John Lithgow was caring for his ill father in 2004 and decided that one way to cheer him up would be to read to him from a storybook his dad used to read to him.
"It was this big, fat book called Tellers of Tales," Lithgow said. "I told him to pick a story, and he picked one of our favorite stories when we were kids, a very funny story by P.G. Wodehouse. I read it, and I rediscovered what a hilarious story it was, and it made him laugh. It got him going again."
That experience, that story became the basis for Stories by Heart, Lithgow's one-man show that will be at the Lexington Opera House on Tuesday as part of the Alltech Fortnight Festival.
"I tell the story and extrapolate from it all the reasons why I do what I do, why I am an actor, why I am a storyteller and why all of us want, love and need great stories," Lithgow said. "So I learned the story, and I actually performed it. I turned it into a solo performance piece involving 10 characters. It is a hilarious piece both on the page and on the stage. But it's also got this extra resonance because it's this story that actually saved my father's life."
It also forged a new path in Lithgow's career, which has been spent performing other people's writing. He took the P.G. Wodehouse story Uncle Fred Flits By and a Ring Lardner story called Haircut, and fashioned around them his memoir of a life in theater and film.
His has been quite a career, and the Tony and Emmy Award winner picked up another Emmy last month, for his performance as the Trinity Killer on the Showtime series Dexter.
"That part was just delicious, and it scared the daylights out of the entire country," Lithgow said.
It was the latest in a string of roles that have shown his versatility, including his Oscar-nominated turn as Roberta Muldoon, the transgender former football player in the film The World According to Garp; Dick Solomon, the alien physics professor on Third Rock From the Sun, which won him three Emmys; and Lord Farquaad, a role that put his distinctive voice to work in Shrek.
But the stage was indeed his first home. It was where he grew up as his father worked directing regional theaters. The younger Lithgow first made a name for himself in M. Butterfly, and he won a Tony Award in 1973 for his performance in The Changing Room. He won another Tony in 2002 for Sweet Smell of Success.
"I've always felt that was the most complete acting experience, to share an experience with an audience, to perform it while they're experiencing it," Lithgow said. "That really is great, and that's why I keep reverting to theater no matter how much work I do on movies and TV."
With Stories by Heart, Lithgow has a long-term project that will let him go back to the stage when he wants.
"It's a conversation that slowly turns into a performance," Lithgow says. "One of the things I like is I sort of blur the line between being in a conversation and being a performer, and it's extremely personal.
"I was initially really nervous about doing it because I really open my heart to the audience. But now it has become this incredibly fun thing I expect I will do for the rest of my life."