Saturday, May 2, 2015

John Lithgow - 2010's Walter Curnow

In outer space Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor John Lithgow gets twisted and thwirled and spun around. And he gets to act with ghosts, too. Well, almost.

"I read the script for 2010 and I wanted to do it immediately," John Lithgow says. "I had just finished Buckaroo Banzai and I loved the fact that Buckaroo was almost a send-up of the kind of ideas that 2010 takes very seriously."

Be Kind to Curnow

2010, like Buckaroo Banzai, didn't require Lithgow to trek to far-flung locations a long way from home. Both films were shot in Los Angeles, where the actor lives with his wife Mary Yaegar, a UCLA professor, and their children Phoebe, 2, and newborn Nathan. His 12-year-old son Ian, a devoted SF fan, lives in New York with Lithgow's first wife.

2010 was Lithgow's first foray into outer space and his first encounter with Peter Hyams, 2010's director/writer/producer/cinematographer (STARLOG #85), a man Lithgow says is unlike any he has ever met.

"The fact that he functions in so many areas makes him different from all the others. I've never worked with someone who does so much," Lithgow says. "Peter is a very benevolent dictator but a dictator he is. He's completely uncompromising. He will work at something until it is exactly the way he wants it. He's single-minded. He says it's as simple as that."

Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) having problems.

"With actors, he tends to rely on doing really good casting, which he feels is practically the whole game, and the he lets them do their thing. He doesn't rehearse the way many directors do. He just expects professionalism and is very selective. He does want his words spoken exactly the way he wrote them. But, I like that. I'm a theater actor. I like directors to take writing seriously."

This film, unlike Lithgow's previous work, involved much more from him than acting ability. As Curnow, he spent much of his time scooting weightless in space between the Russian craft Leonov and the derelict Discovery. What must look effortless and light on the screen was physically taxing on the soundstage and involved a complicated mix of optical effects, harnesses and wires, and detailed choreography.

"God, it was crazy," Lithgow says. "It was really difficult, the most strenuous stuff I've ever done." His eyes twinkle. "Strenuous like taking a rollercoaster ride is strenuous. I loved it!"

Perhaps too much.

"I took to the flight apparatus like a bird," he remarks. "They had to tell me to calm down. I was suspended between two wires that hooked onto a custom-made leather harness around my pelvis. So, if I stuck my arms out, I would go forward. I could spin around, do somersaults. Sometimes, I would overdo it and get a headache."

Weightless harness tests.

There were other headaches, too. Lithgow went through three weeks with co-star Elya Baskin (STARLOG #91), who plays cosmonaut Max Brailovsky, shooting the various space-walk sequences.

"The spacesuits were heavy, stiff and unwieldy. Elya and I would have to rest constantly," Lithgow says. "Elya was a wonderful person to suffer with through this experience. The nice thing was that he and I have a strong friendship in the film and that's what happened to us in real life."

"Every day was hard, hard work. Sometimes, we were on wires, other times on lazy suzies, sometimes, we got to clamor around on the Discovery set. At one point, Elya was bolted to a pipe which was twisted around in the air like a screw being turned. I did one scene hanging upside down, which was really nuts. The only thing they didn't do was to put us in a weightless chamber!"

When the cameras stopped rolling, Lithgow and Baskin were carted away by stagehands and laid down side-by-side on the floor like cordwood.

Lithgow clarifies the event: "I like to think of us not as cordwood, but as two knight toppled from their horses during a jousting match."

The apparatus and the machinations behind the space-walk sequences didn't hamper Lithgow's acting. "It enhanced it. In a way, you just use it all to build your character," he says. "It's like wearing ill-fitting clothes. It does wonderful things for your character, like the false teeth I wore in Buckaroo Banzai. I couldn't have done Lizardo without them."

More than Part 2

Like everyone involved with 2010, Lithgow sees some significant differences between this film and 2001: A Space Odyssey, differences he feels make this movie more than just a sequel.

"The characters are much more important in this one. If you remember 2001, one of the main feelings about is was its aloofness, the distance between you and the people. It was almost a dehumanizing effect of man in space," Lithgow says. "Since then, man has walked almost constantly in space. Society has humanized space a bit, so 2010 had to change the 2001 tone."

Descending the Discovery.

"I suppose that comparisons between the two are inevitable, and I suppose it's a bit of a curse. But, when people see 2010, they will find it so different from 2001 that it starts all over again and goes in a different direction."

"This isn't so much a sequel as it is an enlargement. There's a real drama of characters in this one," he adds. "I loved 2001 and remember very frame and there's something very rarefied about it in terms of the characters which isn't true in 2010."

Acting with Ghosts

One of those rarefied characters, Keir Dullea (STARLOG #88) as astronaut David Bowman, returns to haunt the Leonov crew in 2010. His appearance on the Discovery set was a bizarre emotional experience that Lithgow missed.

"I didn't have any scenes with Dullea, though I met him and got to know him pretty well," Lithgow says.

Dullea and Lithgow shared a special moment of their own before 2010 started shooting.

"It was after we were cast, but before we started working. Keir came to see me on stage in Requiem for a Heavyweight," says Lithgow who's again starring in Requiem, opening for previews on Broadway this month.

"Keir came back after the show in tears. It was quite a stunning moment. I had to offer him Kleenex, he was so moved by the show. It was a nice way to meet someone for the first time."

"He was so gracious about being the only returning character. We were all pleased he was a part of 2010. It was a very unusual experience for him, like a time warp. He is a very genial, sweet man, a real pleasure."

People say the same about Lithgow. They say that, despite the success, he's still a nice guy.

John Lithgow flashes a sly grin. "They're lying."

Partly published in Starlog Magazine, 1985. Images ©1984 MGM.

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