John Lithgow Versus Daniel Day Lewis: Who Is The More Versatile Actor?

Often times actors get typecast and end up in the same role over and over again. Not only is that what we as viewers expect from them, but they actually start to excel at it. After all, practice makes perfect.

That means there are many one dimensional actors out there. They do one thing really well and that’s about it. I’m not critical of them, it’s just the way it is.

When it comes to versatility, I’m referring to actors who cannot be pigeon holed. John Lithgow and Daniel Day-Lewis are two of them.

Both have worked a lot, and both have won many awards for their efforts. They are certainly two very decorated actors with much clout behind them.

On one hand, John Lithgow has acted on stage, television, and movies, but he’s also a comedian, musician, and all round performer. On the other hand, Daniel Day-Lewis has won the Academy Award for best actor three times. That puts him just behind Katherine Hepburn for most ever awards won by one person.

That’s not to say that John Lithgow hasn’t won any worthwhile awards. He’s won 6 Primetime Emmy Awards, 2 Tony Awards, and been nominated for an Academy Award twice (best supporting actor).

People probably don’t associated these two actors together but the truth is they occupy the same realm of performers. That’s actors who can do any character they choose.

While Daniel Day-Lewis might be decorated with more heavy weight titles, John Lithgow has more mileage on him, flatly working way more than Day-Lewis. He’s been on stage for decades and started appearing in films and tv back in the 80’s (has done 30 movies to date). Daniel Day-Lewis started appearing in films around the same time but has only appeared in 20 movies.

The one thing they both have in common is that they came from stage acting where overacting is part of the job, so maybe it can be said that this helped them hone their skills.

Whatever, awards and mileage don’t mean much, it’s the kind of performances they give that matters most to this argument. Do their characters vary and do the actors have to adapt for their next role. This is what makes an actor versatile. Being able to wear a multitude of hats.

So let’s dive right in.

John Lithgow

I chose John Lithgow for this comparison because he’s really funny and charismatic, and at the same time he can be very scary and the perfect villain. He’s done many roles as the thoughtful father, as well as voice acted animated cartoons.

I however, really enjoy his comedic roles as they were part of my childhood and it’s the way I got to know him first so I’m going to explore John Lithgow the funny man right off the bat.

3rd Rock From The Sun (1995 – 2001)

The premise of this show was very funny. If you didn’t catch it when it was on tv, it went like this. Aliens are sent to Earth by their leader (Big Giant Head) to learn about Humans.

They pose as a human family as they assume human bodies and become entrenched in our society. John Lithgow plays their High Commander, who goes by the Human name Dick Solomon. He ends up teaching Physics at a University and falls madly in love with a co-worker named Marry Albright.

Side note, Joseph Gordon Levitt was also on the show and it served as a real jumping off point for his career.

Anyway, Dick’s antics as he fails to grasp the intricacies of human relations are hilarious. He’s often shouting at people, and over stepping social boundaries.

Lithgow was nominated for a Prime Time Emmy Award every year the show was running except it’s first. Of all those nominations he won it 3 times. So I’m not the only one who thought the show was funny. Most people did too.

The show was bringing in great ratings in it’s early days, people thought it was very clever and at the same time goofy enough for audiences to identify with the supposed family of Earthlings.

This show isn’t for people who take themselves too seriously, obviously. It’s great physical humour and a funny critique of people in general.

Harry and the Hendersons (1987)

This one is really wacky. Not only is a Sasquatch involved, but he’s friendly.

The movie starts out with George Henderson (Lithgow) driving his family back from a camping trip. They hit the Sasquatch and think it’s dead, so they tie it to the roof of their car and bring it home.

George goes out to the garage to check on the Sasquatch and finds out that it’s still alive. He decides to take it back to the wild, but the Sasquatch thinks he means him harm so he flees.

Sightings of the Sasquatch increase across town, and George begins trying to find him so he can make things right.

Anyway the whole ordeal is zany and eventually the Sasquatch named Harry makes it back to the wild.

In my opinion this movie is good, but rotten tomatoes does not think so. So ignore that. But at the time this movie was going up against Beverly Hills Cop and the Untouchables so the competition was fierce. It ended up grossing 50 million dollars world wide.


A city kid moves to a small town and he is upset to find out that dancing is banned by the community. It’s Kevin Bacon, and he just really wants to dance. He ends up organizing dances etc and the town is pissed, but is eventually won over by the power of dance.

John Lithgow plays the town preacher and father to Bacon’s love interest. He’s a very stern character and just doesn’t want dancing in his town!

The preacher eventually acquiesces after having learned some lessons about parenting and being there for his daughter.

CliffHanger (1993)

This movie got panned but I also think it’s good. For the times maybe it didn’t match up to other action movies, but its still a must watch in my books.

Lithgow plays the leader of a bunch of bad guys who have stolen 100 million dollars from the US treasury. His name is Qualen and he’s one evil MF.

Essentially this movie is Lithgow harassing Sylvestor Stallone on a mountain top for two hours. He’s got a many great lines and is a really believable bad guy.


Lithgow’s showing up on Dexter was a pleasant surprise for me. The show was already really dark, for obvious reasons, but Lithgow took it to the next level as the Trinity killer.

As you may know, Dexter goes after other serial killers and murders them. He’s in the process of tracking down a murderer when he crosses paths with Arthur Mitchell (Lithgow) and his life is never the same.

