Commencement Address by John Lithgow ’67: “An Actor's Own Words”

Mr. President, faculty, graduates, families, and friends, good afternoon and thank you for the honor of addressing you all today...

by John Lithgow '67, Ar.D. '05


Mr. President, faculty, graduates, families, and friends, good afternoon and thank you for the honor of addressing you all today.

This speech is a major event in my own personal history but an interesting little footnote in Harvard’s history as well: I am the first professional actor to speak at a Harvard Commencement. Notice that I have specified “professional” actor, since I am sure that, as in all walks of life, there has been plenty of play-acting at this dais over the years.

In choosing me, the thoughtful men and women who selected your Commencement speaker have shown uncharacteristic recklessness. You see, we actors make our reputations and build our careers by speaking other people’s words. Ask us to express our own thoughts and you never know what’s going to come out. I barely know myself. My reflexive instinct is simply to entertain you (and in fact, I do intend to offer up a modest performance by the end of my remarks), but I am well aware that this is an occasion of dignity and of gravity, and that a certain amount of Graduation Day wisdom is called for.

But wisdom from an actor? Are you kidding? If I were a wise man I never would have gone into the acting profession. Rather than presuming to pass down wisdom, I have decided to think of my address as a friendly and anecdotal conversation with the Harvard College Class of 2005. Thirty-eight years ago, I was one of you, sitting with my classmates and listening to a speech. I am going to touch on a few episodes in my picaresque journey from down there to up here, and I leave it to you to root out any wisdom therein.

I bet that word “picaresque” got your attention. I am afraid that is one of the few words that I still remember from my four years of studying English history and literature at Harvard. As I recall, the word “picaresque” is used to describe a long adventure which teaches its hero a series of lessons to live by – an apt subject for a Commencement address. Although I hesitate to dub myself a hero, I have stumbled across a few lessons, especially in the last dozen years, and, considering the occasion, this is a good time to share them with you. I’ll get to the adventures in a moment, but I will lead with the lessons. Basically they boil down to four succinct phrases:

Be creative.

Be useful.

Be practical.

Be generous.

Simple as that.

And now for the adventures.

I actually had two Harvard Educations. The first one concluded on the day I that graduated. Shortly thereafter, I launched myself into the acting game where, for the next 20 years, I virtually kept my Harvard degree a secret. Somehow it never seemed to come in all that handy when I was auditioning for a soap opera or a potato-chip commercial. My second Harvard education began when I was invited back into the fold, in 1989. In another example of Harvard recklessness, I was asked to run for the Board of Overseers, presumably to redress the fact that no one from the world of the Arts had served on the Board since the poet Robert Frost [’01, Litt.D. ’37] in the 1930s.

Equally reckless, the Harvard alumni elected me.

In what I eventually learned was a typical pattern, I spent the first half of my six years as an Overseer wondering what in the world I was doing there. Then I recalled my personal agenda. I was presumed to be the Arts Overseer, so I proposed an Overseers’ Ad Hoc Committee on the Arts. The committee was quickly established, mainly because there seemed to be no good reason not to. In 1992, with the support and encouragement of the new University president, Neil Rudenstine, the committee created Arts First, a springtime celebration of undergraduate arts activity at Harvard. We joined forces with Myra Mayman, then head of the Office of the Arts, and together we applied ourselves to the rare and exhilarating task of inventing traditions.  That 1992 festival, with its parade, its Saturday performance fair, its campus barbecue, and its big yellow tent, has been replicated a dozen times since, growing bigger and bigger every year. It is now virtually impossible to imagine a school year at Harvard College without it. And without it, I assure you, I would not be delivering your Commencement address today.

The creation of Arts First was a lesson for me in the power of a simple idea. But the big lessons were yet to come.

In 1995, my last year as an Overseer, I proposed the Harvard Arts Medal, to be awarded every year during Arts First to an alum who had gone into the creative arts. The idea was to highlight the fact that, although the instances are rare, Harvard students do sometimes become artists, and major artists at that. Again, the Board agreed to the proposal, and that spring the first Harvard Arts Medal was presented to Jack Lemmon [’47], a delightful, open-hearted honoree. Since then, the award has been presented annually, 11 times in all. This spring was the first time in all these years that I could not be here for Arts First, so sadly I missed the presentation of the Medal to the poet Maxine Kumin [’46, A.M. ’48, RI ’63].

Every spring, one of the events planned around the presentation of the Arts Medal has been a question-and-answer session that I have conducted with the honoree, for an audience of interested students. The Q&As have been held under the auspices of the Office of the Arts’ splendid “Learning from Performers” series. My yearly conversations with the Medal-winning artists made up the core curriculum of my second Harvard education.  For, although none of them was an educator, all of them were dazzling, inspiring teachers.  My moments with them, with all those students following every word, are the adventures that I was just talking about.

