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John Lithgow Reminisces Over His ‘Surprise’ First Emmy Win for ‘Amazing Stories’

The first award John Lithgow ever won was not an Emmy but a Tony (in 1973 for “The Changing Room”). While he was certainly excited by the achievement, much of his happiness came from the fact it put him “in the category of employable actors.” More than a decade later he won his first Emmy (in 1986 for his guest role in “Amazing Stories”).

“My character in ‘Amazing Stories’ was a quiet man who buys a doll for his niece, but she’s getting too old to play with dolls, and he plans to return it, but finds he feels a connection to it and can’t,” Lithgow says. “It turns out the doll is a younger version of this woman, and she has a doll that is a younger version of my character that she also feels a connection with. The dollmaker mysteriously has brought these two wallflowers together.”

An Emmy isn’t the only piece of physical memorabilia from his time on “Amazing Stories,” though. “The prop department gave me the little doll of myself, and to this day it sits in my office as a reminder of myself as a younger actor,” he says. 

Here, Lithgow reflects on his first Emmy win with Variety.

The 1986 Emmys were not the first time you were nominated, so at that point what was your impression of the award ceremony?

I was away on location the first time I was nominated, so I hadn’t had the full Emmy experience yet. The only time I’d been to the Emmy Awards was as a date of a nominee when my friend Swoosie Kurtz asked me. So I had been to the ceremony before like a eunuch at a harem: I wasn’t really participating. [1986] was the first time I was there and nominated — and not only nominated, nominated twice. My wife and I had a happy night.

Going into the evening, did you have a sense of whether you would win?

Awards always seem important on the night of, and I was very excited to be there with not one but two projects that I was proud to be in. Steven Spielberg was one of the producers of “Amazing Stories,” and it was his first real time doing TV so it got attention. And then “Resting Places,” for which I was also nominated, was from Hallmark Hall of Fame, which at the time was the gold standard for dramatic TV movies. It was extremely exciting to win, but I can’t say I expected it.

Did you write an acceptance speech just in case?

I did. I didn’t want to miss out on things I wanted to say. I paid tribute to a young director, Phil Joanou, who was a very brilliant kid right out of USC film school, and I was glad to have a chance to give him a little shout-out and tell everybody they’d be hearing a lot from this young man. And I finished up with a tribute to my dad, which is something I’d always wanted to do.

What else sticks out at you about the ceremony?

A good friend of mine, Ed Herrmann, was nominated against me in the guest actor category, and the very first thing I said in my speech was, “I never win anything!” I hadn’t planned that part — I just blurted it out. And Ed, whom I had beaten, as we were leaving the ball said, “Wait a minute, you won a Tony!” He wasn’t upset; we had a bit of fun with it.

You were doing a lot of films at the time. Did this Emmy win make you want to want to do more television instead?

I had just really ventured into TV that year with those two projects, and I got nominated for them both, so it was a wonderful feeling of, “This is nice!” But I just take whatever comes. You’d be surprised by how little an actor is capable of making plans.

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