ABOVE PHOTO: James Lipton (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)
By Andrew Dalton
LOS ANGELES — James Lipton, an actor-turned-drama-school-dean who got hundreds of Hollywood luminaries to open up about their life and art and became an unlikely celebrity himself as the longtime host of “Inside the Actors Studio,” died Monday.
Lipton died of bladder cancer at his New York home, his wife, Kedakai Lipton, told The Associated Press. He was 93.
The Detroit-born Lipton began the Bravo show in 1994 that also served as a class for his students at the Actors Studio Drama School, where he was then dean.
He often said his only requirement for a guest was whether they had something to teach his students. His first guest, Paul Newman, set a standard of stardom for those that would follow, including Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Glenn Close, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand.
“Rest in peace, James Lipton. He was interested in the actor’s process, which was so refreshing,” Streisand said in a Twitter post.
Lipton was known, and often parodied, for his highbrow and sometimes worshipful tone with his subjects, and for his intensive preparation, represented by a stack of blue note cards that held his meticulously researched questions. When Will Ferrell played Lipton on “Saturday Night Live,” the stack of cards was nearly a foot thick.
Many otherwise media-shy actors were willing to appear on “Inside the Actors Studio” because Lipton focused on their craft and not the usual celebrity chatter or project promotion.
“People do not come on to sell a movie and you never hear the words, ‘I’m opening in Vegas in two weeks,’ ” Lipton told the AP in a 1996 interview. “That’s what most talk shows depend upon, and that’s fine, but with us we’re getting together to dig as deep as we can.”
He was not afraid to get personal, however, and his stunned interviewees often asked “How did you know that?” when he asked about something from their childhood or private life.
Julia Roberts asked Lipton if he had talked to her mother after one set of questions, and Sally Field in her first-season appearance asked, “Have you been reading my diary? Talking to my shrink?”
“Obviously we deal in lots of anecdotes, and even some gossip and secrets,” Lipton told the AP, “but they’re tied together by a concern for and devotion to craft.”
He ended every interview with a set of soul-searching questions he derived from French television host Bernard Pivot, including, “What is your favorite curse word?” and “If God exists, what would you like to hear him say after your death?”
Lipton’s own childhood was made financially perilous by the divorce of his parents, poet and journalist Lawrence Lipton and teacher Betty Weinberg.
“I always had to work, from the age of 13. When my father left, we had nothing,” he told Parade magazine in 2013. While he dabbled in acting as a youngster, he intended to pursue law to avoid the instability he’d experienced as a youngster.
He ultimately turned back to his original passion, the arts, but with an unusual detour. He worked as a pimp for a year in Paris after World War II, Lipton told Parade. He was broke and planning to leave the city when a prostitute he knew suggested he represent her and others.
“It was only a few years after the war. Paris was different then, still poor. Men couldn’t get jobs and, in the male chauvinist Paris of that time, the women couldn’t get work at all. It was perfectly respectable for them” to work at one of city’s bordellos, Lipton said.
Back home in the U.S., he studied acting with famed teacher Stella Adler as well as production and directing at New York University and the New School. His 1950s stage and screen credits included “The Autumn Garden” on Broadway and a stint as actor and then writer on the TV soap opera “The Guiding Light.” Lipton wrote the book and the lyrics for two Broadway musicals, “Nowhere to Go but Up” (1962) and “Sherry!” (1967).
In the 1990s, as a vice president of the Actors Studio, Lipton helped create the Actors Studio Drama School that brought together the resources of the studio and the New School. He was the founding dean of the graduate-level school, which in 2005 relocated to Pace University, where Lipton remained its dean emeritus.
Despite his TV show’s guest list of nearly every A-list actor of recent decades, Lipton never got the guest he wanted most, Marlon Brando.
“He was reclusive in the last years of his life,” Lipton told Parade . “He said, ‘I’m never going to do your show. The studio’s always taking credit for me. I was trained by Stella Adler.’ I said, ‘So was I. Come on. We’ll talk about Stella.’ I’ve had a pretty good roster of guests without Marlon.”
Lipton said his favorite guest on the show was Bradley Cooper, because he was a former student.
“The night that one of my students has achieved so much that he or she comes back and sits down in that chair would be the night that I have waited for since we started this thing,” Lipton told Larry King in 2016. “It turned out to be Bradley Cooper.”
Lipton and Cooper, who can be seen asking Sean Penn a question in a 1999 episode of the show, both teared up when he returned as a guest in 2011. Lipton retired as host in 2018.
Other than Brando and Jack Nicholson, another favorite of his who he never had as a guest, Lipton spent little time trying to land big names, who often came to him as appearing on the show became a sought-after sign of career achievement for actors.
Lipton told the AP that that response from actors made him think that “maybe, just maybe, we were creating an archive that would be more valuable 100 years from now.”