Holly Hunter’s favorite curse word is “cocksucker”. Not the most edifying fact to be gleaned from 23 seasons of INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO, the vaguely cultish TV talk show as famous for its roll-call of distinguished guests as for its exquisitely unctuous creator and stalwart presenter James Lipton, but still well worth knowing.
For anyone not familiar with the show, its premise is disarmingly simple and ingeniously effective. It comprises an entertainment industry luminary (usually from movies and more often than not an actor) answering an exhaustive number of meticulously prepared questions in front of a live audience of drama students. It was created by Lipton, a former actor, writer and lyricist in 1994 in his role as dean emeritus of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York. “In Mr. Lipton’s guest chair,” wrote Warren Berger in the New York Times in 1999, “actors cease being stars for a while and become artists and teachers.” And therein lies its genius. Flattered that they are not simply banging on about themselves or plugging product, but are instead enriching a new generation with their wisdom, guests visibly relax and let it all out in ways they would never do on JIMMY KIMMEL or even OPRAH.
It’s easy to scoff – a little too easy, in fact, – but the format has yielded some extraordinary results: Amy Adams sharing her memories of co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman weeks after his death; Bradley Cooper repeatedly bursting into tears when shown old clips of himself as a student at the Studio, firing questions at Robert DeNiro; Jack Lemon copping to his own alcoholism while discussing his role in DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962); and any number of other emotional, funny and revealing moments. Credit for much of this goes to Lipton’s skill as an interrogator and his meticulous research which often unearthed details so obscure they left his guests temporarily speechless.
The other advantage that ITAS has always had over other talk shows is time. The interviews, and audience Q&As that follow them, are filmed in their entirety and then edited to fit the show’s running length. For instance, when Steven Spielberg appeared in February 1999, his initial conversation with Lipton lasted over four hours. It was edited by Lipton himself – as were all his interviews – down to two one-hour specials, a daunting task, to say the least. What, from a four-hour chat with Steven Spielberg would you leave on the cutting room floor?
The main reason INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO can lavish so much time on a single guest, and can attract so many A-list names in the first place, is that it isn’t actually a TV talk show at all. In fact, it’s a component of a master’s degree program offered by the Actors Studio Drama School. Lipton, who studied at the Actors Studio with Stella Adler, founded the program and originally planned to invite industry luminaries to conduct seminars exclusively for its students. “But then I thought, I’d hate to see these one-of-a-kind sessions, with the greatest actors and directors of our time, just vanish,” he said in a 1999 interview. To that end, he approached cable channel Bravo, renowned for its more eclectic, arts-oriented programming, with a view to filming the seminars and broadcasting them to a wider audience. Bravo jumped at the chance, and the show made its debut on 12 June 1994 with Paul Newman, an Actors Studio alumnus and its one-time president, in the hot seat. It was an immediate success, quickly establishing itself as Bravo’s flagship program, and is now beamed into around 90 million American homes and is watched in over 120 countries worldwide.
Apart from the astounding caliber of its guests, what made ITAS a must-see for so many people was Lipton himself. Sadly, he succumbed to bladder cancer in March 2020 at the age of 93, less than two years after stepping down as inquisitor-in-chief, but in the 24 years he hosted the show, he cut a unique figure. With a shining bald pate, fringed with hair that got suspiciously darker as the years passed, a slightly unnerving air of quiet deliberation, laser-focused gaze and fastidious beard, his style can best be described as Dickensian barrister with a hint of serial killer. His appearance and manner, especially a tendency to deference that teetered precariously on the brink of sycophancy, made him especially ripe for parody. Will Ferrell did a spot-on impersonation on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, as did Will Sasso on MADTV and David Cross on MR. SHOW. In the DVD extras for 2003’s OLD SCHOOL, Ferrell as Lipton interviews himself. “Arguably the most talented person on our planet,” he says, by way of introduction. “I look at you, and I look into the eyes of an angel.” Although wickedly funny, there’s no trace of malice in these send-ups and Lipton, to his eternal credit, loved them, especially Ferrell’s. He appeared as himself often on TV and in movies, perhaps most memorably on The Simpsons where he is gunned down mid-interview by the show’s resident Arnie-alike Rainier Wolfcastle. “It was a pleasure to eat your lead, good sir!” he croaks, gracious host to the last. In 2013 he lampooned his own odd-bird persona to great comic effect as vaguely sinister prison warden Stefan Gentles on season four of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. He made no fewer than 32 appearances on LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O’BRIEN, on one occasion shot-gunning a beer to celebrate Spring Break, and on another solemnly reciting the lyrics to Kevin Federline’s Popozao.
