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December 19, 2014

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Life is good and ‘Love Is Strange’ for HRC honoree John Lithgow

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John Lithgow is in Las Vegas to accept the Human Rights Campaign’s Equality Award.

Before we talk of his new movie and the honor he is to receive at the Ninth Annual Human Rights Campaign Gala at Wynn Las Vegas on Saturday, we first need to remind John Lithgow of one of his greatest roles.

That of "Master Thespian" on "Saturday Night Live."

"I found a clip of you and Jon Lovitz on ‘SNL,’ a long time ago, in a 'Master Thespian' clip, and it is hilarious," I say, reminding him of the skit in which Lovitz famously portrayed a hopelessly over-the-top Shakespearean actor whose inspiration was an equally grandiose Lithgow. Their forceful soliloquies always ended with the characters bowing to each other while shouting, "Acting! Thank you!"

"You found that? You saw it? Oh God, I would love to see that again. I have got to go find it," Lithgow, who has won Golden Globes and Emmy Awards for his work on "Dexter" and "3rd Rock From the Sun," said during a phone interview. "Yeah, yeah, it was hilarious. I did three of them, actually. I hosted the show three times and each time we did a ‘Master Thespian’ routine, and it just got better and better. It would be nice to see me with hair (laughs)." (Catch one of the Lithgow-Lovitz performances on Vimeo.)

Lithgow's most recent role is of a gay man in the upcoming film "Love Is Strange," in which his partner, played by Alfred Molina, and he marry after being together for four decades. Molina will present Lithgow with the HRC's Equality Award for raising awareness about human-rights issues. Scheduled to appear during the gala at the Wynn are screenwriter and featured speaker Dustin Lance Black ("Big Love," Oscar winner for "Milk"), cast members from "Le Reve — The Dream," Melody Sweets of "Absinthe," Sabina Kelley of "Best Ink," Murray Sawchuck of Laugh Factory at the Trop, cast members of "Fantasy," "Rock of Ages," "Million Dollar Quartet" and Chippendales and members of the team from "Rock of Ages." Also being honored are Las Vegas TV personality Chris Saldana and restaurateur Jenna Morton of the Morton Group.

Highlights from my chat with the Master Thespian:

So how does one receive an honor from the HRC?

It has to do with the campaign for equal rights in marriage, same-sex marriage, which I have not been enormously, directly involved in, but I've done this extraordinary movie, "Love Is Strange," with Alfred Molina, and I think probably it has grown out of that.

This is said to be a very poignant movie.

It's a superb film, and it's getting a terrific release this summer. Alfred Molina and I play a gay couple who have been together for 40 years, and they get married finally in New York City because New York state law finally allows them to get married. His character is a music teacher at a Catholic school, and he loses his job over it. They're two old men and their lives fall apart, they can't afford their apartment, they have to look for cheaper living, looking for jobs. My character is kind of a pretty good, but not-at-all successful painter and doesn't have work or an income. Our characters have to live separately, and the two of us struggle to remain together.

These are universal problems, right?

Yes, our lives are riddled with these modest human crises dealing with money and real estate. It's a very sweet, funny, touching film about the lives going into a sort of domestic chaos. It's a film that's a wonderful look at the marriage. It's not even specifically about a same-sex marriage. It's about these guys, and their gay marriage is a given; it's completely accepted reality. That is what is so powerful about it. What's extraordinary is how ordinary it is. It's the first film I can think of where it's not a big deal that the gay men are married to each other. To me, it's a real groundbreaking moment. That's exactly what's happening in society; we are accepting it.

The central point point, it seems, is not that they are gay, but it's what is happening to them as they happen to be gay.

That's exactly right. That somehow makes the film very, very touching. There have been great films about all sorts of gay issues — "Milk" and "Philadelphia" are two great ones — but they are heightened dramas because this is such a dramatic kind of moment. This is an extremely modest drama, and extremely poignant. It's a very simple film, but an important one. I poured myself into the role, as did Alfred, and we really want to make a difference in this crisis.

There are a lot of causes and charities you could lend your name and time to — why focus on this area?

Well, it's just come very naturally. I didn't sit down and sift through the things that I would choose to campaign for. … It just comes very naturally. In our time, it's just the most egregious example of unequal treatment and discrimination. It's been an injustice that has been just there and accepted for so many years, which is how these things become part of culture and I'm not sure exactly sure what it is that has turned things around, but gay people have finally said, "Wait a minute, there is no reason for us to be treated like second-class citizens."

I've talked to George Takei a couple of times over the years, he has been in Las Vegas for "Star Trek" conventions, and he has said it's the last frontier of discrimination. You agree with that?

Oh yeah, and the interesting thing about discrimination is how it's ingrained and until the time is right, and there's a tipping point where people say, "We're not going to accept this." And it's amazing how quickly this groundswell toward acceptance and tolerance can build, which is happening with gay marriage.

What is next for you after you leave Las Vegas?

"I'll be back on Broadway with Glenn Close — this has just been announced — beginning in October in ‘A Delicate Balance.’ I'm really looking forward to that. And then, who knows? I just like surprises, and I'm sure someone will surprise me.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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