When 3rd Rock From the Sun arrived on Jan. 9, 1996, it was as if a big bang had produced the bizarrely entertaining comedy out of thin air. But, much like the cosmological phenomenon, many preceding pieces had to fall into place before the show’s debut.
The initial idea for the series came from Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, two hugely successful TV producers. Together, their Carsey-Werner productions had delivered a string of hits throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, with series such as The Cosby Show, A Different World, Roseanne and Grace Under Fire.
Wanting to step out of the traditional, suburban family setup of sitcoms of the time, the duo set their sites to the stars.
“We were reading Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Carsey recalled during an interview with the Television Academy. “We were reading Carl Sagan. We were reading all kinds of things to just literally get into space.”
“We had tried to figure out, ‘How could we do a story that could talk about human beings from a different point of view?’” added Werner, noting that “while the show is about aliens, it’s really about human beings.”
The concept they devised was simple: “Aliens on a field trip.”
Watch a Promo for ‘3rd Rock From the Sun’
With that basic premise, Carsey and Werner handed creative reins over to Bonnie and Terry Turner, a husband-and-wife writing team who had made a name for themselves on Saturday Night Live. During their stint on the sketch comedy show, actor John Lithgow had served as guest host on two separate occasions. As the writing team was creating 3rd Rock, and its lead character, Dr. Dick Solomon, Lithgow emerged as the perfect man for the role.
“They saw me as a comic,” Lithgow later recalled in a conversation with the John F. Kennedy Library. “And they became very good friends.”
“Bonnie and Terry had worked with John Lithgow at Saturday Night Live when he was a guest host,” Werner recalled. “We needed an accomplished anchor for [the role of Dick Solomon]. They knew John was funny.”
The Turners invited Lithgow to join them for breakfast, hoping to sell him on the show. The actor, thinking it was just a social meeting, was surprised when he arrived at the restaurant and saw producers alongside the writing team.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God. I’ve been ambushed. This is a pitch,’” Lithgow admitted.
“Lithgow was not going to do a series,” Carsey explained, noting that Lithgow’s disinterest in doing an episodic sitcom was well-known in the TV industry. The actor had previously declined the role of Frasier Crane on Cheers for this exact reason. “He had turned down every series. He knew he wasn’t going to do it, he was just having a lovely breakfast with us.”
After exchanging pleasantries and casual conversation, the actor was told of the alien comedy idea. His initial response was dubious. “I thought, ‘How am I going to say no as graciously as I can and get out of here?’” Lithgow recalled. However, after being presented a script and hearing the Turners’ confidence, the actor was convinced. “Within five minutes, [they’d] persuaded me to be in 3rd Rock From the Sun.”
Watch John Lithgow (In Leather Pants) on ‘3rd Rock From the Sun’
Part of the reason Lithgow said yes came down to timing. The actor had noticed a trend in his career and was looking to shake things up. “Most most recent jobs had been Raising Cane, Cliffhanger, Ricochet. I was slowly turning into this kind of John Malkovich, this strange movie heavy. This was beginning to bother me,” Lithgow recalled in the book Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV. The actor saw 3rd Rock as a way to break free of being typecast.
Beyond star power, Lithgow’s involvement added gravitational pull to the project. James Burrows, the TV director who had also been a co-creator of Cheers, soon signed on for the pilot. “I read 3rd Rock From the Sun and I really didn’t get it,” Burrows later confessed. “And then I said to my agent, ‘I think I should pass on this.’ And he said, ‘Well, they got Lithgow.’ And I said, ‘I’m gonna take it.’”
The cast would be rounded out by Kristen Johnson, French Stewart and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with each one playing an alien-disguised-as-human part of Dick Solomon’s team. The group’s mission – and the overarching plot of the show – was to study human beings by assimilating into their culture.
A pilot would be shot for ABC, however the network was uninspired by what they saw.
“We all felt that the balance in the show was wrong,” Werner explained. “[Lithgow’s character] needed some human being to bounce off of.”
Given the directive to rewrite the pilot, Bonnie Turner called up an old friend and fellow SNL alum, Jane Curtin. Like Lithgow, the actress was initially reluctant to get involved.
“I said, ‘I can’t do that,’” Curtain recalled while remembering her conversation with Bonnie. “Just come out and do the pilot. Then we’ll talk,” the writer responded. Curtain relented and agreed to take on the role of Dr. Mary Albright, a human who initially served as Dick’s adversary before later becoming his love interest.
Watch John Lithgow and Jane Curtain on ‘3rd Rock From the Sun’
The second pilot would be shot, with Curtin’s character providing the balance that the show’s creator’s felt was originally missing. However, when ABC received the new-and-improved version, they were still underwhelmed.
Facing the potential death of the show, its producers made the bold move of asking out of their deal with ABC.
“We respectfully asked out so we could sell it somewhere else,” Carsey explained, admitting that she knew NBC had interest in picking the series up. “ABC kind of accommodated us. They waited until NBC had set their schedule, so we couldn’t sell it to NBC they thought. Which was kind of annoying. I mean, if you don’t want the show, have the balls to let somebody else pick it up. Anyway, they waited until NBC had set their schedule and then we did sell it to NBC after NBC had set their schedule. Well, ABC was furious. But we said, ‘Well, didn’t we ask for an out so we sell somewhere else?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but we didn’t think you could!’”
A deal with NBC secured, 3rd Rock From the Sun had a home. The show premiered on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 1996.
Response was initially mixed, but over the next few weeks the sitcom found its footing and developed a devoted viewing audience.
Curtin, who had originally agreed to only do the first seven episodes, asked to stay on indefinitely because she was having so much fun. “During the read-throughs, when you get the script and you sit in the studio reading this thing for the first time and you can’t control the tears because you’re laughing so hard. That’s what I liked about the show,” the actress admitted. “It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever done in my life. Loved it. Loved every minute of it.”
“It exploded my career,” Lithgow later declared to Entertainment Weekly. “It exploded everybody’s expectations of me. Nobody had seen me do that nonsense before.” The actor credited the Turners for constructing a role that allowed him to showcase his comedic skills. “They created a character, Dick Solomon, for me and only me. If I hadn’t done it, they wouldn’t have done it. They always said they needed an actor who was a combination of Bugs Bunny and Errol Flynn — and I was the only one they could think of.”
Watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt and John Lithgow Reminisce About Their Time on ‘3rd Rock From the Sun’
For Gordon-Levitt, who was just 13 years old when the show debuted, the series provided lessons which would serve him well as he transitioned into a Hollywood star. “That show was so formative for me,” the actor confessed in a 2020 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, singling out Lithgow for his powerful influence. “He was such a shining example of a kind and dedicated leader. He was a mentor to all of us. He was always there to help, and he always just brought 110 percent to this TV show. An actor like that could be resting on his laurels and being like, ‘Okay, I’ve proved myself. I’ve done Shakespeare. I’ve done Oscar movies. Now, I’m just going to do this sitcom. It’ll be easy, and I’ll take it easy.’ And he treated it the opposite of that. He worked so hard, was so supportive of everybody else and just had so much fun. He brought so much positivity every day. I do think that that was infectious and something that he instilled in me in a lot of ways.”
3rd Rock From the Sun would last six seasons and a total of 139 episodes. The sitcom would be honored with eight Emmys during its run, including Lithgow taking home Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series on three different occasions.
To the veteran actor, the show’s appeal came down to deeper relatability, hidden within its zany premise. “These were aliens who were trying to figure out how to be human,” Lithgow explained. “So they kept trying different approaches and trying to plumb the depths of different human mysteries. Well, that’s what we’re all doing!”