When one thinks of the greatest performers of stage and screen, names like Olivier, Streep, Nicholson, and Day-Lewis come to mind. There is another great actor I would like to throw out there and his name is John Lithgow. Lithgow is classically trained from Harvard and London’s Academy of Dramatic Art. His work has been consistently met with critical acclaim and he has won numerous awards, including, two Tony’s[1], five Emmy’s[2], and two Academy Award nominations.[3] His career highlights include well-received turns as the vivacious and insightful former Philadelphia Eagle Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp; the stern, small-town preacher who believes dancing causes teenage pregnancy in Footloose (1984); the nefarious robber, skilled helicopter pilot, and maniacal laugher opposite Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger (1993), and most famously, the egocentric yet lovable Dr. Dick Solomon on television’s 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996-2001).

Lithgow’s versatility and penchant for histrionics has consistently served him well during his illustrious career, often drawing comparisons to his contemporary, John Malkovich. Lithgow’s considerable skill set is on full display in the Academy Award winning family comedy film Harry and the Hendersons (1987).[4] In this memorable film, which later spawned a sitcom, Lithgow stars as the family’s patriarch George Henderson. He has a wife (Melinda Dillon) and two children (Bespectacled boy actor and Frizzy haired girl actress), but his life feels incomplete, as it is in desperate need of adventure and a closer connection to his family. Man, is his life about to change!

Harry and the Hendersons begins with George driving his family home from a camping trip deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. He proceeds to accidentally strike a sizeable furry animal with his family’s station wagon. The Henderson’s soon discern that the creature is actually the famous Bigfoot or Sasquatch. Believing the Sasquatch to be dead, George and his family decide to do the only sensible thing, take its corpse home with them because “there could be money in this.”[5] While his greed is initially oft putting, educated viewers (those who have seen a movie before) understand that George will grow as a husband and a father with assistance from his new son. Little do the Hendersons know, but a notorious Bigfoot hunter (David Suchet) is on their trail and their adventure has only just begun.

Upon arrival at the family’s Seattle homestead, to the Henderson’s shock, the Sasquatch who they will later name Harry (Kevin Peter Hall), is not dead and he’s wandering inside the Henderson’s home, eating flowers and the daughter’s corsage (he’s a vegetarian). A terrified Harry proceeds to flee and George frantically searches for him with help from a disgraced Bigfoot expert (Don Ameche). Once George and Harry reunite and return home, the plot starts cooking as the characters start growing.

George and his family are soon convinced that Harry is a benevolent friend and he becomes a beloved member of the family. Harry makes himself right at home, as he bonds with the children, entertains the family dog, showcases his billiards prowess, absorbs Addams Family reruns, and enjoys vegetarian meals with his new crew.

Harry’s arrival enables Lithgow’s George to show that he is consummate father, with affinity for tough-love, flannel shirts, male pattern baldness, and the Seattle Seahawks. He fiercely protects his family and new son from the authorities and the eccentric Bigfoot hunter, while also putting their lives at risk. George is the epitome of 80s action/comedy fatherhood at its absolute best, as his behavior changes on a dime seemingly only to further the plot. I wouldn’t want it any other way. George’s “hairy” son[6] helps him understand his potential through his undeterred loyalty. This empowers George to become a better father and a better man. Now, is that growth or what?

Without spoiling too much of the film’s electrifying third act, let me just say the stakes are high, but George and Harry are able to use kindness and love to protect the family from the crazed Bigfoot hunter, turning him into an ardent ally. George enables his surrogate son to return home to his actual family of Sasquatches (or Bigfeet???) in the woods, not before committing animal and/or child abuse by purposively striking his new son in the face and verbally abusing him. Also, he repeatedly and needlessly endangers his family’s life throughout the film’s 111 minute running time. Additionally, I highly doubt that a crazed Bigfoot hunter would be so easily swayed and non-violent, but that’s a story for another column.

Harry and the Hendersons is competently written and directed by William Dear, who would later direct the adorable Danny Glover and Tony Danza in Angels in the Outfield (1994) and the even more adorable Jonathan Taylor Thomas in Wild America (1996). But for my money, which is not much because I’m writing this review pro bono, Lithgow gives the most adorable performance of them all.

In the film, he spouts gems such as “We’ve got some big guns and some big-big guns but I’m afraid I’m all out of big-big ammo!” and “Harry, sometimes you’ve just gotta wonder if there’s any real difference between you and I. I mean, I can be pretty hairy too, you know.” Lithgow lifts this seemingly corny dialogue with his natural gravitas and impeccable comic timing. Whereas a lesser actor may have phoned his performance in, he is incapable of such blatant unprofessionalism, as he is one of the greats. Lithgow’s performance is as refreshing as an ice cream truck’s sudden appearance on a scorching summer’s day.

Harry and the Hendersons grossed a modest $50 million worldwide during its theatrical run and it currently sits at 44% on Rotten Tomatoes, but its cult status will live on forever. Critical analysis of the film reached its apex in 30 Rock’s episode “Goodbye, My Friend.” Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy describes the film’s lasting appeal best when he proclaims, “that film has layers.” Indeed it does, Jack, indeed it does. It is through Lithgow’s daring, committed performance that the viewer can greatly appreciate these layers. Thank you, John Lithgow. God bless you.

[1] “The Changing Room” (1987) and “The Sweet Smell of Success.” (2002)

[2] The World According to Garp (1982) and Terms of Endearment. (1983)

[3] Includes three from his work on 3rd Rock from the Sun and one from Dexter.

[4] Best Makeup, 1988. Mr. Lithgow was robbed of a nomination.

[5] Little known fact, the morons who recently placed a bison calf in their car, were inspired by this film.

[6] Oh, I get it. He names him “Harry” because he’s “hairy.” Well done, Mr. Dear. Kudos.

featured image courtesy universal pictures