Fatherhood Is the Favorite Role of Twilight Zone's Major Madman John Lithgow

updated 07/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He's rugged and a strapping 6'4", but heads don't turn on the street when he passes. That's hell for a star ego, but heaven for John Lithgow, 37, a character actor whose anonymous looks help keep him steadily employed and free of typecasting. As the fear-crazed airline passenger in the final segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Lithgow steals the show. "A virtuoso of hysteria," raved Rolling Stone. Although Lithgow says he hasn't yet seen the picture, he enjoys the compliments. "That's what I want on my tombstone," he jokes. " 'He was the best thing in it.' "

Lithgow's panoply of memorable characters includes the killer pursuing Nancy Allen and John Travolta in Blow Out and the transsexual Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp, which won him a 1982 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

It was while promoting Garp on a TV interview that Lithgow mentioned he would love to work with Steven Spielberg. When he returned home, he found a message asking him to call the E.T director, who as co-producer of Twilight Zone offered John a part. The four Zone segments were shot separately by different directors, and though Lithgow's had nothing to do with the tragic nighttime helicopter accident which killed Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children who were working on the movie's opening episode, production on the picture was halted for two months. "The deaths had such a devastating effect on the film," says John. "It never recovered from the dark shadow that ended three lives and ruined others." Lithgow reacted by throwing himself into his work for director George Miller. "My episode was very separate from the first one," he explains. "No one worked on it who was there that evening, so it was like doing a virtually new film."

Lithgow comes by his acting talent naturally—although it took him a while to opt to be a performer. One of four children born to a regional theater producer and a retired actress, John grew up on the move in Ohio, where his father started a Shakespeare festival. Lithgow made his theatrical debut at 6 in Henry VI, Part III, and as a boy, he appeared in many of the Bard's plays. Still, his career plan was to become a graphic artist. As a scholarship student at Harvard, he helped support himself by selling Christmas cards that he made from woodcuts, but by the time he reached Cambridge he was totally stagestruck. After graduation in 1967, he won a Fulbright to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. By that time he had married Jean Taynton, a teacher of emotionally disturbed children in Cambridge.

After two years of rigorous training in London, John and Jean returned to the States, first to his father's rep company and then to New York, where John struggled for two years before winning his first Broadway role in The Changing Room. He won a Tony for that performance and over the next eight years chalked up consistently fine notices in such plays as Comedians, Once in a Lifetime and Division Street. But while Lithgow's career took off, his marriage foundered. After 11 years and the birth of a son, Ian, now 11, John and Jean were divorced. "Who can encapsulate the end of a marriage?" he says. "I was 30 and going through great difficulties. I felt trapped, so I broke down."

Five years after his marriage ended, a mutual friend arranged a blind date for Lithgow with Mary Yeager, now 38 and an associate professor of history at UCLA. "I fell in love instantly," says John. Her first impression was that "he was a very strange-looking fellow—he showed up to take me to lunch wearing sweaty tennis gear and appeared to be very large." For all that, Mary insists John came across as "a wonderful, sensitive guy." They were married in December 1981, have a daughter, Phoebe, who just turned 1, and another baby is due in September. Because Mary's job keeps her in Los Angeles, John moved there, and they rent a Beverly Hills apartment. For him, the hardest thing about the move was the separation from Ian, who now spends much of his summer vacation in L.A.

A feminist's dream husband, John shares the household chores with Mary and rules in the kitchen. Since complications in the pregnancy now require Mary to remain in bed until the baby arrives, John (assisted by a housekeeper) has more than his share of work. And not just at home. He's recently finished a supporting role as Debra Winger's small-town suitor in Terms of Endearment and a starring role as a fire-and-brimstone preacher in Footloose. They're not leading-man roles, but they're good ones, and that suits Lithgow just fine. "My hairline is receding," he remarks. "So my days as a romantic lead—even though I've never had them—are behind me."

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