'Awards Chatter' Podcast — James Lipton ('Inside the Actors Studio')

James Lipton Getty H 2016
Steve Mack/Getty Images

James Lipton, dean-emeritus of The Actors Studio Drama School, insisted, during a recording of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast in his Upper East Side home, that not even he anticipated the success of Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio, the program featuring interviews with performing artists about their life and career, which he created 23 years ago and has hosted ever since: "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.'"

Click above to listen to this episode now, or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven SpielbergAmy Schumer, Louis C.K., Lady GagaWill Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Harvey Weinstein, Jane Fonda, Aziz Ansari, Brie LarsonJ.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart and Michael Moore.)

Inside the Actors Studio is now the second-longest-running series in the history of cable, after only The Real World, and — like its host, who will turn 90 on Sept. 19 — it's still going strong: Guests this season, its 21st, have included Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, Jeff Daniels, Sarah Silverman, Christopher Meloni and the cast of AMC's The Walking Dead. (Next up: the cast of HBO's Girls, for whom he was preparing when I arrived.) At this point, virtually everyone knows what Inside the Actors Studio is and who Lipton is — if not from watching some of its hundreds of episodes, then from Will Ferrell's classic impersonation on Saturday Night Live — but few know much about the evolution of the show and its bearded, bespectacled, poker-faced host, apart from what he wrote in his 2007 memoir, Inside Inside. It was the mission of this episode to correct that.

Over the course of our conversation, Lipton — who was born and raised in Detroit and grew up poor after being abandoned by his father, a famous Beat poet — describes the many lives he led prior to Inside the Actors Studio. He acted on radio, as the title character's nephew on The Lone Ranger; he served in the Air Force; he moved to New York, intending to become a lawyer, but fell in love with the performing arts classes that he took on the side (including years of study with Stella Adler at the Actors Studio) and quickly landed work acting in — and then eventually writing for — soap operas and Broadway; he authored a best-selling book, An Exaltation of Larks; he worked as a pimp in Europe (you've gotta hear this story); and he became a producer, specializing in non-profit charity events like the USO's annually televised Bob Hope birthday specials.

Twenty-four years ago, Lipton visited the Actors Studio and found that it "was in great danger of vanishing" because TV work largely had moved to Los Angeles and actors had followed it. He joined its board and shortly thereafter awoke with an idea: "What if we opened the doors, not to let the public in, but to let the so-called Method — the system — out?" Thanks to his efforts, the Actors Studio and The New School soon partnered on a degree-granting program, the Actors Studio Drama School; he became its dean; and in three years it was the largest school of its kind in America and, he says, "one of the prides of my life." Lipton thought master classes might be a valuable addition to the curriculum, and though he had never previously interviewed anyone, he decided to 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 recalls, "and said, 'These people are liable to say something worth preserving. That requires television. Anybody interested?' Bravo was." (The small cable network later was bought by NBC, largely because it possessed Inside the Actors Studio.)

Lipton shares how he prepares for each episode; why he rejects pre-interviews or discussing anything but craft ("the key to the show's success"); why the show almost ceased to exist after its first season; why his most memorable episodes include those with Steven Spielberg, Jack Lemmon and former student Bradley Cooper ("The night I waited for since we started Inside the Actors Studio, maybe since I started my life"); why he closes every episode with a questionnaire first employed by the TV host Bernard Pivot ("Many of the things I do I model after him"); what his own answers to its questions are; what he thinks of retirement and what will become of the show after he's gone; and much more. He says of his hundreds of interview subjects: "Because we're up on that high-wire with no net for three or four or five hours, we're on a journey together that is, for me, the greatest privilege of my life."