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James Lipton is the king of cool

Lipton shares his thoughts on "Inside the Actors Studio"  with MSNBC's Deborah Norville   as the show celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Ten years ago, James Lipton sat down with Paul Newman to tape the first “Inside the Actors Studio” for Bravo.  That was more than 100 episodes ago, and since then he has interviewed some of the world's most accomplished actors and directors—Robert De Niro, Sally Field, Anthony Hopkins, Susan Sarandon, Steven Spielberg to name a few.

Lipton's guests share their craft with a studio audience of drama students and television viewers in 125 countries. Lately, the show has even become a stop in the Oscar campaign process.

Lipton's roots in show business stem from first-hand experience as an actor, writer, and director. He has become somewhat of an icon: He has been spoofed in both “The Simpsons” and Saturday Night Live.

This Sunday, Lipton celebrates 10 years of “Inside the Actors Studio” with a two-hour special.  Last Wednesday, MSNBC’s Deborah Norville turned the tables on the dean of “The Actors Studio”  and interviewed him for the full hour. Below, are some of Lipton's thoughts:

How the show came to be
James Lipton, host of "Inside the Actors Studio": Interestingly enough, "The Actors Studio Drama School" precedes the television show by only two weeks.  "The Actors Studio," was created in 1947, and we created the "Actors Studio Drama School" of New School University, of which I became dean.

In the beginning, I had teachers teach our master's degree candidates. But I had one gap left. So, I sent a letter back into the world from which I had come, saying, “Look, give me one night of your lives.  Come and teach our students in a seminar at the university.” 

And that's when Paul Newman, Arthur Penn, Sally Field and Dennis Hopper, and people like that, answered me.  When this happened, I said, “Look, there's a possibility somebody may say something worth preserving.”  I needed five cameras.  We couldn't afford them, and the Bravo network, to their eternal glory and credit said, “We'll take the chance with you.” 

5-hour interviews
When we interview, we’re there for five hours. The first three hours is an interview with me, and then two hours is answering questions from the students. 

When I started the show, I made two decisions:  One was that I would do my own homework and there'd be no pre-interview.  The other was that would stick to discussing the craft.

Initially, I thought [just sticking to questions about the craft] would make us rather dull.  But 76 million homes in America and 125 countries later, I realized I was wrong. 

The truth is that by focusing on the craft, by focusing on those moments in your life that shaped you as a person and as an artist, and if you go back and start to tell me about them, something is liable to happen. 

What happens on our show to my absolute and utter surprise. The way I've thought of it and some of my guests have thought of it, is as if the theater at New School University is a circus tent. We come out on the stage.  Each of us goes up a ladder, and we meet over the middle on the top of the stage on a tight wire with no net for three or four hours.  That's the fun of it. 

What it’s like to be a host
The objective is very simple: What does this person have to teach my students?

All this has changed me as a person too. I mean, how could I not have learned from all this?  I'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind.

Because we're there for five hours, it’s like we've been through a war together. Also, I don't eat the whole day before the show, because I'm going to be there for five hours.  It would be like eating before going into a boxing ring or a basketball game. But the point is that at the end of the evening, I'm famished.

And I will say to the guests, “Do you want to get something to eat?”  And often, we do.  We go up to Elaine's restaurant and we'll sit there until 1:30 or 2 a.m., just kind of coming unwired after that.  And there is a kind of comradeship that's developed on that show.  I can't explain it, but you'll see it on Sunday because when Tom Cruise comes back, when Melanie and Antonio come back, Billy Crystal comes back, when Robin Williams comes back, Susan and Ellen. It's like family!

