John Lithgow On 'The Columnist,' And Why Journalists Are So Much Fun To Play

John Lithgow On Who's More Egotistic: Actors Or Journalists?

This is one in a series of Tony nominee snapshots in the lead-up to the awards Sunday night.

When it comes to actors and journalists, John Lithgow knows a thing or two. The two-time Tony winner has been doing the former for more than 40 years, and played the latter four times in that stretch. Come Sunday, he'll have another shot at best leading actor in a play for his latest turn portraying real-life journalist Joseph Alsop in David Auburn's "The Columnist."

While the play has been received with almost perfect indifference, journalists reserved their shiniest lines for the role Lithgow went nude for. "It's a testament to Lithgow's magnetism that the scenes without him seem like rude interruptions from the main event," one reviewer noted. Another posited that "he may be doing his best stage work."

Despite the warm sentiments for Lithgow, winning on Sunday would still be an upset. He'll have the man of easily misspelled names to beat, whose Willy Loman is favored by most to win. Not, however, if the Drama Desk Awards are any indicator, which handed the honor to James Corden ("One Man, Two Guvnors") last Sunday. But as the predictors at Entertainment Weekly point out, the field is strong, and this is still any man's race.

An amiable, purple-tied Lithgow sat down with The Huffington Post in advance of the awards to talk why journalists make good dramatic characters, and whether they're more or less egotistic than actors.

You've played two columnists now. Do you feel there's some sort of universal trait of a columnist, or something you've discovered in their behavior?

Well you journalists are very, very interesting people.

Do tell!

In fact it's more than two, I've played four journalists over the years, including Walter Burns in "The Front Page," one of the really great stage characters of the 20th century. Ah, journalists. Everybody is involved in the drama of journalism, the day's events. All of us read something or watched something this morning about what's going on in politics. And journalists are the ones who tell those stories and they feel this tremendous compulsion to be near the action. That makes them great dramatic characters. Journalists have an inflated sense of their own importance, which is justified. But it certainly made Joe Alsop into a larger-than-life character.

Is there anything surprising you found out about him?

Oh I didn't know a thing about him, really. I certainly didn't know about the fact that he was a closeted gay man in an era when this was very dangerous information that could destroy a person altogether. Nor that he had been entrapped the the KGB and blackmailed in the mid-50s, which is kind of the inciting incident of the play, and the thing that complicates absolutely everything else in his life from that moment on. It makes it a great story. And the fact that it's a great story about a storyteller -- about a journalist -- is all the better. The other thing that's very poignant, makes the play kind of melancholy, is because Joe Alsop felt that he was such an important, he was an important, influential and powerful figure, in the course of the play he loses that influence and power. And it's a very poignant sight to behold, someone like that losing his [power].

Would you want to do interviews yourself?

You know I have done that a little in my day. There's something called the Harvard Arts Panel up at Harvard that's presented to someone every year who went to Harvard and went into the creative arts, and I go up there every year and interview the honoree because I created the medal. This year's honoree was Tommy Lee Jones. I interviewed him just last week. He's a great interview -- maybe I missed my calling. He's an old friend of mine which certainly helped.

So do you think that journalists or actors are more inflated?

Oh I think actors are far more inflated, but the thing is, the more inflated you are, the louder the explosion when it gets punctured.

Is there a play you've seen this year aside from "The Columnist" that you'd recommend to our readers?

There's something in the water, there's so much great playwriting going on in America, in theater, and I'm so excited to be a part of it. And I could list about 10 great things, really, because I've gone out and found them. I think my favorite play of the year was a play called "Sons of the Prophet" that Roundabout produced. I loved that play. But believe me, there are lots of 'em!

Brad Balfour and Mallika Rao contributed to this story.

The Tony Awards air live from the Beacon Theater June 10 at 8/7c on CBS.

Watch Lithgow in "The Columnist":

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