Ray Richmond: John Lithgow makes everything he touches better. That’s why he’s an American acting treasure

In the new taut new thriller “Sharper” that debuted in theaters Friday in advance of hitting the streaming market February 17 over Apple TV+, John Lithgow has a relatively small supporting role as a hedge fund billionaire named Richard Hobbes. For those who follow the extraordinary Lithgow’s multi-faceted career, the portrayal isn’t really anything terribly unique, aside from the fact he makes it memorable by his sheer talent, charisma and presence. It’s the sort of everyday brilliance we’ve come to expect from an actor who has been doing this for more than half a century and shows no signs at 77 of slowing down.

Lithgow is so consistently superb that we’ve gotten spoiled, but he’s the kind of national treasure that should start collecting lifetime achievement awards in the near future. That doesn’t mean he’s poised to pack it in and call it a career. Not hardly. There are indeed indications that he’s just getting warmed up. It’s his astounding versatility that has been and remains most impressive. The man has played everyone from Fox News founder Roger Ailes (“Bombshell”) to Winston Churchill (“The Crown”) to Franklin Roosevelt (“World War II: When Lions Roared”) to  George Washington and William Randolph Hearst (“Drunk History”) to King Lear (“King Lear” Off-Broadway). He’s earned 13 Emmy nominations and converted six of them to wins and won a pair of Tony Awards (for 1973’s “The Changing Room” and 2002’s “Sweet Smell of Success”). He’s also won a pair of Golden Globes and three SAG Awards.

His credits include a few dozen plays on the Broadway stage and more than 130 credits in film and TV (and counting). There have also been a couple of Oscar nominations, in the 1980s (supporting for “The World According to Garp” in ’83 and “Terms of Endearment” in ’84). What’s especially great about Lithgow is his ability to transform himself into the aforementioned variety of characters and personas,. He’s played the mentally ill (the twisted serial killer in “Dexter”). He’s played villains (“Richochet,” “Cliffhanger,” “Raising Cain”). He memorably portrayed a bumbling alien on the sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun.” He’s also earned plaudits for his understated portrayal of a stodgy but diligent fed in “The Old Man,” which earned him both Golden Globe and Critics choice noms.

Lithgow can do broad. Lithgow can do subtle. Lithgow can blend in or stand out. But the one thing he can’t be is pigeonholed. The man has more range than a Montana cattle ranch. And if he was ever a snob in terms of the material he’d accept, that seems to be in the past. For a while there, it was either Broadway or cinema. But then in the 1990s “3rd Rock” came along, and there went that. And we’re thankful it did, given how great he was on that show and how much fun he seemed to be having while doing it.

He’s done family sitcoms, contemporary dramas, action-thrillers and historical epics. He can be convincingly funny, or pathetic, or empathetic, or terrifying, or outrageous, and there is never any residue of a previous character or persona on him in whatever incarnation he happens to be playing in the present. There’s also never any predicting where he’ll turn up next and who he’ll be. As he once said, “I’m thought of as an unlit firecracker. You don’t know which direction I’ll fly off in.” Ain’t that the truth.

Lithgow also portrayed a transgender character long before it was trendy, in his Academy Award-nominated performance in “World According to Garp.” He was memorably the bighearted trans ex-NFL tight end Roberta Muldoon.

The thing is, Lithgow could get away with being a snob if he wanted to. He’s got the chops and the education to justify it. He won a scholarship to Harvard and graduated magna cum laude. He was named a Fulbright scholar to study at the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA). He’s an actor’s actor, and the ease with which he moves between such radically different characters is testament to that. I don’t think I’ve ever read a bad review for one of his performances, and certainly never heard a negative thing about his behavior on or off the set. His reputation for inherent decency and good cheer precedes him.

Yet for all of this, John Lithgow is underrated. When the talk comes around to the greatest living American actors, you shamefully rarely hear his name raised. What you get instead is Anthony Hopkins, Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale, Frances McDormand, Cate Blanchett, Leonardo DiCaprio, Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Michelle Williams, Bryan Cranston, Kate Winslet, Sean Penn and George Clooney. Why No Lithgow? He’s unfortunately too often viewed as a character actor instead of a leading man, when in truth he can be either even at his relatively advanced age.

This brings us back to “Sharper,” in which Lithgow plays perhaps his wealthiest character. As far as I can tell, he’s never portrayed a billionaire before, but he takes to it so easily you’d swear he’d played one a dozen times before. That’s called acting. No one does it better than this guy.

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