Several of the Medal recipients had something in common. They told us about pet projects they had initiated that went outside and beyond what they were known for. Having achieved success in their fields, they had looked around, spotted problems or challenges, and figured out how they could help. Then they had boldly used their success to make good things happen. They tended to tell their stories without self-aggrandizement, only after being prodded, and they tended to tell them in a sensible, businesslike manner, as if they were describing good carpentry or a well-run board meeting. I began to see that many of the qualities that made them great artists were the same qualities that made them good people. It was through their words that I began formulating my simple lessons to live by. They were creative, God knows. But their actions were also eminently useful, practical, and generous.

Let me give you some examples.

The 1996 Medal recipient was Pete Seeger [’40]. He thrilled the students with his story of the sloop Clearwater. One day in the mid 60s, on a train to New York City from his upstate home, he sat next to an acquaintance from the world of business and finance. Looking out the window at the Hudson River, Seeger daydreamed aloud about building a replica of one of the great sailing vessels that had carried goods along that route to and from the Erie Canal, a hundred and fifty years earlier. Six months after that chance meeting, Seeger was astonished when the same acquaintance approached him on the same train and told him he had raised the money for Pete’s fanciful pipe dream. Pete’s response, he recalled, was, “Well, I guess now we’re gonna have to build it!”

Within a few years, Seeger was sailing the Hudson on the sloop Clearwater, giving concerts at cities and towns along the banks, taking children on historical field trips, and raising people’s consciousness about the sad state of the polluted Hudson. Using the ship as a potent symbol, he lobbied the federal government on behalf of the Clean Water Act. The act was passed in 1972 and remains one of the most successful environmental laws in history. As for the Hudson River, its level of pollution is drastically lower that it was that first day on the train, a change which came about substantially because of Pete Seeger’s whim.

And Pete Seeger, you recall, is a folk singer.

The following year, the Medal winner was Bonnie Raitt [’72]. She had a good story, too. At the height of her success, having sold millions of records and having won a slew of Grammy Awards, she was approached by Fender Guitars with a very lucrative offer. They wanted to produce and sell a new model autographed guitar, one suited to her particular style of blues playing.  She answered that she had no interest in making money off her autograph on a guitar, but that she would accept their offer on one condition. She would use her share of the proceeds from the sale of this new guitar as seed money to fund guitar lessons for inner-city kids all over the country, through the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Fender, she insisted, would have to lend its support as well.

The program quickly spread to over 200 venues.  Twelve years have passed since Bonnie’s bright idea. Now known as the Boys and Girls Club Program for Music Education, it is still going strong.

Now my entire speech could be devoted to stories like this: David Hays [’52] and the National Theatre of the Deaf, Mira Nair [’79] and her film school in Uganda, William Christie [’66] and his “Jardins des Voix,” Yo-Yo Ma [’76, D.Mus. ’91] and his Silk Road Project. These were all marvelous, inspiring tales, but what was especially exciting about them was the fact that they were being told to college students, just at the moment when they most needed to hear them.

Because here is the point:

Many of you are leaving Harvard with lofty, ambitious goals. (Those of you who have no immediate goals, don’t worry, you will discover them soon). A lot of you will achieve those goals, some with extravagant success. In fact, I’m secretly counting on you to go out and make things right in this perilous, suffering world and in this deeply troubled nation. But when you get what you’re aiming for, or even as you go through the process of getting it, think about what else you can also do. Think about the people I just described to you, how they went beyond their original aspirations, sometimes in wildly unlikely ways. Think about how they made a difference in the world and how much joy and pride they took in what they accomplished. Think about how they mingled art and commerce for the public good. And then, if you like, take the word “art” out of the equation; because you certainly don’t have to be an artist to follow their example. It is sometimes a very simple thing to be creative, to be useful, to be practical, and to be generous.

I followed their example myself. I conducted six of those yearly Arts Medal symposia during my six seasons on the TV sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. That show was arguably the most successful job I’ve ever had—popular, high-profile, lucrative, and deliriously fun. But its very success gave me the opportunity to branch out from it. In retrospect, I have come to believe that, consciously or unconsciously, my annual visits to Harvard inspired me to create an entire concurrent second career.

Let me explain.

Ever since my own kids were tiny, I always entertained children. I sang songs, played guitar, and told stories to them in classrooms, assemblies, and benefits.  I got very good at performing for that extremely difficult, distractible audience. And I just loved it. Back from Harvard, sprawled in my dressing room near the 3rd Rock sound stage, I began thinking of what good use I might make of that particular enthusiasm. A hit sitcom is like a magic wand: when you suggest things to people they tend to say yes. So I began making suggestions.

