James Lipton Remembered by Actors Studio's Ellen Burstyn: "He Was Not a Shy Man"

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Ellen Burstyn

The Oscar-winning actress — and Actors Studio co-president — recalls how Lipton, who died Monday at the age of 93, started the workshop’s grad school and invented the TV interview show that would make him every bit as famous as his guests: "I’d be on the street with him and people came running up asking for his autograph while I’d stand there invisibly."

Ellen Burstyn is the Oscar-winning actress who serves as co-president of the Actors Studio and has been co-host of Inside the Actors Studio since James Lipton retired in 2019.

First of all, I knew him as a writer. He wrote that incredible book Exaltation of Larks, so I knew him from that. And then he came to the Actors Studio to the playwright-directors unit after Lee Strasberg had died and I learned that he was so much more than a writer. He produced, he directed, he studied ballet dancing and had been a choreographer at one point.

Jim came up with the idea of starting a school at the Actors Studio. That was his idea. Lee had always taken on the responsibility for keeping the Studio going — he had his friends donate money to keep the doors open. And after he died [in 1982] we were sitting around talking about how we were going to continue and Jim said, "Well, you know, ballet companies have schools that support the companies — why don’t we do that?" Some of us at the Studio — Paul Newman and myself and Arthur Penn — met about it, but it was really Jim who headed it up and became dean and took responsibility for it.

The school was very successful and then we started taking about having a master class with some well-known actors and writers being interviewed by Jim. And then somebody — I don’t know if it was Jim or not, but it might have been — said we should really tape this for posterity. But Jim was definitely the one who said we should air it. He brought it to Bravo and they bought it and it became Inside the Actors Studio.

I have to say that Jim did all the work on the show. He knew everybody and he got all the guests and arranged for the venue and so forth. And of course he did the interviews. He researched every one of those interviews — he wrote his notes on those blue cards. And there had never been an interview show like it. It was designed for the students to talk about craft. It wasn’t a gossip show. It wasn’t about getting the job and what happened on the set. It was all about the craft. And everybody wanted to be on the show. Whoever had a movie coming out, they wanted to publicize it on Inside the Actors. I can’t remember what year I did it [1996], but everybody wanted to be interviewed by Jim.

I would say he enjoyed [the success] of the show. He was not a shy man. I’d be out on the street with him and people came running up asking for his autograph while I’d stand there invisibly. I think he enjoyed the recognition. But he was the same man off the air as what you saw on television. He was very erudite, very well-educated. He was good at just about everything. I remember I once went to visit him at his house in the Hamptons and he suggested we go to the stables to ride horses. I used to own a horse and Iove horses, so I said okay. Turns out he was an expert horseman.

You know, most of us at the Actors Studio — not all but most — managed to do imitations of Jim. I’m not naming names. I’m not saying whether I did one or not. But most of us imitated him. He was a lot of fun.