
"I'll be dragging this one around after me for years and years," he said, laughing. "You just try to avoid it."