First there was an album of kids’ songs for Sony Records. That led to children’s concerts at Carnegie Hall and with major symphony orchestras in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago. I started writing songs and stories for the concerts. One of the stories became a children’s book. Then a second, third, fourth. I started being referred to as “Actor and Best-selling Author.” I wrote the narration for a new version of Carnival of the Animals for the New York City Ballet. I even danced the role of “The Elephant”!

All of these projects had the simple, obvious goal of delighting children, but I had a secret agenda, too. I was seeking to stir an interest in the Arts in young people, to educate them without their knowing it. I hold the fierce conviction that the Arts are indispensable to a healthy society — that was the easiest round of applause I ever got, talk about stating the obvious — but everywhere I see evidence that support for the Arts is foundering, even under assault. I realized there was something I could do about it. With Jesuitical zeal, I began to see a personal mission taking shape: I could get them while they’re young.

But I was also a busy working actor, and this was getting completely out of hand.

So I joined forces with a consulting firm in Los Angeles. It was made up of three smart, vibrant women who called themselves “Broadthink." (Yes, I intended a laugh for that.) Together we devised various publishing and media projects for kids, parents, teachers, and public schools, many of them spun off of what I had already done. We carefully refined our mission, always striving to connect the dots between entertainment, education, the arts, creative play, and family. This was our attempt, however naïve and idealistic, to educate and enliven young minds and to loosen the grip that violent video games hold these days on the imagination of millions of young people. (Funny, I expected to get a few boos on that.) To my surprise, I emerged as a kind of Pied Piper of arts education and literacy for kids. I delighted in this quixotic new role. And I had chosen such expert collaborators that I still had time to, for example, perform eight times a week on Broadway, the sort of thing that is generally expected of me.

Through all of this, Pete Seeger, Bonnie Raitt, and all the others were never far from my thoughts.

Then came that voice on the telephone this past March, asking me to deliver today’s Commencement address. Overwhelmed by the honor but daunted by the task, I went back to basics. In plotting my course, I reminded myself of my four lessons: be creative, be useful, be practical, and be generous.  And for today, I have added a fifth dictum, tailored to those of you out there who are heading into the world of entertainment: finish big.

As promised, it is now time for my performance.

“What is it?” you ask.

Well, number one, it is creative. It's a little crackpot, perhaps, but definitely creative. Since college graduation is the clearest possible demarcation between childhood and adulthood, I have decided to write a brand new children’s book and to recite it for you. Think of it as a kind of fond farewell to your young years.

The book is about a mouse named Mahalia who goes to college. Just to bring things full circle, call it a picaresque tale. She has adventures and she learns a lot.

Is it useful? Well, it’s certainly intended to be. It is calculated to make little children curious and excited about the notion of education in general and college in particular. And hopefully its usefulness will extend to pouring oil on troubled waters: your campus was roiled by a bitter, divisive controversy in the last semester of your undergraduate years. The book is my cheerful and constructive response to all the turbulence: Mahalia Mouse, you see, studies science.

Is it practical? Oh yes, I’m nothing if not practical. The manuscript has been reviewed and accepted by my editor at Simon & Schuster, and the long journey to publication is already underway. The book will be out in the spring of 2007.

And generous? Well, I have come to see performing in its purest form as a gift to an audience, so perhaps you can think of my recitation as my graduation gift to you. But beyond that, the book itself, in a sense, is yours. Go into a bookstore about 20 months from now. Find the book, open it up, and look at the verso. It will be dedicated to the Harvard College Class of 2005.

And one more thing. The heart of an old Overseer still beats in me. In hopes of inspiring you to be generous to Harvard for all the days of your lives, my advance for the book is my contribution to your Class Gift.

But to my story.

First, some brief author’s notes: although it is not mentioned in the text, the illustrations will distinctly show that the setting is Harvard. The first page, in fact, will feature Dunster House in the rain, as seen from across the Charles River. Any mention of news or a newspaper will feature an image of the Harvard Crimson. Finally, my science consultant for the book was none other than Harvard’s own Professor Jeremy Knowles. You may want to picture Mahalia as his plucky granddaughter.

Now sit back, savor the sublime absurdity of the moment and listen to the last storybook of your childhood.

                                                The Tale of Mahalia Mouse

[a children’s story told in 24 stanzas of rhyming verse, recited by the author]


My gift to the Class of 2005. Congratulations and have a wonderful, wonderful life!

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