Campus & Community

Lithgow to speak at Afternoon Exercises

4 min read

Actor, writer, humanitarian to grace Tercentenary Theatre

John A. Lithgow, award-winning actor and tireless supporter of the arts at Harvard, will be the principal speaker at Afternoon Exercises during Harvard University’s 354th Commencement, to be held on June 9.

John Lithgow (Staff file photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

“John Lithgow personifies Harvard’s devotion to the creative arts,” said President Lawrence H. Summers. “He is not only an immensely talented and versatile performer, but also someone who has given a great deal of himself to the University and especially to the vitality of the arts at Harvard. It will be a pleasure to welcome him at Commencement.”

“Harvard’s Commencement platform is a very different kind of stage for me, but one I am very excited and honored to have the privilege to speak from,” said Lithgow. “I will do my best to compose and deliver my lines with the wit and wisdom that befit the occasion, and I greatly look forward to celebrating these splendid annual festivities with the Harvard family.”

One of America’s most versatile and admired actors, Lithgow has won four Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and is also a two-time Academy Award nominee. In addition to his work on stage, in motion pictures, and on television, he has written several children’s books, recorded two albums of songs for children, and performed with the New York City Ballet.

A prominent figure in the Harvard arts community, and a former Harvard Overseer (1989-95), he was a moving force behind the creation of Arts First, the campus-wide celebration of the arts at Harvard that takes place each spring. Since the inception of Arts First in 1993, Lithgow has regularly served as the event’s host and as grand marshal of the Arts First parade.

Commencement details

Lithgow graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1967, then received a Fulbright Scholarship after graduation to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Besides serving on the Board of Overseers, he has been a member of several visiting committees and is a past chair of the Committee to Visit the Loeb Drama Center.

“Actor John Lithgow has earned the support and admiration of the Harvard community as well as his huge following of fans throughout the U.S. and abroad,” said James Ullyot, president of the Harvard Alumni Association. “His dedication to Harvard and the arts, his humor, and his ability to inspire point to an entertaining and meaningful speech for all ages on Commencement.”

A committed advocate for the humanities, Lithgow has worked on numerous projects for public TV and radio. In 2000, he participated in the White House Conference on Culture and Diplomacy. Lithgow has also been involved in raising funds for various outreach and educational programs over the years, and has shown a particular interest in children and literacy; his poem “I Need A Good Book” was a feature of National Children’s Book Week in 2004.

Lithgow won a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award in 1973 for his work on Broadway in “The Changing Room.” He also received a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Best Actor in a Broadway Musical Performance in “Sweet Smell of Success” in 2002. He received several Emmy and Golden Globe Awards for his TV role in the NBC sitcom “3rd Rock from the Sun,” and Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor in “The World According to Garp” in 1982 and “Terms of Endearment” in 1983.

Lithgow’s long career has encompassed many different roles. He recently appeared in “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” and “Kinsey,” both in 2004, was the voice of Lord Farquaad in 2001’s “Shrek,” and played the role of Judge Walter Skinner in 1998’s “A Civil Action.” Lithgow is starring currently in the Broadway musical “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

Lithgow was raised in an acting family. He is the son of a retired actress and theater director Arthur Lithgow who produced a series of Shakespeare festivals in Ohio and who headed the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.

He has recently been expanding his considerable talents, writing a series of children’s books with accompanying songs that feature colorful characters such as Marsupial Sue the kangaroo and child musical prodigy The Remarkable Farkle McBride, and has performed numerous concerts for children with major U.S. symphony orchestras.