In a versatile and exciting career as a writer, actor—and most recently, as the inventor of a new product for the arthritis-sufferer—James Lipton is best known as host of Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio, an industry institution resulting in some of the most intimate and in-depth interviews ever recorded with generations of A-list actors.
Turning 90 this year, Lipton is himself an institution. With the insight of an artist, Lipton’s delivery is inimitable—though in his SNL days, Will Ferrell once tried. Earning his 20th Emmy nomination –one for almost every season of the show– on top of its 2013 Emmy win for informational series, Lipton speaks here about shifts in the industry, his most memorable moments with the series, and Bradley Cooper’s former days as an Actors Studio student.
How did Inside the Actors Studio come about?
Inside the Actors Studio was born simultaneously with the Actors Studio Drama School, now at Pace University. We had a Master’s Degree program and the teachers that we needed, all of whom are lifetime members of the Actors Studio, teaching the Stanislavski system.
We had one category that wasn’t filled yet, and that was people that could only give us one evening of their time, because they were so busy. Once we began to cast it, I realized we were going to have an extraordinary group of people who were responding and saying, “Yes, I’d like to come and teach the students for one night.”
That’s when I sent word back into the community from which I’d come—theater, television, film—that these people might say something worth preserving. That, of course, meant the television cameras, and so the series began.
It began with the resolution that we would deal not with the usual commerce of talk shows, gossip and so forth but would stick to the subject of craft—and I was concerned that it would limit us, that we would be on the air for a few months and then vanish because people didn’t want to hear people talk about craft.
I turned out to be 100 percent wrong. It turned out that the subject of craft was the subject of the greatest possible interest, and it opened the door to a kind of intimacy that I never dreamed would happen on our show or any other.
We are still on the air, 23 years later, and are the fifth most nominated primetime series in the history of broadcast television. We’re in 94 million homes on Bravo in America and 125 other countries. I would never have dreamed that that would be the result, but it has.
The decision that we made in the beginning was that we don’t pre-interview. What that did was it forced us into a conversation where neither of us knows what’s coming next. We’ve compared it to a circus tent with a high wire up at the top—the guest goes up one ladder, I go up the other, and we meet in the middle of that tightrope for four hours with no net.
That, I think, has been the secret of the success of Inside the Actors Studio.
How have you managed to keep the series fresh over all these years?
I don’t have to keep it fresh because the guests are fresh. There are no two who are alike, and remember that the students out front are Master’s Degree candidates. They’re not gooey-eyed kids; they’re serious about their craft. They want to learn, they come to learn and the guests come to teach. That is an enormous advantage for us.
Alec Baldwin was the first guest you had on stage in 1994. What do you make of the spectacular year he’s had?
What happened was that Alec and pop culture and history, they all interconnected suddenly, and that will assure anybody of an audience.
Not to get political, but Donald Trump also made a pit stop on your show—only a few years ago. How was that experience?
Well, we’re not a political show. He came on my show, there were no politics involved. He wasn’t involved in politics. He came on to our show, and it was a wonderful experience. He invited me to be on the Celebrity Apprentice—which I was, as his counselor. That was a very good experience, but it had nothing to do with politics. It preceded his political career, and it’s nothing but good memories, I can assure you.
What are your thoughts on the way the industry has shifted over the years, and particularly in the last few?
The way that the industry has turned over mainly is in its emphasis on youth. With the end of the studio system and the emphasis on blockbusters, that means that a film has to have legs, and to have legs, it has to appeal to young people who will see it more than once.
The result of that is that the stars who are emerging are younger and younger, which means they haven’t had time to really do the kind of training that all of the generations that preceded them did. They came from stage, they came from classes, they came from institutions like the Actors Studio, and that is no longer the case.
The young stars today have to learn on the job, which is difficult because it means that they’re sometimes not fully prepared for what they’re getting into. There are some among them who are very talented. Stanislavski said that talent can’t be taught, and that’s what you bring to the table, but technique can, and when you get a combination of talent and technique, that’s when you get the great actors, like the long history of the actors who have poured out of the Actors Studio.