The reason why Arthur is so creepy is because of the way he kills (in a pattern of three). First he kills a woman in a bathtub by cutting her femoral artery and head locking her from behind while he watches the entire thing through a mirror. Then he forces someone to jump off a building to their death. And finally he bludgeons a man to death.

He always kills in this pattern. Anyway, he eventually catches on to Dexter and ends up killing his wife in the bathtub. Dexter gets him in the end but the viewer is left wondering who really won their exchange.

In 2016, Rolling Stone put him on their list of greatest villains of all time. Additionally, he won a Prime Time Emmy for Guest Actor in a Drama Series for playing Arthur Mitchell.

Daniel Day-Lewis

Now Daniel is not a funny man by any means. His thing is historically set dramas. Meaning he has played people from different era’s in almost every movie he’s been in. The one movie set in modern day that he did, he played a man with cerebral palsy so it’s very easy to say the guy is elastic.

Generally speaking he makes very serious movies that involve massive undertakings to pull off the role. He definitely doesn’t do weak movies that’s for sure. Anything Daniel Day-Lewis does, he does full on, fully immersing himself in the part.

Gangs Of New York (2002)

This movie takes place in New York during the American Civil War and focuses on a part of town known as the five points. At this time immigrants from Ireland were flooding into America and the locals had a lot to say about it. Basically, they did not like it.

The movie has a star studded cast including the likes of Liam Neeson, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo Dicaprio, and of course our man Daniel Day-Lewis.

The opening scene is a giant brew-haha between the Natives (Americans) lead by Daniel Day-Lewis’s character, Bill The Butcher, against the Irish lead by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson).

Priest Vallon is killed by Bill and it leaves Amsterdam (Leonardo Dicaprio) an orphan.

Many years later, Amsterdam returns to his old neighbourhood to find Bill is running the show.

Anyway, Bill The Butcher really gave Day-Lewis a chance to strut his acting stuff. He shouts, head butts, and fornicates, but most of all he loves killing people with large knives.

Bill represents the chaos of that period and wherever he goes he certainly does cause it.

Even though Leonardo Dicaprio was supposed to be the star of this film, the show was totally stolen my Day-Lewis as he threatened and glared his way through the plot.

He’s extremely menacing in this movie and it’s totally believable. I really can’t stop myself from saying good things about this movie and Day-Lewis’s part in it. But anyway moving on…

There Will Be Blood (2007)

I wasn’t really sure about what was going on in this movie, or why, but what I did know is that Daniel Day-Lewis was acting his socks off.

The plot is really dense so I’ll condense it down to this. A morally corrupt man is looking to make his fortune in oil. He strikes oil and becomes wealthier than he ever imaged. In the process he gives away his son for setting fire to their house.

Anyway, the film is filled with close up shots of his face while he’s freaking out and yelling and stuff.

In particular there’s a scene where a priest asks him to confess, and he absolutely loses it in a melt down in front of the whole town. The melt down was so believable, I bet it was the scene that got him his Oscar for this movie (the second of his career).

I forgot to mention that throughout the movie, he occasionally kills people. Once because he thinks he needs to, and another time because he loses control and goes into a rage.

Both times were great chances for Daniel Day-Lewis to showcase his acting chops.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

The year is 1757 and the French and Indian War is hot, like red hot. People are dying all over the place. Some by musket, others by knife, and even some by suicide.

Lot’s of death and so forth.

Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), a white man who was adopted by Native Americans is a fierce fighter skilled in many weapons and in particular the long rifle.

The reason why this movie represents some serious acting skill for Day-Lewis is that he was playing a man that was straddling two worlds. Doing two things at once is hard for actors but Day-Lewis seems to do it handily enough.

Lincoln (2012)

I don’t doubt that this was a good movie. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Day-Lewis it’s pedigree is top notch. It’s just that I didn’t see it.

You might be wondering why I’m talking about a movie I didn’t see. And that’s because Day-Lewis got his third and final Oscar for Best Actor for this role so for the sake of this argument it cannot be ignored.

The reason why I haven’t seen the movie – I know how it ends. That’s the thing about historical bio pics. If the person was so famous that everyone knows how their life ended up, you better sprinkle in a lot of other things people had no idea about.

Maybe I’ll watch this movie, but I did happen to hear it was overrated. Anyway, I watched the clip posted above, and I have to say it’s just another example of Day-Lewis’s chameleon like abilities.

Settling the question

As I was writing this I was really rooting for John Lithgow. He’s funny and does a good evil, but if I’m being objective it wasn’t enough to beat out the acting powerhouse that is Daniel Day-Lewis.

By playing people from different era’s with different motivations, be that money, abolition of slavery, or killing his enemies, Day-Lewis just commits more to the role than is reasonably required.

He’s played vastly different people, they might all be intense, but they can’t be said to be of the same disposition. As an actor Day-Lewis offers a full array of emotions for the screen and his accolades really put the proof in the pudding.

Not that I don’t like John Lithgow, but he kind of resorts to polarized characters, Jovial or evil. Sure some of his characters are more nuanced, but he doesn’t really go for it like Day-Lewis.

It’s his full commitment to the parts he plays that has allowed him to be so versatile. He can almost do it all. I haven’t seen him do funny yet, and maybe that’s the one exception in his repertoire but for the sake of this argument, he’s the winner.

Too bad he’s retired from movies.

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