John Lithgow, star of Perry Mason (airing Mondays on HBO/HBO GO), talks about the horror of the times and how to survive it
Photos courtesy of HBO
‘Optimism can save your life’
FUNFARE - Ricky Lo (The Philippine Star) - July 20, 2020 - 12:00am

The world is going through horrible times and, like everybody else, the venerable multi-media icon John Lithgow is not immune to feelings of uncertainty and insecurity.

“Yes,” he told eight Asian journalists (The STAR was the only one from the Philippines) during a 30-minute video interview last Thursday. “We are living through horrors right now. We are never away from tragedies. But we should stay positive and optimistic. Optimism can save your life. It’s always good to have an insane optimism to fall back on.”

The interview was for Perry Mason, airing Mondays (9 a.m. with replay at 10 p.m. the same day) on HBO and HBO GO, in which John plays E.B. (Elias Birchard “E.B.” Jonathan), mentor to Matthew Rhys (in the titular role). Set in 1932 in Los Angeles, the series focuses on the origin story of famed lawyer Mason, based on the characters from Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels. The private investigator is haunted by his wartime experience in France and suffering the effects of broken marriage. L.A. is booming while the rest of the country is recovering from the Great Depression, and a kidnapping gone wrong leads Mason to exposing a fractured city as he uncovers the truth about the crime.

The interview swung from the present to the past and it was when asked about his playing King Lear that the subject of “panic” came up.

“It involved high emotions of fear and panic of growing old,” John elaborated, “like the fear and panic we are going through now,” adding with a smile, “I have an access to feelings of getting older...the fear of frailty, insecurity and defiance. I’m a survivor of all those different colors. I’m 74 years old and I’m getting old-man roles. I find my career more interesting now; those roles are unique, variations of getting old, and I’m lucky to be playing them. They are unique roles...and there is much less competition now.”

Asked what he found interesting about the E.B. character, John said, “It’s a fascinating role. The first I heard of it was when it was offered to me and there were lots of things already in place including Tim Van Patten, a director I’ve always wanted to work with. It turned out I was right. He’s a perfectly wonderful man and a great director. The whole notion of Matthew Rhys playing Perry Mason fascinated me; that automatically made it a very different project.

Lithgow as E.B. in a scene (with Juliet Rylance as his assistant Della Street) from the series based on the Erle Stanley Gardner novels: He models his character on himself, an old man mellowed by experience

“It was pitched to me as a very bold reimagining, and in a sense, a completely new series. When they sent me the script, it was clear within pages that these guys (show’s writers, Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones) were ingenious and original.

“The fact that it was set in Los Angeles in the 1930s also made it very exciting to me. It’s a great era. Los Angeles is a wonderfully corrupt town and it always has been. This show has all the elements of Chinatown, one of my favorite films. The series has a modern sensibility. It is about racism, police brutality and women’s rights. The treatment is very contemporary.”

Playing mentor to Perry Mason is akin to his being a mentor to acting students/aspiring actors in real life.

“I do remember very vividly when I was a young actor and I got a chance to act with the likes of Jason Robards and Henry Fonda. It was like meeting your heroes. They were both so extraordinarily welcoming and encouraging,” recalled John. “In my old age, I do begin to realize that I hold the position of mentor in the lives of a lot of actors and actresses. I love it and I take it seriously. Acting is a very difficult business and young actors need all the encouragement.”

Back to playing E.B.

He said, “He is not young; his best days are behind him, but I think even in his best days he wasn’t all that great an attorney! He’s a little over the hill and thinks back to the days when he was one of the grandees among Los Angeles lawyers, when he knew everybody, and he knew which strings to pull. He was slightly corrupt and really made things happen for rich clients, but it’s been a long time since he’s had that kind of vehemence. He needs a big case badly.

“But then the case (in the show) turns out to be much bigger than he can handle. He completely relies on two people — one of them is Perry Mason and the other is Della Street (played by Juliet Rylance), his assistant.”

Who is his peg for the role?

“I modeled him on myself. He’s sort of an old fool and I’m afraid my self-esteem is gradually alluding me in old age! While everyone else is thinking about how different Perry and Della are from the originals, E.B. is a brand-new character, so it was wonderful. You learn an enormous amount about E.B. in the trajectory of his story.

“At the beginning, he seems very self-assured, commanding and powerful, but bit by bit, he begins to unravel. The idea, in this origin story, is that Perry Mason takes the place of his mentor E.B., and so they had to create quite a fascinating character who eventually gives way to Perry.”

Having played all characters in the book (in theater, television and film), what would John consider the “turning point” of his decades-old, multi-faceted and award-decorated career?

A blast from the past: “I would say the TV series 3rd Rock From the Sun. It was written by my two very dear friends, the husband-wife team of Bonnie and Terry Turner who were then writing for Saturday Night Live (SNL). If I didn’t do it, they wouldn’t have done it. They wanted a combination of Bugs Bunny and Errol Flynn, a cartoon character and a romantic hero.

“They wanted someone who was comfortable being serious and very zany, an alien capable of doing anything but didn’t understand what he was doing. It was a perfectly wonderful experience. For six years, that show gave me an opportunity to do everything...I could dance, I could sing, I could speak different languages including Chinese.”

It was a life-changing show, added John.

“It made me much better known...when people got that familiar with you in their homes. They felt like you are a member of the family. And I’d been greeted like an old friend on the street ever since. That’s a lovely thing!”

At 74, isn’t he thinking of, ehem, retiring and resting on his laurels?

John’s eyes widened.

“Why stop now!”

(E-mail reactions at rickylophilstar@gmail.com. For more updates, photos and videos, visit www.philstar.com/funfare or follow me on Instagram @therealrickylo.)

JOHN LITHGOW
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