Lipton’s academic credentials should have alerted viewers to the fact that he was more than just the highly imitable face of ITAS. Few, however, would’ve guessed at his mind-boggling backstory. Born in Detroit, Michigan, he was the son of journalist, crime writer and avant-garde poet Lawrence Lipton, whose 1959 book The Holy Barbarians is the definitive work on the Beats. He claimed to have written three novels before the age of 12 and had ambitions to be a lawyer, if only to put as much distance between himself and his father’s bohemian antics as possible. Instead, he drifted into acting, landing several roles on local radio before making his Broadway debut opposite Frederick March in the 1951 production of Lillian Hellman’s The Autumn Garden. The play was directed by Hellman herself, with famously disastrous results. He was trained in classical ballet by Benjamin Harkarvy and in modern dance by the legendary Hanya Holm. Where he found time to study with Stella Adler as well is a mystery, but, as we know, he did that too. He appeared in a number of films and TV shows and in later in life became a TV producer, masterminding several Bob Hope Birthday Specials; the first US broadcast from the People’s Republic of China; and President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration gala. He wrote the book and lyrics for two stage musicals (Nowhere to Go but Up, and Sherry!, based on the Kaufman/Hart play The Man Who Came to Dinner), penned a novel, Mirrors, inspired by his experience as a dancer, and wrote the 1968 non-fiction classic An Exclamation of Larks, the standard work on collective nouns in the English language. The latter involved extensive research of 15th Century manuscripts at the British Museum. That the terms ‘a murder of crows’, a ‘parliament of owls’, and a ‘shrewdness of apes’ are now in relatively common usage, at least in the context of pub quizzes, is entirely down to Lipton. He was a keen pilot and an avid horseman who represented the United States in a number of showjumping events.
Lipton’s first wife was the Dutch-born actress Nina Foch (JOHNNY O’CLOCK (1947), THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)). His second, to whom he was married when he died, was model and real-estate broker Kedekai Turner, whose image adorned the box of the board game Clue in the guise of Miss Scarlett. When he was interviewed by Dave Chappelle for the 200th edition of INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO, Lipton revealed, among many other things, that while living in Paris in the 1950s, he worked for a while as a pimp. Quite a resume by anyone’s standards.
Lipton was adamant that ITAS, which he never saw as anything other than an educational concern, was a collaborative effort. Even so, he did most of the heavy lifting. The giant stack of notecards he shuffled through during every program comprised 400-odd questions, the result of two week’s research per guest, all of which he conducted personally. In spite of the show’s huge mainstream success he would not compromise its focus. “I thought we would have at most an audience of five-hundred devotees,” he said in 1999, “because I made the decision to stick to craft, not to gossip, not to be interested in any of the juicy stuff that they talk about on other shows.” This decision undoubtedly made the show more attractive to potential guests. In fact, after a while, ITAS bookers almost had to fend them off. Eager to be seen in the same company as Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Anthony Hopkins, Lauren Bacall and a host of other iconic performers, actors clamored to be on the show. Calls from publicists come particularly thick and fast in the run-up to awards season, believe it or not.
Following Lipton’s retirement in September 2018, INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO adopted a rotating panel of guest hosts that includes Jane Lynch and Alec Baldwin. Obviously, it was felt that no one person could fill Lipton’s meticulously polished shoes. In October 2019, the show moved from Bravo to Ovation, with the new network acquiring the rights to all previous shows, without doubt the most comprehensive archive of its kind in the world. Whatever changes have attended the show’s move, the format, created by Lipton, remains the same: a lengthy one-on-one interview with the host, a Q&A with audience members, and, in between, a ten-part questionnaire again formulated by Lipton, inspired by French talk show host Bernard Pivot who, in turn, borrowed the idea from Marcel Proust (who else!?). This section is often the highlight of the show:
- What is your favorite word?
- What is your least favorite word?
- What turns you on?
- What turns you off?
- What sound or noise do you love?
- What sound or noise do you hate?
- What is your favorite curse word?
- What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
- What profession would you not like to do?
- If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
More accurately, it is Question 7 that everyone looks forward to. When Lipton himself was in the chair, an air of keen anticipation prevailed as the all-important query approached. His answer? “Jesus Christ.”
It would probably be quicker to name eligible candidates who have not appeared on INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO than those who have. The line-up reads like the guest list to the greatest showbiz party ever. Inevitably however, there were a few that got away.
In January 2013, Jenifer Lawrence turned down an invitation to appear, feeling she was too young and short on experience. “Do you know how much that guy would hate me?” she joked to Entertainment Weekly, referring to Lipton. “‘Tell me about your method?’ There is no method! I never know my lines! He would be horrified.”
Sean Connery declined to reply to numerous requests, but the biggest no-show, despite Lipton’s best efforts, was Marlon Brando. “[B]y the time I started the show,” he recalled in 1999, “although he was a member of the Actor’s Studio and had been trained by Stella Adler as I was; we knew each other, and we used to talk on the phone for hours at a time – but by that time he was already reclusive. I couldn’t get him out of the house and neither could anyone else.”