'Inside the Actor's Studio's' James Lipton on Hitting 250 Episodes
The star of cable's second-longest-running series talks about how the Bravo show continues to draw secrets from Brad Pitt, Bradley Cooper, Julia Roberts and Dave Chappelle.
This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If you've been watching Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio religiously for the past 19 seasons, there's a good chance you've spotted a familiar face in the crowd.
An unknown Bradley Cooper popped up multiple times during his student days in the late 1990s to pepper such guests as Sean Penn and Robert De Niro with questions about their craft.
Though the long-running series has never traded in celebrity, it is telling that at least one audience member became a star.
Hosted and executive produced by James Lipton, dean emeritus of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York, the show has carved out a unique space on the dial by celebrating the actor's work without venturing into the personal lives of its famous guests, as has become de rigueur on celebrity-focused TV.
As Inside the Actors Studio celebrates its 250th episode, the show stands in stark contrast to its tabloid-influenced counterparts and as a last bastion of what Bravo used to be. And though Lipton, 86, would sooner ask his A-list subjects to explain nuclear fusion than discuss their well-documented love-life choices, politics or personal foibles, he often coaxes out a more frank portrait than any of his competitors.
"My resolve was to stick to craft, and it would not be a gossip show," explains Lipton about his brainchild, spawned as a joint venture of the venerable Actors Studio and New School University. "But by asking those questions about craft, we blew the door off its hinges, and as a result, we have had, I think, some of the most revealing and intimate moments in the history of television. And it didn't make us dry. It asked people something about themselves that was of the deepest importance to them."
Little has changed since the show's Aug. 14, 1994, debut, when Lipton sat down with the late Paul Newman. At the time, Newman was the Actors Studio's president and still an in-demand star.
"I was in the makeup chair with my eyes closed, and I felt somebody put an arm on my shoulder," recalls Lipton with his tempered baritone. "I opened my eyes, and there right next to my head looking in the mirror at me was Paul Newman. I said to my makeup person: 'That's what God intended for me to look like. Time to correct the mistake. That's what I want to look like when I get out of this damn chair.' "
Throughout the first season, filmed at the New School's Tishman Auditorium in Greenwich Village, Lipton sat with such guests as Sally Field, Sidney Lumet and Dennis Hopper -- all members of the then-47-year-old Actors Studio on West 44th Street -- to discuss the machinations behind their performances.
It quickly became clear that Inside the Actors Studio had the opportunity to document some of the most storied careers in Hollywood. And that was precisely Lipton's aim.
"My original pitch to Bravo was 'Look, these people are liable to say something worth preserving,' " he says. " 'That means it should be televised. The school can't afford it, but you can. Are you interested?' And Bravo took that existential leap of faith with me."
But not long after its kickoff, network executives wanted to tinker with the format. Focus groups indicated that the Q&A-session-with-students structure wasn't a sell. Frances Berwick, who was a newbie executive at the time, had to break the news to Lipton.
"It was one of those not-very-well-handled moments when a network executive tried to change the very thing that makes a show work," recalls Berwick, now Bravo's president. "His reaction was not good. He explained quite patiently what the point of the show was. We didn't start out on the best footing."
Lipton was prepared to quit. But after Bravo owner Charles Dolan, a fan of the show, stepped in and agreed that the students should stay, Lipton and Berwick began to forge a bond that would hold over 19 seasons. Although Bravo began to evolve into a destination for real housewives and top chefs, Berwick remained a strong proponent of the show and never again called for any format changes.
"She and Brandon Tartikoff are the two great executives whom I've worked with," says Lipton, who teamed with the late NBC head when he produced about two dozen specials for the network, including a dozen Bob Hope birthday shows. "I've never known their like elsewhere. Never."
Over the years, guests have included Mike Nichols, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Ron Howard, Sean Penn, Faye Dunaway, Steven Spielberg, Ellen Barkin, Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey, Vanessa Redgrave, Ben Affleck, Will Smith, Jeanne Moreau, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, Dave Chappelle, Dustin Hoffman, the cast of Family Guy, Sean Combs, Colin Firth, Brad Pitt and George Clooney. Chappelle, who is retired from acting, was one of Lipton's favorite guests and used his appearance to clarify the controversy surrounding his decision to quit his Comedy Central show.
And the troika that now runs the Actors Studio -- Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn and Harvey Keitel -- all have appeared in Lipton's televised classroom.
Although the cameras roll for as long as five hours, the episodes are edited down to anywhere from 60 minutes to two hours. It takes Lipton two weeks to prepare for a guest. He works 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week doing research, which explains the estimated 300 blue cards he typically burns through during each episode.
The preparation shows. Inside the Actors Studio is the second-longest-running series in the history of cable TV (behind The Real World) and has been nominated for 15 Emmy Awards. Through 19 seasons, ratings for the show, which now tapes at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace, have grown nearly 500 percent. And though the audience has never reached The Oprah Winfrey Show proportions, two episodes have delivered more than 1 million viewers -- Robin Williams on Oct. 26, 2003, and Barbra Streisand on March 21, 2004, with the Williams spot scoring 1.32 million viewers.
Tina Fey enjoyed the unique vantage of working on Saturday Night Live -- including as the show's head writer on a recurring sketch that poked fun at the uber-serious Lipton, played by Will Ferrell -- before eventually being welcomed with open arms as a guest.
"James is a wonderful, strange bird," says Fey. "I met him in person before I did Inside the Actors Studio -- when you work at SNL, you get used to seeing the real people we've just imitated -- and he was just as fascinating and unique as I'd hoped. I'm barely even an actor, and he treated the ridiculousness of my career on the show with the same reverence as he did for Meryl Streep."
For Lipton, the measure of success always comes back to the students. He marvels that within three years of the show's debut, the Actors Studio was the largest graduate drama school in America. He also is most proud of watching former student Cooper become an Oscar nominee.
"I always said the night that one of my graduating students has achieved so much that he or she sits down next to me is going to be not only the best night I've ever had on Inside the Actors Studio," says Lipton, "it will be one of the best nights of my life. And it happened. It was Bradley."
By the Numbers
Approximate number of blue research cards Lipton has used in 19 seasons
Guests who have appeared twice (Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Tom Hanks, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mike Myers, Billy Crystal and Hugh Jackman)
Total number of guests
James Lipton’s Pop Cultural Footprint
Saturday Night Live
Will Ferrell, who has appeared as a guest on Inside the Actors Studio, spoofed Lipton’s professorial approach on a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch (two-time Inside guest Alec Baldwin once appeared in the skit as a dimwitted Charles Nelson Reilly).
A 2002 episode of The Simpsons titled “The Sweetest Apu” depicted the Schwarzenegger-esque Rainier Wolfcastle killing Lipton during a Q&A. (Lipton later would bring the show’s cast on Inside, with actors like Hank Azaria holding up their animated alter egos while dishing craft with the host.)
Dave Chappelle, an Inside guest as well, created an homage to Lipton with “Inside the Chappelle Studio” on his eponymous Comedy Central show.