Ready to Go Over the Edge

updated 07/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN THE TIME CAME TO FILM HIS FIGHT scene with Sylvester Stallone for the hit movie Cliffhanger, John Lithgow figured it would be as much fun for his visiting 9-year-old son, Nathan, as it would be for him. "It's every boy's fantasy, duking it out with Sly," says Lithgow. And so during the climactic, bloody battle, Nathan stood just out of camera range, coaching. "He would do it all by semaphore and pantomime," Lithgow says proudly. "He'd say, 'Dad! Don't grimace so much!' "

Actually. Lithgow, 47, has raised making faces to the level of a minor art form. For the past 20 years on stage and screen he has created a carnival sideshow of bizarre freaks and a goodly number of sensitive introverts. Along the way he has earned two Oscar nominations (for his 1982 role as the transsexual former football player Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp and as a shy small town banker in 1983's Terms of Endearment) plus a Tony (in 1973 for The Changing Room). "A leading man basically appears over and over again in the same character," he says happily. It's character actors, he believes, who "have all the fun."

In Cliffhanger, Lithgow's bad guy—a former British intelligence agent turned international crook—is violent, foul-mouthed and generally not the sort of character a member of Harvard's Board of Overseers (which Lithgow has been since 1989) would seem inclined to portray. Even director Renny Harlin admits he was shocked at how easily Lithgow slid into the role. "What surprised me about John is how physical he is," Harlin says of the 6'4", 210-lb. actor. In one scene, Stallone squeezed Lithgow's hand so hard, says the director, that he thought he heard bones being crushed. "But Lithgow wouldn't say anything," says Harlin. "He's that kind of actor."

Between movies, though. Lithgow doesn't fight the feeling of being a Normal Human Being. When he's home in L.A. with his wife, Mary Yeager, 48, an associate professor of history at UCLA, Nathan and daughter Phoebe, who turns 11 this month, Lithgow takes the kids to their music lessons and does the food shopping. "I'm available any time Mary wants to have breakfast or lunch," he says. "It's our rule, our way of counterbalancing her life as a single parent and a working mother when I'm gone."

Not that he forgets about show business. After last year's riots in South Central L.A., Lithgow volunteered to play guitar and sing songs for schoolchildren. "That was my immediate visceral reaction," he says, "to just call up and say, 'Do you need an assembly?' " He also lakes in the occasional Hollywood gala—events Mary somewhat reluctantly attends. Otherwise, she adjusts as best she can to Lithgow's long periods of absence. "The state of our life," says Mary, "is perpetual imbalance."

Lithgow is genetically accustomed to the often off-killer nature of the actor's existence. The third of four children, he was born in Rochester, N.Y., to Sarah Lithgow, an actress and teacher, and her husband, Arthur, a theatrical producer. Most of his childhood was spent traveling while his father ran Shakespeare festivals in Ohio. After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in 1967. he studied acting in London on a Fulbright grant. Before returning to New York in 1969, he married Jean Taynton, a teacher. In 1972 they had a son, Ian, who is now in Harvard's class of'94 and a third-generation actor.

John and Jean divorced in 1980, and soon an L.A. friend fixed him up with Man Yeager. On their first date. "she was all turned out, and I was in sweaty tennis gear," he recalls—but within two weeks, they were discussing marriage. In December 1981 they exchanged vows. "Mary is a wonderful combination of earthy and intellectual," says Lithgow. "We both feel like country bumpkins in Los Angeles. I'm an Ohio boy, and she's a Montana girl. Yet we're both very educated."

And always eager to learn more. When Lithgow is shooting, notes Harlin, "he takes all his hobbies with him: he reads, he writes, he paints, and he travels around, learning about the culture."" In Italy for Cliffhanger, he did his roaming in a rental car. toting a Berlitz phrase book, "like a detective," says Lithgow, in search of rare art. "He has the perfect life," says Harlin.

Lithgow agrees. In Hollywood, he says, "you're paid 20 times more than am place else, the work is not nearly as hard as in the theater, and you go to fantastically exotic places." And what must Lithgow provide in return? The question elicits a slightly maniacal laugh. "Just a little frisson," he says, "of psychological weirdness."

DEVON JACKSON
NANCY MATSUMOTO in Los Angeles

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