John Lithgow Was Told He Was Too Tall to Play Roberta Muldoon in ‘The World According to Garp’

John Lithgow has played many iconic roles in his career, perhaps none more important than Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp. The 1982 film starred Robin Williams in the titular role, and Lithgow played a transgender former football player. In a recent interview recapping his most iconic roles, Lithgow said he was initially told he was too tall to play Roberta. Fortunately for the 6-foot-4 actor, he won the part eight months later after a screen test, which turned out to be a fantastic career move. 

Robin Williams and John Lithgow on the set of 'The World According to Garp'
Robin Williams and John Lithgow on the set of ‘The World According to Garp’ | Nancy Moran/Sygma via Getty Images

What is ‘The World According to Garp’ about?

The World According to Garp follows T.S. Garp (Robin Williams) as he navigates life as an adult raised by a single mother in a post-World War II climate where single mothers were often shunned from society.

Garp loves writing fictional stories as an outlet for his life, yet he struggles to become an artist. Meanwhile, his mother, Jenny Fields (Glenn Close), writes her own nonfiction tome called Sexual Suspect. The book becomes an overnight sensation. Fields uses the proceeds to open a shelter for abused women, where Garp meets Roberta Muldoon (John Lithgow).

Garp eventually becomes the wrestling coach at his high school due, in part, to Roberta’s help. Roberta also helps Garp to heal after his mother’s murder. Only women were invited to the funeral, so Roberta sneaks Garp into the memorial by dressing him up as a woman.

Robin Williams and John Lithgow on the set of The World According to Garp
Robin Williams and John Lithgow in ‘The World According to Garp’ | Nancy Moran/Sygma via Getty Images

Why the director thought John Lithgow wasn’t a good fit for ‘The World According to Garp’

Director George Roy Hill believed Lithgow wouldn’t work well with Williams on screen because he was so much taller. However, eight months later, Lithgow was called to screen-test for the part with three other actors, including Jeff Daniels. Lithgow recounted the audition process to GQ.

“Just by chance, I had read this book called Conundrum, the memoir of Jan Morris, the travel writer who had actually undergone trans surgery,” he said. “And I just sort of spouted the things that I remembered from reading the book two years before. And he [Hill] was like, ‘My God, you New York actors, you do so much research.’”

Lithgow recalled it was a privilege to work with Hill, counting him as one of the three or four great directors he worked with back in the ‘80s.

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The film received mixed reviews

Critical response to the movie was mixed when it hit theaters in 1982. 

Film critic Roger Ebert gave it 3 out of 4 stars, calling it “wonderfully written” yet deeming Williams’ performance “palatable.” Leonard Maltin gave the film a rare 4-star rating, calling it an “absorbing, sure-footed odyssey through vignettes of social observation, absurdist humor, satire, and melodrama.” Maltin gave props specifically to Close and Lithgow. Metacritic has a 63 out of 100 rating based on 14 critic reviews.

Both Close and Lithgow picked up Oscar nominations for their acting, per IMDb. They won Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor, and Lithgow won a New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Supporting Actor while Close was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.