John Lithgow Has A Very Personal Connection To His Perry Mason Character

This post contains spoilers for season 1 of "Perry Mason"

For a long time, John Lithgow had a rule about not doing episodic TV. Before he accepted what is arguably his most memorable role to date — Dick Solomon in "3rd Rock from the Sun" — the two-time Oscar nominee was committed to film and stage work. But since he found major success with his '90s sitcom he's been showing up in all manner of projects, and in the age of prestige TV, Lithgow is cropping up all over the small screen. From "Dexter" to "The Crown," the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art grad has now fully embraced TV, and for a brief moment, blessed the grim, pulpy first season of HBO's "Perry Mason."

Playing lawyer and mentor to Matthew Rhys' Mason, Elias Birchard "E.B." Jonathan, Lithgow only lasts four episodes before his character dies by suicide. But in those four episodes, the actor was given a lot to work with, playing a man who suddenly finds himself at the tail end of a successful career and not quite ready to leave his wonder years behind. E.B. is the man tasked with defending Emily Dodson, the woman accused of conspiracy leading to the kidnapping and death of her infant son — I told you it was grim. But as the pressure mounts, he is threatened by the Los Angeles district attorney with false claims of larceny and facing disbarment, and having lost funding for Emily's defense, urges his defendant to fight her case in court, before ending his own life.

In other words, E.B. Jonathan was a man with a lot on his mind, and for John Lithgow, not only did that provide with him with a compelling character to try to deconstruct, but it also provided a way of empathizing with him.

'The fear and panic of growing old'

Throughout his career, John Lithgow has consistently taken unpredictable roles, to the point that it's become somewhat of a calling card. From starring in "3rd Rock," replacing Christopher Walken as the maniac villain in, "Cliffhanger," portraying Winston Churchill in "The Crown" and his numerous roles in Shakespeare productions, Lithgow has never pigeonholed himself. And, in the late stages of his career, his four episode-run in "Perry Mason" allowed him to articulate many of his own thoughts and fears about his particular place in life.

In an interview with Mumtaj Begum, the 77-year-old reflected on his recent roles being "old men" and how that's forced him to explore, "variations on age and the fear of age and the fear of growing old and losing your viability." But whereas you might think an actor with such a diverse career would find that kind of thing limiting, he actually finds it to be the opposite, saying his, "career is more interesting now than it's ever been." He added:

"E.B Jonathan is a man who used to be on top of the world. He used to have all these connections, he used to win cases, he used to get people off, and he hasn't for years. He desperately needs this [Dodson] case and when it turns into a big case he feels like he's landed a big one. And then when it starts going wrong, and when he realizes he can't even get the simplest thing for his clients, his despair and his panic is another fascinating thing to play. It's just it's very, very rich [...] it's the very, very high emotions of the fear and panic of growing old. Unfortunately, I'm beginning to have access to that fear myself, so why not put it to good use."

Lithgow isn't slowing down

E.B. Jonathan is a tragic character, unable to reconcile his own opinion of himself as a perfectly capable lawyer with the unwelcome fact that he's clearly overwhelmed by his latest case. That's a great tension for any actor to play, but to see someone like Lithgow portray it is one of the best parts of "Perry Mason" season 1. For the few episodes that Lithgow is around, he plays E.B.'s internal struggle as believably and sensitively as you would expect from an actor of his caliber and experience.

That said, it's odd to hear that the actor found such a personal connection to his "Perry Mason" character, only in the sense that there's absolutely nothing to suggest that Lithgow is past his prime. The man is on an unprecedented run, coming off "The Crown" and going straight into "Perry Mason" before taking a starring role opposite Jeff Bridges in Fox's "The Old Man." As the actor told GQ recently, "You get to be my age and you finally get to work with a lot of people you've been waiting to work with for a long, long time. And the payoff is simply wonderful. And in this past year, it's been Jeff [Bridges] and De Niro and DiCaprio and Julianne Moore." Hardly someone who's struggling in his career.

Still, playing a character who's reflecting on a long and successful career clearly had major parallels with Lithgow. Thankfully, he's keeping a lot busier than E.B. Jonathan and shows no signs of being overwhelmed by it any time soon.