Memorable guests

  • Jack Lemmon: He stood up in front of the class and admitted he was an alcoholic. Afterward in the green room, his wife Felicia said to me, “That's the first time Jack has ever said that in public.” 
    He made a decision to say it.  This year we won the Prism Award, which is given to the program that most directly and effectively faces the question of alcohol and drug abuse.  We won it, and we're very proud of it.
    And we've dealt with this question with Drew Barrymore, with Robin Williams, with Jack, with a number of our guests, and they've been incredibly frank, no one more than Melanie Griffith.  It depends on the actor.  Some actors do hide inside their characters.  Others are quite open in their private lives. 
    The surprising thing is how many of the actors who have come to “Inside the Actors Studio” are very private people and don't reveal that kind of thing.  The fact that they do on our show, we consider one of the great honors that they give us.  
  • Robin Williams: When I asked him, “What are you doing?  Why are you thinking faster than the rest of us?  You're at warp speed. ”  He said, “I'll try to show you.” 
    So he went down from the stage, to a young lady in the first row, who happened to be my goddaughter. He took a pink scarf from her, and it happened to be the scarf that we had given her, my wife and I, at Christmas.
    [He grabbed it] and turned it into a five-minute improvisation, that is without question the most famous five minutes in the 10-year history of the show. 
  • Steven Spielberg: One of the students said to Steven Spielberg, “Mr. Spielberg, you know that you're rich and famous, how do you deal with it?  How has it changed you?”
    He added, “Isn't it true, don't you know?  You're rich and famous.”
    And Steven said, “Of course I do.  Every month when I pay my American Express bill.”  But he said, “The day that I look at me through your eyes is the day that I should stop directing and get out of the business.” 
    And I thought that was the best answer we ever had. 

His career path
I started acting because I needed to pay the rent.  But the track was so fast in New York, and so I realized I couldn't do it.  I had done Michigan, where I was a big fish in a little pond. 

And so I said, “I'd better study.  These people are good.”  And I walked into a room with a woman named Stella Adler, and my life changed. 

I realized that I didn't have to be a lawyer.  I was going to be a lawyer because my father was the famous beatnik poet, Lawrence Lipton, and he was such an eccentric that I thought if I went into the arts, I'm going to be just like that. I thought I was going to be a nice, straight-laced, three-piece suit lawyer.  But the day that I met Stella and signed up for those classes, from that day forward I never thought again about being a lawyer.

I wasn't worried about becoming my father.  It was that being the son of a working poet means that you don't eat all that often.  My mother was a teacher, a librarian.  We had a very hard life.

Later, my father was gone (his father left when he was 6 years old) and we struggled very, very hard.  I started working when I was 13.  And I thought, “Well, that's a hard life.  That's a difficult life, and I don't think I could manage it.  I'll be a lawyer.”

I ended up playing Dr. Dick Grant in “Guiding Light.”  I was a kid then. But Irna Phillips, who wrote “The Guiding Light,” had a penchant—when she liked an actor, she'd bring him back.  And so about a month later, I was back.

It was my subsidy... while I was directing, while I was writing, while I studying two-and-a-half years with Stella Adler, while I was studying modern dance and ballet and voice up to the operatic level, that's how I subsidized my education.

King of Cool
“Inside the Actors Studio” is now the show of choice when someone thinks he or she may have a chance to get an Oscar nomination, so they come to us and then we put it on during the voting period. 

I like to go to the “Vanity Fair” party for the Oscars, and this last year I was there.  This year best actor-actress nominees were on our show. So we were celebrating at the “Vanity Fair” party.  And while I was talking to this group of wonderful happy actors clutching their Oscars, when a guy comes up to me—a tall, beautiful man— and says “Excuse me.  I'm sorry to interrupt you.  I know you're busy.  Would you mind if I shook your hand?"

We shook hands. And he said, “I just want to tell you, I love your show.  I never miss your show.  I love your style.  You are so cool.”

And I said to him, “Who are you?”

And he said, “L.L. Cool J.”

And I said, “For the rest of my life, nobody ever has to tell me I'm cool.  I've got the endorsement from the official person.” 

On the SNL Spoof
I'm heartbroken [about Will Ferrell’s departure from the show.]  The day he left SNL, I left SNL.  So I got him on my show once to do me as me; or to do him as me.  I couldn’t figure it out.  We were both there at the same time. 

Perks of the job
One of the perks, if you will, of being the host of “Inside the Actors Studio” is that I get wonderful service in restaurants from waiters and waitresses because they're all auditioning.

Next ten years
I can tell you that the person, more than any other, that I would like to get on that stage with me, in that chair…  The day that one of my graduated students has achieved such eminence that he or she walks on that stage and sits down opposite me... will be the best moment of my life.