John Lithgow Likes It Hot

On a wintry weekday morning, the actor John Lithgow stopped by Roosevelt Barber Shop, on the Upper West Side, for a hot-towel shave. The barber, who launched himself as Ralph, peered at his buyer. “I think I know you. TV?” he requested. He pointed outdoors, to the place Lithgow’s driver waited, and mentioned, “Somebody in the car? It’s a no-parking zone. No mercy on this side!”

Lithgow was sporting a beret and an extended overcoat. He hung these on a rack and sat down in one of many store’s two chairs. There had been mirrors on all sides. Ralph was sporting denims, a down vest, and a beanie on prime of a yarmulke. He grew up within the former Soviet Union, and spoke with an accent. “Well, all right,” he mentioned. He lowered the again of the chair till Lithgow was nearly horizontal: “So, one, two, three—I give you sleep time.”

“Here we go!” Lithgow mentioned.

When Lithgow first encountered Ring Lardner’s brief story “Haircut,” a couple of small-town barber, he was a towheaded eight-year-old listening to his father learn aloud from an anthology edited by W. Somerset Maugham. Years later, towards the tip of his father’s life, Lithgow picked up the identical quantity and returned the favor. (“A nasty little story by a gin-swilling cynic,” he calls it.) These days, he tells the story of his father and “Haircut” in a one-man present, “Stories by Heart,” which he’s been touring across the nation for a decade, and which not too long ago opened on Broadway.

The Lardner story, which Lithgow recites in its entirety, is narrated by a gossipy neighborhood barber, as he attends to a (silent, presumably horrified) buyer. Lithgow performs the piece with out props, however he provides ingenious sound results, which he makes together with his mouth: click on, whoosh, swish, whish.

“I didn’t used to make sounds—they just gradually crept in,” he mentioned, stretched out within the chair. “There are about five different distinct sounds I make, and many very distinct movements. Like what Ralph just did, cranking my seat back.”

Ralph was on the sink behind Lithgow’s chair. On the wall was a print of an old-timey barbershop and a framed News article a couple of squirrel that eats pizza.

Lithgow described how he’d put the bit collectively: “I went off looking for an old-time barber in Los Angeles, so that he could tell me all the details of an—” Ralph dropped a scorching towel onto his face, and Lithgow’s voice grew muffled. “Intermission,” he mumbled.

Ralph utilized shaving cream and began to make brief, silent strokes with a straight razor. A fan rattled; outdoors, a bus pulled away from the curb.

“Here’s an interesting fact,” Lithgow started, as Ralph rinsed his blade.

“No, you don’t say nothing,” Ralph mentioned. “I’m working.”

With Ralph nonetheless on the sink, Lithgow continued, “I found a barber in L.A., and who do you suppose recommended him? Larry Gelbart!” Ralph returned, and Lithgow closed his mouth.

“I do this, you know what, since I’m seventeen. Twenty-five years I’m here,” Ralph mentioned. “The old owner, he was here over forty years. Tony Bennett, the old owner was taking care of him.”

“Tony Bennett came here?” Lithgow requested.

“I have a couple of stars,” Ralph mentioned. “Bruce Willis.”

Talk turned to Ralph’s apprenticeship, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. “Three months I was standing around my barber, my teacher, and he says, ‘O.K, a customer. Go put a cape on him but do nothing else.’ I said, ‘Come on! Even a crewcut?’ ”

His voice acquired softer as he addressed Lithgow. “Now, you know what I’m asking? Open your mouth. Open, open, open—yes,” he mentioned. He shaved the final bits of stretched cheek fastidiously, after which stood again, completed.

“It’s like a baby!” he mentioned. “A baby when you change diapers!”

Lithgow touched his face: “Wow.”

“Now I’m going to wake you up,” Ralph mentioned. He slapped a transparent liquid on Lithgow’s cheeks.

“Ho-ho!” the actor yelped. “My God. Like having acid thrown on your face.”

As Lithgow ready to go, he requested, “Tell me, has your name always been Ralph?”

“My Hebrew name is Rahamim. Like ‘mercy.’ Give me mercy!” he mentioned, laughing.

In his present, Lithgow pantomimes the actions of a barber in meticulous element, and he had some questions for Ralph. “You didn’t strop your razor?” he requested. “Whish, whish.”

“Those razors are now out, since 1980, when the AIDS started,” Ralph mentioned. (What he’d used on Lithgow was a disposable blade referred to as a Shavette.) “But I take care of my father with those. He’s ninety-two—World War Two survivor, Stalin prisoner.”

Lithgow mimed stropping an old style razor.

“No! Not like you’re doing,” Ralph protested. “You grab it and you go up! Up!”

“Ah!” Lithgow tried once more. “Whish, whish.” ♦


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