Several years ago, people came to a realization that spread like wildfire—a young Bradley Cooper was one of your students. Has it been gratifying to see the success he’s had?
Look, I auditioned him. He came from Georgetown, where he was studying International Policy—he came on a lark and auditioned for us with his teacher. Not his acting teacher, but with a history teacher, I think.
I saw something in him that was intriguing, and I admitted him—and it was the smartest thing I ever did. He became an exceptional student in the course of his time with us. He asked questions about De Niro, Sean Penn.
I’ve been asked over the years, “Who is the guest you would most like to have?” and I always answered, “Marlon Brando,” who was then exceptional. But one day I realized, “There’s an answer.” I said to myself, and to anyone who wanted to listen, “The night that one of our graduating students has achieved so much that he or she walks on that stage and sits down in that guest chair is going to be the night for me.”
And of course, that was Bradley Cooper. When he walked on the stage, he looked at me, and I looked at him, and he burst into tears. He didn’t stop crying for five minutes. That is an evolution.
What guided your episode selection submitting for Emmys this year?
The fact that this is our season of the woman—[Jessica] Chastain and Girls, and Viola Davis. That is rare. It’s rare on television, because most of the big parts of the big movies are created for men.
Here, we were suddenly confronted with a whole season full of women of which we are very, very proud. We had some amazing moments in that show [with the Girls cast]—not least, with Lena Dunham, who created the show.
What have been some of your favorite moments in the history of the Actors Studio?
How about Dave Chappelle? Big favorite of mine, big favorite of our public who arrived late the night of the episode at about 11 o’clock, because he was flying from Ohio and they were grounded for a while. The audience waited—they stayed with us until 2:30, and it was 3 o’clock in the morning when they finally left. I remember that with great excitement. That was an extraordinary night.
Chris Reeve was on the show—it was the first appearance he made after his accident. We had to bring him in private because he didn’t want to be seen having a spasm, which was possible with his problem.
When we got him on stage and all was well, his wife said to me backstage, “He’s been spasming today.” I said, “Would you like to cancel it? I don’t want to put you in that position.” She said, “No, it’s okay.” We got through most of the show and then suddenly I saw him stiffen, and he went into this spasm. The amazing thing is that his voice emerged as they surrounded him, his breathing tube came out. It was a terrible moment. The audience was frozen. I heard his voice very calmly; he said, “Well, well, well. What’s going on here? Just take a moment, we’ll fix it.” And they did.
He finished the show, and the next day the students came to me and said, “What are we to make of it?” I said, “When you are at the worst moment in your career and you think your career’s ending, remember Chris Reeve.”
We’ve had a few moments like that. Jack Lemmon was on the show only a few months before he died. I was, as always, trying to make a point for our students—I was Dean for 10 years of the Actors Studio Drama School—so I was talking to him and I said, “There all these great moments in Days of Wine and Roses—when you trashed the room trying to find the bottle that you lost, and the scene in the jail when you’re arrested. But the one that I remember most vividly is the one when you stood up in front of the AA and said those most famous words for the first time.”
I always tried to get my guests to say their own famous words in front of our students, so the students could remember it the rest of their lives—I tried to get De Niro to say, “Are you talking to me?” but he wouldn’t do it. In any event, I waited and Jack said, “Yeah, my name is so-and-so and I’m an alcoholic.”
I said, “See how simple, no pushing. Simple and true.” And he said, “Which I am.” I said, “I beg your pardon?” And he said, “I am an alcoholic.” I said, “Are you speaking as a character now, or as Jack?” He said, “No, I’m speaking as Jack. I’m an alcoholic.” His wife told me after the show that that was the first time he’d ever said it in public.
That’s an ‘Oh my God’ moment. There you are.
Having interviewed so many iconic performers over the years, is there anyone you haven’t gotten around to yet and would like to have on your program?
Well, I’m about to do Kristen Wiig, and I’m very excited about that. We’re negotiating now with other people for the upcoming season, which will be our 23rd.
There are so many classic James Lipton questions—I’ll ask one. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
I would like to hear God say, “You see Jim, you were wrong. I exist. But you may come in anyway.”