He’s gone from a successful career behind the scenes to being one of the most recognizable faces on television. But what is “Inside the Actor’s Studio” host James Lipton like inside? He’s the subject of this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.
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James Lipton is known for unearthing every detail about his guests.
Here's a guy known for analyzing the nuances of acting and yet one of his most important friendships of the last 20 years was with a former hockey player, Rudy Poeschek, who was known as a great fighter, but who would also bring to the Lipton home, his homemade pies.
"That's my cherry pie, that's my apple pie, that's my pumpkin pie and I would have to taste them and he would say, ÎWhat do you think?’ And I would always say the same thing, ÎRudy if I didn't like them, you would be the last person in the world to know,’” recalls Lipton of Poeschek.
We may know him strictly from inside the actor's studio, but this is a life that has included hockey players and presidents and soap operas and theater and working with celebrities all over the world.
The stories are contained in Lipton’s autobiography, "Inside Inside.”
"I asked myself the kind of questions that I ask my guests and demanded of myself the same candor that I demand of them,” says Lipton.
“Inside the Actor’s Studio” is now in its 14th season. There have been many memorable moments, like Jack Lemmon’s unexpected admission while talking about playing an alcoholic.
Lemmon: Which I am incidentally.
Lipton: Are you talking as Clay now or as Jack Lemmon?
Lemmon: No, as Jack Lemmon. I'm an alcoholic.
Or Spike Lee tearing up as he described how contributions from African American stars allowed him to make “Malcolm X.”
"They wrote the checks and said, ÎSpike, make the film you want to make,’” said Lee.
Lipton says it takes him two full weeks to prepare for each show. He works from his office in his Upper East Side townhouse.
"In sculpture, the sculpture is in the stone, and all the sculptor is doing is chipping away to find the sculpture that was in there all along. Well that's the way I feel about my work. Its in here, I've got to find it,” says Lipton.
The taping of each show usually takes four to five hours, always in front of the students of the Actor's Studio and there are frequently lessons that extend far beyond the stage.
During a taping with Christopher Reeve, the quadriplegic’s body began to spasm. His breathing tube popped out of his neck as his body convulsed.
"Out of the wings came his handlers and his wife. She stood right in front, Dana, and I could see the two of them profiled very close,” recalls Lipton, who was interviewing Reeve via satellite at the time. "I have never seen anything more romantic in my life. They were Romeo and Juliet united forever."
Reeve calmly resumed the interview. The next day, Lipton had a message for his students.
“When you are in Philadelphia with a play that you know is going to die and you’re in it; when you are in a movie and you know this is going to end your career and your suicidal; I have two words for you ÎChristopher Reeve,’” said Lipton.
Lipton's onscreen presence, the extensive research, the questionnaire borrowed from his idol, French interviewer Bernard Pivot at the end of each show, has long been the subject of parody and Lipton has bought right in, appearing on shows like “Conan,” “Arrested Development” and “Da Ali G Show.”
But he says it was Will Farrell who turned him into a definable persona.
“Even more pompous than I am, and even stiffer than I am, and so forth, and the result is that that person, I've sort of morphed into that person,” says Lipton. “It’s a combination of me sitting here talking to you, not a very prepossessing or interesting person perhaps, and this much more vivid character that Will created."
Lipton has just about everything in his life: A job he loves, a long-running successful TV show, passionate hobbies as an equestrian and a private pilot, and his wife of almost 40 years, Kedakai.
But as viewers of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” know, Lipton wants a tattoo. His wife says, “no.”
“If not I would rip off this jacket and show you a beautiful tattoo,” says Lipton. “No, she’s winning.”
Even before he became a fixture on television in his late Î60s, Lipton had a life with the types of plot twists that he analyzes in movies.
His father was a well-known west coast beatnik poet and left when Lipton was young. He grew up in Detroit, poor. So when he was 13 he took a summer job in a plant, washing glass with nitric acid. To make the time pass, Lipton translated popular songs into Latin and sang them.
“They threatened to go on strike!” recalls Lipton of his co-workers faced with his singing.
Living in France just after World War II, Lipton had another interesting job. He was a pimp, or in the French slang, a “mec.” But he contends it wasn't the dangerous underworld that it is now. The women went to the doctor each week, the pimps worked for the prostitutes and it was regulated.
"I fell into that world and it was one of the most interesting, clearly unforgettable experiences of my life,” says Lipton.
He came to New York and for 12 years studied acting and ballet and modern dance and voice. He wrote for several soap operas and acted on “Guiding Light” for more than a decade.
In 1967 he wrote the book and lyrics for a Broadway musical called “Sherry,” based on the Kaufman and Hart play “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” But due to a fire, the score and orchestrations were thought lost.
“It was painful. Thirty years of my life and I grieved for it,” says Lipton.
They were eventually found, 30 years later, in a case in the Library of Congress and a cast album was subsequently recorded.
Long before “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” Lipton was a force behind the scenes. He was the executive producer of the first televised inaugural gala, President Carter’s in 1977.
He traveled the world, including a trip to China with Bob Hope. One of the world's richest entertainers and Lipton had a shared past, growing up in abject poverty, and both had nightmares about its return.
"I said, ÎDo you think it ever goes away?’ And he said, ÎNever.’ And I said, ÎOh god, I'm doomed.’ Here’s Bob with hundreds of millions of dollars, probably, and still can't shake it.”
Almost 15 years ago, Lipton’s life changed. He was already a successful actor, writer and producer. But in 1994, shortly after he became dean of the Actor’s Studio at the New School, he premiered a master’s thesis seminar on television, “Inside the Actor’s Studio.”
Suddenly, in his late 60s, he became a familiar face here and thanks to global syndication in 125 countries around the world.
"I have this impression that the world loves me,” says Lipton. “The reason that I do is that the people who can't stand me don't talk to me, so it’s a Potemkin village, it’s a false front, it's a lovely feeling. I walk through the streets, I go to the theater, get into a taxi, whatever I do, people say nice things to me.”
His mantel is filled with notes from famous guests on the show, but front and center is a letter from a young fan.
"I saw an autographed picture of you on eBay and was going to buy it, but it was so expensive, $30,” says Lipton. “I keep this to remind myself that with all of these experiences, with all of this excitement, with all of the things that have a found their way into my life and now into my book, when it come right down to it, I'm worth $30 bucks on eBay and that's what, I hope, keeps me grounded.”
— Budd Mishkin