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Tuesday, September 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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John Lithgow loves killer comedy, drama roles – both on display these days

Nicholas D'Agosto, left, and John Lithgow appear in a scene from “Trial & Error.” (Tyler Golden / AP)
Nicholas D'Agosto, left, and John Lithgow appear in a scene from “Trial & Error.” (Tyler Golden / AP)
By Rick Bentley Tribune News Service

LOS ANGELES – John Lithgow suggests there is a similarity between his portrayal of Winston Churchill in “The Crown” and his role as a poetry professor with a passion for roller skating accused of murdering his wife in the new NBC comedy “Trial & Error.”

Take a moment to ponder that.

He’s not suggesting Churchill roller skated through the London streets or killed his wife. And, of course, a professor facing murder charges never led a country through a world war.

“They are both beautifully written parts,” Lithgow says.

He adds, “One of the things that I like about having played these two characters and having them on the air virtually at the same time is they couldn’t possibly be more different, one from the other.”

“The Crown” is a Netflix drama that looks at the early days of Queen Elizabeth while “Trial & Error” is a spoof of true-crime documentaries. Novice New York lawyer Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto) goes to a tiny Southern town for his first big case. It’s not the typical court case as the lawyer works out of a makeshift office behind a taxidermy shop.

His team is even stranger. The cast also includes Jayma Mays, Sherri Shepherd, Steven Boyer and Krysta Rodriguez.

Ensemble suits star

Lithgow says he was attracted to the quirkiness of the story but he also liked the idea of working with an ensemble cast. His greatest television success came on “3rd Rock from the Sun,” where he was part of an ensemble cast.

“It’s a fantastic ensemble and we became a group almost instantly and a very loving group,” Lithgow says. “Everybody has their own particular version of the ‘Trial & Error’ sense of humor. We just make each other laugh like crazy all the time.

“My favorite work has been in great ensembles, and this goes with theater and television and even film where half the time you never even meet the people you are acting with … . One thing I absolutely love about acting is the community spirit of it.“

That ensemble is built around Lithgow. The “Trial & Error” producers wanted an actor who can do both comedy and serious drama. That fits a Lithgow resume that includes playing a killer in “Dexter.”

Character challenge

That “Trial & Error” takes comedy jabs at prime-time crime documentaries was the last piece of the show puzzle for Lithgow.

“Nobody has done this yet, and it was brilliantly written. And my character, I loved the challenge of playing a part who, at any given moment, could plausibly have committed or not committed this crime,” Lithgow says. “This seemed to me a wonderful kind of magic trick to pull off, and I love challenges like that. They created a character for which this trick can work.”

Lithgow says viewers will see what he’s talking about from the first moment of the series, when he makes the 911 call. The professor is just as concerned about not missing the cable guy as reporting his wife is dead.

“He’s completely driven by his id,” Lithgow says of his character. “It’s completely unedited. He has no sense of priority or proportion.”

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