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James Lipton, the elegant, articulate wordsmith and theater academic whose desire to give his acting students a greater insight into their art led to the popular Bravo series Inside the Actors Studio, has died. He was 93.
Lipton died early Monday at his home in Manhattan from bladder cancer, his wife, Kedakai Mercedes Lipton, told The Hollywood Reporter.
“He lived each day as if it were his last,” Kedakai Lipton said in a statement to THR. “His work was his passion, loved what he did and all the people he worked with. He empowered people to do their best, and hopefully his spirit, curiosity and passion will live on.”
Conceived by Lipton in 1994, Inside the Actors Studio was created to serve as a thinly disguised master class for the students of the Actors Studio Drama School, a joint venture of the Actors Studio and The New School. With Paul Newman as its initial guest, each one-hour program featured a top performer in an intimate and in-depth one-on-one interview with Lipton.
Nearly 300 subjects, including many Oscar and Emmy winners, shared the secrets of their craft with Lipton and his audience of students before the TV cameras. The show became one of cable’s longest-running series.
“James Lipton was a titan of the film and entertainment industry and had a profound influence on so many,” Frances Berwick, president of NBCU Lifestyle Networks and home to Bravo, said Monday in a statement. “I had the pleasure of working with Jim for 20 years on Bravo’s first original series, his pride and joy Inside the Actors Studio. We all enjoyed and respected his fierce passion, contributions to the craft, comprehensive research and his ability to bring the most intimate interviews ever conducted with A-list actors across generations. Bravo and NBCUniversal send our deepest condolences to Jim’s wife, Kedakai, and all of his family.”
As Lipton told THR‘s Scott Feinberg in June 2016: “If you had put a gun to my head and said, ‘I will pull the trigger unless you predict that in 23 years, Inside the Actors Studio will be viewed in 94 million homes in America on Bravo and in 125 countries around the world, that it will have received 16 Emmy nominations, making it the fifth-most-nominated series in the history of television, that it will have received an Emmy Award for outstanding informational series and that you will have received the Critics’ Choice Award for best reality series host — predict it or die,’ I would have said, ‘Pull the trigger.'”
Lipton did all of his own research in preparation for each interview. A lover of words, he was known for his intricately crafted questions and precise manner of delivery. His style was so distinctive, it led to a number of parodies, most notably Will Ferrell’s dead-on imitation in a series of Saturday Night Live sketches.
“I love it. It’s very flattering,” Lipton said during a 2012 CNN interview. “I think he’s got me cold.”
His hosting run ended in 2018 when the program moved from Bravo to Ovation TV.
“I made a vow early on that we would not deal in gossip — only in craft, and Ovation, as a network dedicated to the arts, will continue that tradition with the next seasons of the series,” Lipton said then. “I’m excited to see the new hosts engage with the guests and students and continue to entertain viewers in the U.S. and around the world.”
Inside the Actors Studio was the culmination of a lengthy career for Lipton that began in radio and included stints as an actor, scriptwriter, choreographer, lyricist, author, producer and academic.
Along the way, he was married twice. His marriage from 1954 to 1959 to actress Nina Foch (a 1955 Oscar nominee for Executive Suite) ended in divorce. In 1970, he wed Mercedes Lipton, a model who holds the unique distinction of appearing as Miss Scarlett in the Clue board game.
Louis James Lipton was born on Sept. 19, 1926, in Detroit. His mother, Betty, was a teacher and a librarian, and his father, Lawrence, was a columnist and graphic designer for The Jewish Daily Forward. (The senior Lipton is best known for his 1959 book The Holy Barbarians, a chronicle of the Beat Generation.) His parents divorced when Lipton was 6, and his dad abandoned the family.
To help make ends meet, Lipton began working while in his teens as a copy boy for The Detroit Times and as an actor for the Catholic Theater of Detroit. In 1944, after graduating high school, he landed the role of Dan Reid, the nephew of the Lone Ranger, on WXYZ’s radio program about the masked Western hero.
After enlisting in the Air Force during World War II, Lipton headed to New York with aims of becoming a lawyer. In his mind, it was the best way to avoid the instability his father had brought on his family.
“But I thought, ‘I’d better take some acting classes if I’m going to earn a living so I can be a lawyer,'” Lipton said in a 2013 interview. “Stella Adler accepted me for her [drama] class. About five years later, I said to myself, ‘Stop kidding. You don’t want to be a lawyer. This is what you want to do.'”
To perfect his craft, Lipton took additional classes with Harold Clurman and Robert Lewis and studied movie/TV production and directing at New York University and The New School.
