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October 9, 2015

John Lithgow on Playing Barney's Dad on 'How I Met Your Mother' -- Plus an Exclusive Clip

by Joel Keller, posted Mar 17th 2011 10:00AM
John Lithgow and Neil Patrick Harris on 'How I Met Your Mother' - 'Legendaddy'Monday night is a landmark one for fans of 'How I Met Your Mother,' as Barney Stinson (played by the ever-game Neil Patrick Harris) finally comes face to face with his father.

And, instead of his father being Bob Barker, we get someone even better: John Lithgow.

Lithgow plays "Uncle" Jerry, one of the guys that Barney's promiscuous mother had coming around the Stinson house from time to time when Barney was a kid, and then dropped out of his life completely. What we find out during the episode is that a lot of what makes up Barney comes from Jerry, but as Lithgow told me earlier this week, "Even 10 minutes into the show, he's not the father of Barney that you expect."

After the jump is my talk with Lithgow about the role, how welcoming the 'HIMYM' gang is, if people still yell at him for 'Dexter' and if any offers for roles surprise him these days. There's also an exclusive clip from Monday night's episode, and it's a pretty funny one.

Joel Keller: John, how are you doing today?
John Lithgow: Good ... I'm a little bit late, but I hope you're expecting me.

No problem. I know how it is on these things. People, including me, talk and talk.
[Laughs] No, this was a wardrobe fitting on the set of 'How I Met Your Mother,' so ...

I'm guessing, then, that we're going to be seeing you in more than just Monday's episode?
That's right. They've called me back. This is the second I've done. When I signed on for the first, that was it, but they immediately saw possibilities, so they signed me for a second, and, who knows?

Who approached you for the role? Was it Carter [Bays] and Craig [Thomas]?
I suppose, yeah, it was Carter and Craig. I'd heard subsequently they had had some brainstorming sessions about who should be Neil's father, and that Neil himself was in on the deliberations. They told me that I was their first choice, but I know not to believe people when they say things like that. [Laughs]

Had you watched the show at all up to this point?
Honestly, I had not really seen the show, and the minute I got the offer, I immediately saw several episodes, and I saw what the big deal was all about. And I learned from my son and my daughter-in-law that they're both huge fans of the show, and so I trust their taste.

When you saw it, what did you think the big deal was all about?
Well, I saw it so cold, and I just said, "Give me a selection that you think really characterizes the show and really sets up the arrival of the character." I hadn't known that there was this long-running mystery [around] who was Barney's father, and all the detours and tangents and misleads that they had built into the show over the years. I hadn't known any of that. I didn't even know the premise, I didn't know what the phrase 'How I Met Your Mother' meant, that's how out of it I am. [Laughs] I was just so endeared to the show immediately; they just drew me into their world. And then I came and met everybody, and the vibe on the set is practically identical to the vibe in the show. It's just a wonderful, warm feeling; they said they love to invite their guests in.

Every show cast says that they're "one big happy family, but they seem to project that on the set.
Yesh, and I don't think I've seen that since '3rd Rock From the Sun' -- [it's] to an even greater degree, really, because they're all of the same generation and they fit together so beautifully, this group. '3rd Rock' was a fantastic ensemble, but we were mixed nuts, there's no doubt about it.

Barney is a character who is iconic to the show, with all his tics, catchphrases and mannerisms. And in the scene we were sent it looks like Barney got a lot of that from his father. How difficult is it to come in and play the father of a character like that?
Well, I have to tell you that not everything is what it seems on 'How I Met Your Mother.' So when you see the show there are a lot of surprises in store. That said, I don't think I should tell you much more than that. [Laughs] It was great fun to imagine Barney Stinson's father, and to watch Neil and figure out what I should do that he might have inherited from me. That was a great fun thing. But the way they've structured it, there are enormous reversals; there's much more to the part than just that note. And that's when it really became fun. I read the script and thought, "Oh, great; now I see why they hired me." They just present different facets of the character, as they do in many cases on the show. They turn everything on their head and surprise the audience in all sorts of ways, and believe me, I'm involved in some of those surprises.

