Not My Job: What Does John Lithgow Know About Flops?

Oct 30, 2013
Originally published on January 2, 2014 12:56 pm

Actor John Lithgow has won awards for performances ranging from the goofy alien patriarch in 3rd Rock from the Sun to a demonic serial killer on Dexter to dramatic and musical roles on Broadway. (And if that weren't enough, he's written best-selling children's books, too.)

Since he's so successful onstage, we're going to ask him three questions about failures. He'll take a quiz about terrible new products, from Daily Finance's Top 25 Biggest Product Flops Of All Time.

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And now the game where we ask somebody who's done a lot of cool things to do one silly thing, it's called Not My Job.

Actor and author and singer John Lithgow has won numerous awards for his performances ranging from the goofy alien patriarch in "Third Rock from the Sun" to a demonic serial killer on "Dexter." He's also written bestselling children's books, won Tony awards on Broadway in dramatic and musical roles and, look, I'm getting tired just reading his resume. John Lithgow, welcome to WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!


JOHN LITHGOW: Hey, delighted to be here.

SAGAL: Well, we're excited to talk to you particularly because we are here in Cincinnati, Ohio, and you, sir, I am told, are a Buckeye.

LITHGOW: Yes, I am. Until about 11 years old, I lived in Yellow Springs, and Cincinnati was my first city.


SAGAL: Oh really? So...

LITHGOW: Is that everybody applauding out there?

SAGAL: Yeah, they're excited for your Ohio patriotism.


LITHGOW: Well, they still claim me, and I'm delighted to be claimed. I loved growing up in Ohio.

SAGAL: And I wanted to ask this because one of the things I'm fascinated with by you, in addition to your range of pursuits, which is impressive in itself, your range of acting performances is really amazing. Usually guys are heavies or heroes. You do both. You were within the span of - you've won Emmys for both the very funny, goofy patriarch on "Third Rock from the Sun" not to mention your amazing work in "Harry and the Hendersons."



SAGAL: And you also played horrible villains in "Blowout" with John Travolta, in "Cliffhanger" and most memorably in "Dexter."


MO ROCCA: And in "Footloose."

SAGAL: And in "Footloose."

PETER GROSZ: Oh, that was a great character.

SAGAL: You were the repressive father in "Footloose." So the question is: From where do you draw - do you use your Ohio background most for the good guys or most for the evil guys?


LITHGOW: Well, I don't know. The closest thing I've come to playing a man of Ohio roots was the adulterous banker in "Terms of Endearment."


ROCCA: That's so great.

SAGAL: Oh yeah.

LITHGOW: Yeah, when I showed up in Lincoln, Nebraska, to play that part, that was the most intense déjà vu experience. I really felt like I was coming how. I know Ohioans don't regard Cornhuskers as their brothers and sisters, but that was the closest I've come to really playing a Buckeye.

SAGAL: Right because when you were growing up here, you were of course having an affair with Debra Winger, as so many Ohioans did.


ROCCA: You're so great in that movie. I love in the checkout line when the cashier is really rude to Debra Winger, and you stand up for her. It's great.

LITHGOW: Well, you know, he was a good-hearted, sincere, earnest fellow, deeply frustrated sexually.


SAGAL: How is it that one actor can play such good, goofy guys and such insane - like I have a friend who found your performance as a murderer in "Dexter" so disturbing that he just turned off the show and couldn't watch it anymore.

LITHGOW: Yeah, well, I think it comes from growing up doing Shakespeare. My father was a producer of Shakespeare, of four different Shakespeare festivals in Ohio, of all places. And if you think of the whole Shakespearian canon, the same guy who played Iago played Sir Andrew Aguecheek. You know, Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet," but he also wrote "Comedy of Errors."

SAGAL: Did you do any - did you perform in any of your father's companies? Did you ever...?

LITHGOW: Oh yeah, yeah, he was the first person to hire me.


LITHGOW: I had nepotistic beginnings.

SAGAL: We also - and this one of our favorite roles when we were looking it up is you of course played an alien, as we all know, in "Third Rock," but you played an alien before that. You were Yoda in the NPR radio version of "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back."


LITHGOW: That's right.


SAGAL: So we were wondering, I mean, we don't want to put you on the spot. We want to - we would love to hear your Yoda.

LITHGOW: (as Yoda) Oh, (unintelligible).


SAGAL: That is really good.


LITHGOW: You laugh. I deliver it.

SAGAL: You do.

LITHGOW: When my first son was a kid, he was a "Sesame Street" fan, and I used to do all of the Frank Oz chars like Grover...

(As Grover) Now I am getting closer. Now I am getting further.


LITHGOW: And then he graduated to Yoda. So...

SAGAL: So you went along with him. And you write kids' books. So have you - which are wonderful, and I read a bunch of them to my kids and played your kids' CDs, like "Singing in the Bathtub" is a great one.


SAGAL: It's funny, I just realized I had this very vivid memory. When I was a kid, being somewhat older than, say, children now, I listened to Burl Ives records and loved them. So I knew Burl Ives. And then I grew up, and I saw, like, Burl Ives play, for example Big Daddy in the movie of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." So there's my favorite warm-hearted, bearded kids' singer, saying I'm gonna get me a woman.


