Happy 73rd birthday on October 19, 2018, to one of the most honored actors in the business, John Lithgow! Whether it be recordings, television, the stage and film, Lithgow has had one of the most wide-ranging careers of any actor working today.
Lithgow has been nominated for two Academy Awards for his supporting performances (as a mild-mannered banker and a transsexual football player). For television, he has been nominated for 12 Emmy Awards, winning six, and has won two Golden Globe Awards from his five nominations. He has also been nominated for nine Screen Actors Guild Awards, of which he has won three times. For his stage work, Lithgow has won two Tony Awards (for 1973’s “The Changing Room” and 2002’s “Sweet Smell of Success”) from six Tony nominations. And he has even been nominated for four Grammy Awards for his recording work.
To celebrate this celebrated actor’s birthday, let’s look back at and rank the 12 greatest film performances from worst to best. Our list includes “The World According to Garp,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Footloose” and “Harry and the Hendersons.”
12. BLOW OUT (1981)
Lithgow was Brian DePalma‘s go-to villain in three films (the others were “Obsession” and “Raising Cain”), but he was probably best in this political thriller in which he plays Burke, an assassin whose killing of a gubernatorial candidate is being investigated by a sound engineer (John Travolta). Rather than playing Burke as a mustache-twirling bad guy, Lithgow plays a man just going about doing his business, which makes his performance even more chilling.
11. LEAP YEAR (2010)
Lithgow is not primarily known for fatherly roles, but he had one of his most memorable in this Amy Adams romantic comedy. She plays Lithgow’s daughter Anna, who is frustrated that her boyfriend Jeremy (Adam Scott) has not proposed to her and travels to Ireland where he is attending a conference. She hopes to follow the Irish tradition that, if a man is proposed to on Leap Year Day, he must accept the proposal.
10. CLIFFHANGER (1993)
Lithgow has one of his best villain roles as Eric Qualen, a really despicable piece of work, whose plane crashes into a mountain and where he lures would-be rescuer, ranger Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone), to the top of the mountain where at gunpoint he forces Gabe to find three cases from the plane containing over $100 million. Lithgow is so effective at being a bad guy here that when he meets his eventual comeuppance, audiences cheered.
9. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)
One of Lithgow’s most touching performances came unexpectedly in this reboot of the “Planet of the Apes” series. He portrays Charles, the Alzheimer’s-afflicted father of biologist Will Rodman (James Franco), who brings home the viral-based drug ALZ-112, which appears to help his father’s condition. He also brings home an intelligent chimp named Caesar (Andy Serkis), who, over the years, forms a special bond with Charles.
8. HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS (1987)
Lithgow earned his first major leading film role in William Dear‘s comedy/fantasy as George, the head of the Henderson family whose car one day hits a Sasquatch. They think that they have killed it, so they strap it to the roof of their station wagon. Later that night, George realizes, when the creature is rummaging through their refrigerator for food, that the Sasquatch, whom he has nicknamed Harry, is actually a kind and friendly creature.
7. BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017)
In Miguel Arteta‘s pointed comedy/drama, Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a massage therapist making a house call to client Kathy (Connie Britton), finds that her car is broken down, so Kathy invites her to join her dinner party. Unfortunately for Beatriz, one of the guests is Trump-like developer Doug Strutt (Lithgow), who at first mistakes her for the help and then at the dinner table asks her if she emigrated legally.
6. LOVE IS STRANGE (2014)
Lithgow delivered one of his best recent performances as Ben, who has married his same-sex partner George (Alfred Molina) after 39 years together. George is the family breadwinner teaching music at a Catholic school, but when the Archdiocese gets word of the wedding, George is fired. Without his income, the couple must vacate their New York apartment and must throw themselves on the mercy of family and friends, which keeps them from living together.
5. SHREK (2001)
In this smash-hit animated feature, Lithgow voices the very short and very evil Lord Fraquaad, who hates fairy tales and exiles all the fairy tale subjects to the same swamp where big green ogre Shrek (Mike Myers) lives. When the Magic Mirror tells Farquaad that he can’t be a king unless he weds a princess, he decides to marry imprisoned Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). However, the big green ogre has other plans, intending to rescue the princess himself.
4. TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”) (1983)
In this segment that remakes one of the most famous “Twilight Zone” episodes ever, George Miller (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) directs Lithgow in the role that William Shatner made famous as John Valentine, an airline passenger who suffers a panic attack in the bathroom and must be coaxed back to his seat by flight attendants. Once there, he spies a grotesque gremlin on the wing who is busy dismantling the plane’s engine. Lithgow’s Valentine then freaks out again and tries to break the plane’s window.
3. FOOTLOOSE (1984)
Lithgow had one of his most iconic roles as small-town religious scold Rev. Shaw Moore, who bans his daughter Ariel (Lori Singer) from dating big-city boy Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon), who is fighting the town’s ban on dancing. It seems that Rev. Moore supports the ban because his son was killed in an auto accident after returning from a night of dancing. But after his wife Vi (Dianne Wiest) reminds him that music and dancing are not the problem, Moore begins to have a change of heart.
2. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983)
Lithgow played a small but key role in James L. Brooks‘ 1983 Oscar-winning Best Picture as Sam Burns, a timid Iowa banker, who begins an extramarital affair with Debra Winger‘s Emma at the urging of her unfaithful husband Flap (Jeff Daniels). Lithgow portrays Sam as a man who is so afraid of cheating on his frigid wife that he appears to be talking his way out of any chance of happiness.
1. THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP (1982)
Lithgow gave arguably his best film performance and earned his first Academy Award nomination as Roberta Muldoon, a woman who was once Robert Muldoon, a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles. The transsexual Roberta is part of the inner circle of feminists led by Jenny Fields (Glenn Close), the mother of famed writer T.S. Garp (Robin Williams). When Jenny dies, it is Roberta who smuggles Garp, dressed in drag, into his mother’s women-only memorial service.