Watch our exclusive clip
from Monday's episode

Because of all the scenes and cutaways, they don't shoot the show in front of an audience. Was it strange to shoot a sitcom where you had to pause for a laugh but there was no audience feedback?
It's a real leap of faith, it's kind of "leap of faith comedy." It's a trusting atmosphere. You certainly trust in the editor and the director, Pam Fryman -- you can't get through an interview about 'How I Met Your Mother' without talking about her, she's so much a part of the tone and style of the show. I would say the biggest surprise was just the mechanics; I've never worked in quite this way. It's the sitcom setup of rehearsing for four cameras and everything, but you remove the audience, and you have scripts where there are so many scenes and so many of the scenes are one or two lines... it goes so fast, and you have to be so quick on your feet. I'm sort of accustomed to learning my words in the long periods of time during which somebody else is shooting a scene, or setting up the lighting for a different scene or something. This... I was flabbergasted at how fast it went. But in a way, they've sort of developed this as the style of the show. It's extremely loose and improvisational, even though the written script is very, very tight.

When you come on as a guest to an established show, where does the challenge lie for you to make sure you get in the groove with the cast and make sure everything is smooth?
Well, it's less of a challenge than you would think. They were cognizant of the fact that I had done sitcoms myself, that I had been in the position of the actors who played the running characters. They knew that I knew the decorum, the social organism of a sitcom. I always made it my point to make people feel welcome on '3rd Rock From the Sun' and put them at their ease and let them know that they're part of an ensemble, just by virtue of the fact that they'd been hired. Well, that's exactly the way that everybody approaches this [on this show]; I've never seen such friendly and welcoming people. It's amazingly relaxed and fun.

Did anyone on the set give you any grief for killing Julie Benz' character on 'Dexter'?
Oh, yes, I get everywhere these days. [Laughs] I mean, in a way that's the nice thing about returning to comedy. It's about shifting back into another gear.

That's something I'm curious about, given your versatility. How tough is it to go from something heavy like 'Dexter' to something like this?
It's not hard at all, it's just a very different style. 'Dexter' is like movie-making, it has that kind of long, intense ... the movie-making on 'Dexter' suits the tone of that series, as the TV-crafting of 'How I Met Your Mother' suits the tone of this series. I mean, it's fun shifting gears like that.

At this point in your career, do you still get surprised by offers, that people think of you for a certain type of role?
I certainly hope for and wish for being surprised that way, because in my experience, people have more original ideas for me than I have for myself. It seems to me that all my favorite acting jobs over the years have been parts that I would have never thought of myself for. It's just that I'm the subject of other people's brainstorms.

What's a good example of that?
I'd say early on, characters like, well, 'The World According to Garp,' for example, or villains in 'Ricochet' or 'Cliffhanger.' Very early on, one of my first stage roles was Lenny in 'Of Mice and Men,' and I thought, "My God, who ever thought of that?" And I went into it very scared that I couldn't play this part, and it was one of my great breakthrough appearances on stage. So that's what you wait for, you always want to attempt something you've never done before. I mean, acting in musicals on Broadway, that came very late in my career, and it was a completely wonderful experience.

Do you still get challenged by roles?
Um ... not often enough, you know? [Laughs] But it doesn't matter; it's always fun.

On the 'Mother' set, what roles of yours have the cast and crew told you resonates with them the most?
Well, I haven't really asked them, and they don't fawn on me and they don't kiss my ass, and I'm very glad of that. I would stay 'Dexter' is still in the air, even a year after I was on, it made a real impact. And people just love the fact that I've chosen to do a quick 180 by joining ['HIMYM'].

What was it about that role that's resonated so much with people?
Well, the character was so shocking, just because he was just so ordinary and affable and genial, and kind of a good person to all appearances, I think that's what made it so incredibly unsettling. But that's a fun thing to play. When you're on 'Dexter' you're intent is to really shock people, and boy, did I ever. I can't go through the streets of New York in a single day without someone mentioning the finale of 'Dexter.' [Laughs] Everybody loves it. They were shocked, and they they'll never forgive me, but it's all in the spirit of gratitude.

What can we see from you besides 'HIMYM' coming up?
I'm in 'Caesar: Rise of the Apes' with James Franco, that will be out on Thanksgiving. And I just finished doing my solo show on stage at the Mark Taper Forum, which I'll probably do again within the year in New York. But my big news is that I've written a memoir that comes out on September 27.

Any insight on what's going to be in the memoir?
Nope, except it's all about me. [Laughs] It's called 'Drama: an Actor's Education,' about basically becoming the actor I am up until the age of 30, 31 years old.

'How I Met Your Mother' airs Mondays at 8PM ET on CBS.

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