SAGAL: And I'm like...

LITHGOW: I know, that's what I always tell - don't tell the kids about "Dexter."

SAGAL: Yeah, I know, because - but you've been doing the kids' books and the kids' songs long enough that it could happen any day that some kid is going to be sitting on Netflix or wherever and watching "Dexter," and you're going to pop up, and that kid will spend the rest of two weeks in the fetal position.


ROCCA: Madonna also writes kids' books. That must be wild for kids who are introduced to Madonna from her kids' books and then want to see what it's like when she does kids' performances.

GROSZ: What's this other three-letter book, S-E-X? What is this book?

SAGAL: I just want to say this because I have strong feelings about this. It is true that there are other celebrities who have taken advantage of their celebrity and written kids' books. And I want to say that unlike a lot of those other kid books, having read a lot of them, Mr. Lithgow's kids' books are actually good.

ROCCA: Right, no his are good.


GROSZ: Brad Pitt's kids' books after very weird. Michael Shannon's(ph)...

SAGAL: Yeah, I know, and Kim Kardashian's, you don't want to know.

ROCCA: But Charles Manson's are pretty good.

LITHGOW: I will say that all my kids' books are market tested. I sort of walk the walk. I do continue to give kids' concerts, and selfishly, they are just a wonderful counterpoint to adult audiences. You know, we actors, we're always after a suspension of disbelief. You never quite achieve it with grownups. They know you're acting. But kids are completely open to a suspension of disbelief.

ROCCA: Total suckers.


LITHGOW: They're so stupid, basically.


GROSZ: You said it, Lithgow.

ROCCA: They'll buy anything.

SAGAL: Well, John Lithgow, we are delighted to talk to you, all being big fans here, and we have asked you here to play a game we're calling...

CARL KASELL: We'll call it New Coke.

SAGAL: So everybody's talking about the disaster that was the Obamacare website launch, but believe it or not, it may not be the worst product launch in history. We're going to ask you questions about three terrible new products, taken from a list on the business site Daily Finance. Answer two questions correctly, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners. Carl, who is our guest playing for?

KASELL: John is playing for Marie LePage of Cincinnati, Ohio.

SAGAL: There you go.


LITHGOW: (Unintelligible).

SAGAL: Now, are you ready to play?


SAGAL: Here we go. First question. Clairol tried a new shampoo that didn't just catch on for some reason. Was it which of these: A, Clairol Lite, 35 Calorie Shampoo; B, Clairol Touch of Yogurt Shampoo; C, Clairol Trust Us, Pour It In Your Eyes Shampoo.


LITHGOW: I will say trust - Clairol Yogurt.

SAGAL: Yes, Touch of Yogurt Shampoo.



SAGAL: When you're talking about your hair, apparently even a touch of yogurt is too much. All right, very good. Sometimes a product fails because of its name. There was an energy drink that made a splash but didn't sell very well. What was this energy drink called? Was it: A, Super Duper Fun Juice; B, Cocaine; or C, (makes noises)


LITHGOW: Super Duper Fun Juice.

SAGAL: You're going for Super Duper Fun Juice?


SAGAL: No, it was actually Cocaine.



SAGAL: Cocaine energy drink.

ROCCA: How was it spelled?

SAGAL: Like Cocaine in the traditional manner. The FDA decided that was not appropriate, and it was pulled from the shelves.

ROCCA: And did you drink it through your mouth?

SAGAL: Yes, you did. People were apparently confused.

GROSZ: That's why it didn't work.

SAGAL: Well, this is very exciting, so if you get this right, our audience member wins. Here we go. Sometimes the most successful lines of products go one step too far, for example, which of these from the Barbie line of dolls from Mattel. Was it: A, Lady of the Night Barbie; B, Magic Earring Ken, in which Ken has one earring, a mesh t-shirt, and a purple leather vest; or C, Depressed Housewife Barbie, which came with her own little Zoloft pills.

LITHGOW: Oh, they all sound like excellent products.


SAGAL: Oh yeah.

ROCCA: You've played all of them.

LITHGOW: I will say - what was the earring...?

SAGAL: Magic Earring Ken. Ken came with an earring...

LITHGOW: It has to be Magic Earring Ken.

SAGAL: And it is, well done.



LITHGOW: I think this time you guys have gone too far.

SAGAL: Apparently, but Magic Earring Ken, which was introduced in the stores, quickly got a new nickname, which was Gay Ken, and Mattel decided this wasn't going to work.

ROCCA: Magic Earring Ken is what Barbie into Depressed Housewife Barbie.


SAGAL: Carl, how did our John Lithgow do on our quiz?

KASELL: Well, John, you had two correct answers, and that's enough to win for Marie LaPage.

SAGAL: Very well done.


SAGAL: John Lithgow's latest children's book is "Never Play Music Right Next To The Zoo." It's out now. Pick it up for your kid. John Lithgow, thank you so much for being with us, great to talk to you on WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.