James Lipton's Hero, French Cinephile Bernard Pivot, on How He Helped Shape 'Inside the Actors Studio'

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Bernard Pivot (left), James Lipton

The French TV icon, whose long-running talk shows 'Apostrophes' and 'Bouillon de Culture' gave rise to Lipton’s Bravo series, recalls a transatlantic friendship of “mutual admiration” that inspired them both.

Bernard Pivot is the renowned journalist and TV personality whose talk shows were a fixture of French television for several decades. He talked to The Hollywood Reporter two days after James Lipton, a fixture on American television for as many decades, died at the age of 93 of bladder cancer.

One day I received a letter from James Lipton — who I hadn’t yet met — asking me if he could use the 10-question format from my show Bouillon de culture on his new program Inside the Actors Studio. Apparently he had seen Bouillon de culture, as well as my literary interview show Apostrophes, aired on French-language university programs in the U.S., and he found them inspiring. Of course I said yes to him, though I was very surprised when I saw his show for the first time and he mentioned my name. What’s extraordinary is that he could have contented himself with citing me on the first episode, but every time he would say that the questions came from “Bernard Pivot’s Bouillon de culture” in his lovely accent. And so I managed to become famous in the U.S. because of James’ show, even though I was never on it myself.

For the series finale of Bouillon de culture, [which aired in June 2001], I decided to invite James on so he could answer some of those 10 questions himself. He was my guest of honor, and it was a way to pay homage to him for his honesty over the years.

What really impressed me about Inside the Actors Studio is what I would call James’ “meticulous nonchalance.” He would engage his guests in a very calm way, like they were just having a conversation, but with questions that were extremely well researched and prepared. And sometimes his questions could be quite disconcerting, which would throw his guests off, but which would also elicit really great answers. His nonchalance would allow him to take his guests apart in an almost surgical manner.

I watched Inside the Actors Studio as often as I could when it aired on French television. One of my best memories of the show was when Lauren Bacall was the guest. After they talked for a while, James said to her, “Now I’m going to ask you questions from Bernard Pivot’s Bouillon de culture.” And she said: “But I already answered those questions in Paris.” She had been on my show back in the 1970s!