In 1951, Lipton began landing parts on such television shows as Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, Armstrong Circle Theatre and CBS Television Workshop. In the same year, he appeared in the original production of Lillian Hellman’s The Autumn Garden. It would be his only appearance on a Broadway stage.
Other television roles throughout the 1950s included The Guiding Light, You Are There, Inner Sanctum and The Goldbergs. In 1953, Lipton made his feature debut, starring as a wise guy in the ultra-low budget The Big Break. It also was around this time Lipton stumbled onto one of his more unusual jobs.
After finishing a film in Greece, he traveled to France and decided it wasn’t quite time to return home. Lipton connected with a woman who made her living performing sex while others watched.
“One night, I told her I had to go back to the United States. She said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘You’re broke, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Well, yes.’ She said, ‘No problem, you’ll be my mec,'” Lipton told Feinberg.
And for the next few months, Lipton worked in Paris as her mec, aka pimp. He went on to explain that after World War II, during tough economic times, the profession was respectable. “We did a roaring business,” Lipton said. “It was a great time of my life.”
Lipton returned home to resume his acting career but found more success as a writer. While appearing on The Guiding Light, he worked his way up to head writer. Throughout the next two decades, he served as head writer for Another World, The Best of Everything and Return to Peyton Place. He also wrote for The Edge of Night and The United States Steel Hour.
In 1962, Lipton wrote the book and lyrics for the Broadway musical Nowhere to Go But Up. Five years later, he did the same for Sherry!, a musical adaptation of The Man Who Came to Dinner. This production closed after a short run, and an original cast recording was never made. The score and orchestrations were thought to be lost for more than 30 years until their discovery in the Library of Congress.
Lipton’s popularity, thanks to Inside the Actors Studio, helped facilitate interest in the musical, and in 2004, a studio recording featuring Nathan Lane, Bernadette Peters, Carol Burnett, Tommy Tune and Mike Myers was produced.
Lipton published his first book, An Exaltation of Larks, in 1968. An homage to his love of wordplay, the book features a collection of nouns of multitude such as “a gaggle of geese” and “a pride of lions,” which Lipton prefers to call “terms of venery.” (Some were real and some were created by Lipton.) The book has been revised several times, and the latest addition features more than 1,100 phrases.
Starting with Jimmy Carter’s Inauguration Gala in 1977, Lipton began producing television specials. Five of them involved Bob Hope. He also produced American Dance Machine Presents a Celebration of Broadway Dance (1981) and the TV movie Mirrors (1985). The latter was based on Lipton’s 1983 novel about the life of dancers.
In addition to scripting four of the Bob Hope specials, Lipton’s writing efforts included the screenplay for Mirrors and the story and teleplay for Copacabana (1985). He signed on as head writer for eight episodes of the 1980s television series Capitol.
Through James Lipton Productions, he dabbled in Broadway, producing The Mighty Gents in 1978 and Monteith & Rand in 1979.
As the 1990s unfolded, Lipton pursued the idea of distilling his 12 years of performance studies into a three-year educational curriculum for actors. He took the concept to New York’s famed Actors Studio, a primary breeding ground for performers during the 1940s and ’50s. He was surprised to find that it was in danger of vanishing because so much TV work had moved to the West Coast. But that also inspired Lipton.
“What if we opened the doors, not to let the public in, but to let the so-called ‘Method’ — the system — out?” Lipton told Feinberg. Through his efforts, the Actors Studio and The New School soon partnered on the Actors Studio Drama School, a program designed to offer degrees in acting. With Lipton as its dean, it became in three years the largest school of its kind in America. He called it “one of the prides of my life.”
Lipton believed a key element of the program should be a series of master classes featuring one-on-one talks with the best in the profession. Though he had no experience as an interviewer, he decided he would serve as its emcee. “I sent word back into the community from which I had come, and where I was known and knew people,” he recalled, “and said, ‘These people are liable to say something worth preserving. That requires television. Anybody interested?’ Bravo was.”
Lipton served as the show’s executive producer. In 2004, he retired as dean of the Actors Studio Drama School, taking on the position of dean emeritus. He took readers behind the scenes of the show in 2007 with his memoir Inside Inside.
Lipton was Inside the Actors Studio‘s 200th subject. For that 2008 interview, he picked Dave Chappelle to pose the questions.
The show’s popularity led to a resurgence in Lipton’s acting career. He played himself in the 2005 feature Bewitched and appeared on the TV series Arrested Development, Glee, Suburgatory, Joey and According to Jim. Animated versions of Lipton popped up on The Simpsons and Family Guy. His voice also can also be heard in the 2008 animated feature Bolt.
The recipient of three honorary Ph.D.s, Lipton was honored with the French Republic’s Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2016, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Daytime Emmys and a Critics’ Choice Award for best reality show host.
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