22 May 2009 - 12:39 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM


Though more than just a talk show host, JAMES LIPTON – actor, academic, author, college dean, acting coach, choreographer, scriptwriter, producer for stage and screen – has interviewed the biggest names in the movie business on his iconic television series INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO. BY FILMINK'S BRIAN DUFF

James Lipton wore many hats in the entertainment world, but truly found traction with his star-making turn as the host of the much loved TV series Inside The Actors Studio in 1994. The series is perfect simplicity. In front of a crowd of theatre and film students, Lipton interviews the biggest names in the movie business. You name them, and they've been on the show: Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Martin Scorsese, Naomi Watts, Hugh Jackman, Mike Myers, Edward Norton, Sean Penn, Michael Caine, Francis Ford Coppola, James Caan, Julianne Moore, Nicolas Cage, Susan Sarandon, Lauren Bacall, Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Mark Wahlberg, Robin Williams, Bruce Willis, Debra Winger, Ben Affleck, Jeff Bridges, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman…and the list goes on and on. The show has become famous for a number of reasons, but is most well known for its endings. Lipton traditionally closes each interview with the same questions – “What is your favourite curse word?”, “What sound or noise do you hate?” and “If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?”, amongst other similar queries – which are inherited from French journalist Bernard Pivot.

Now in his eighties, Lipton is well and truly into an unexpected, if not unwelcome, late-career renaissance. Coming into prominence in the theatre in the 1950s and '60s, and as an actor and head writer on soapies The Guiding Light and Another World, Lipton was – and remains – a true renaissance man. His television programme boasts a fervent fan base of 80 million in the States and broadcasts to 125 countries. The Actors Studio Drama School, at Pace University in New York City – the graduate programme that Lipton created, and for which he served as inaugural dean – is now the largest of its type in the country. His backlist of interviews is more than 220 names strong, starting with his first taped interview with Paul Newman in 1994.

Chatting with Lipton is a surreal, disorienting experience. So thoroughly has the iconography of his Proustian questioning style and didactic delivery entered the public consciousness that Lipton himself has become a post-modern reference point. In effect, he feels more like a character than a human being. “The person responsible for that was Will Ferrell,” he astutely remembers, as the comedian immortalised Lipton on Saturday Night Live in a series of hilarious impersonations. “He started it and nobody does it as well as him. I've also been on Conan O'Brien a number of times [the talk show host jokes that the octogenarian is his “youth correspondent”], and now I'm all over YouTube…it's bizarre!”

As bizarre as the attention may be, the success of the show and its host's prominence is no fluke. “I work seven days a week doing my own research,” Lipton happily volunteers. “Each show requires two weeks of study, as each guest is with me and the students for between three-and-a-half to five-and-a-half hours, and that's without the pre-interview. It's the only show of its kind without one,” he claims. “On any of those shows – David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Charlie Rose – when you arrive on the night of the show, there is a script waiting in the dressing room. It only looks absolutely spontaneous because they're much cleverer than me!”

Lipton has grown his show from a simple concept into a 12-time Emmy nominated success, and he has just been offered those awards' Lifetime Achievement accolade. “It's a hell of an honour,” he says. For all his pride at being singled out for the award, Lipton is plaintive in his missive that the show is fun, and that is really why he still does it. “Look at who we are talking about,” Lipton fairly shouts. “We've created the definitive archive of our time: Sally Field; Dennis Hopper; Bob De Niro; Spike Lee, who doesn't even smile on camera, but burst into tears talking about the people that helped him make Malcolm X; Dustin Hoffman, who also wept, but at other times was hilariously funny; Al Pacino, who was the funniest person we ever had on our stage; Anthony Quinn, who began his career in 1936…and I still have a list of 100 guests that I haven't done yet. Anyone who thinks it's not fun would have to be inert,” he sighs happily, and then slyly adds: “Sometimes you feel like you've just caught a wave, to put it in terms that are appropriate to your location…”

Lipton takes great pleasure in such turns of phrase, and is endearing in his clever, occasionally over-the-top wordplay. Speaking of his deeply-revered school, and its relationship to the show proper, he claims in typically grandiloquent style that the two are “tied to each other with an umbilical cord made of piano wire”, adding at the end of our conversation that, “I do hope you write about our school; it's why we got into the whole damn thing in the first place.” Practically, behind the scenes, his television programme is a non-credit course that students pursuing their Master of Fine Arts for Actors, Writers and Directors may elect to take. Because of this, he claims that his audience isn't composed of “gooey-eyed fans. They are there to learn the craft.”

While garnering 80 million viewers is no small feat, Lipton has his fair share of detractors. “I have one criterion at the Drama School, and have had from day one: 'Does this person have something to teach our students?'” he says in his measured tones. “The person that was most calumniated for coming on our show was Jennifer Lopez. That confounded me because our students study acting, voice and dance, and Jennifer is enormously rich from doing those three things; she's one of the most remarkably appropriate guests I've ever invited onto the show! Also, they claim that I'm too nice, and that I don't ask the hard questions, and that that is why I get actors that most journalists would give their eyeteeth for. All of which is balderdash! When actors break down and cry on our stage, that simply cannot be from me saying, 'Gee, you're swell!' I have nothing to say to those people except: 'Go away'.”

Lipton exhales the words slowly and meanly. This seems about as close as he ever gets to vitriolic exclamation. While Lipton is nothing if not voluble, he doesn't throw his words around carelessly. It is appropriate, then, that we end our conversation asking his favourite word, as he has done of so many dozens of guests. “My favourite word is honour,” he audibly grins. “Not being honoured, mind you, but honouring something that simply must be honoured.” And with that, he signs off to scrutinise his book, “heavily populated” as it is “by the heroes of his life.”