James Lipton, the iconic interviewer and host of Inside the Actors Studio passed away at the age of 93 at his Manhattan home on March 2nd. He’d been suffering from bladder cancer. Lipton was both the founder and dean emeritus of The Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University.

Born in Detroit, Lipton initially moved to New York to study law, but when he met Stella Adler, he asked if he could be one of her students. She accepted and Lipton, in turn, dropped out of law school. Instead, he studied with Adler for over two years and later became a student of Harold Clurman as well as Robert Lewis. During the day, Lipton earned money acting in the soap opera The Guiding Light, a job that lasted over 10 years. He went on to write for several soaps including Another World and The Edge of Night

For 47 years, The Actors Studio was not actually a school; members paid no tuition, and there was no graduation ceremony. Lipton described it as a workshop in a gym “where the best actors in America came and honed their craft between jobs.”

But all of that would change after a dream that Lipton had. In 1994, he woke up with a complete vision of a graduate program for actors—”Everything down to the curriculum, down to the credits, down to the teachers,” he recalled. Lipton wanted to create the degree-granting program, but as he was busy writing a musical for Broadway, he decided to only commit his energies to the new school for one year. Little did he know he’d end up holding the position of dean for 10 years. 

Determined to start a bi-monthly seminar in which he’d interview the most distinguished members of the studio about the craft of acting, Lipton hoped to educate and inspire the students in the graduate program. From the start, he kept the conversations centered on the craft and steered clear of any gossip; he also was adamant that he would never give the featured talent a pre-interview, as he hoped to facilitate fresh, honest responses.

Lipton had a gift of making his interviews with actors and filmmakers flow naturally. He reverently asked in-depth questions about the craft while exuding a profound appreciation for each of the actors who sat in the chair. But although Lipton made it look easy, he actually worked extremely hard to achieve this rapport. He revealed: “For each show, I spend two weeks at least—sometimes three or four—12 hours a day, seven days a week preparing those blue [interview] cards myself.” Exhaustive research included visits to libraries, reading periodicals, and watching every bit of film and TV shows in which the guest appeared. Ultimately, Lipton had a way of getting actors to speak candidly and to laugh and cry. Cameras were introduced to capture the interviews thanks to the Bravo network. The conversations could last up to five and a half hours, but they were edited down for television. Lipton retired at the age of 92 after 23 years of hosting the show. 

It turns out, Inside the Actors Studio was the longest-running Bravo TV show; it appeared in 94 million American homes and was viewed in 125 countries across the globe; and Lipton interviewed over 300 Hollywood heavyweights. The show was nominated for 18 Emmy awards, winning once for Outstanding Informational Series.

Being invited to sit across from James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio was seen as a tremendous honor for any actor or filmmaker. Bradley Cooper, for instance, was so overcome with gratitude, he had a hard time holding in his tears. He actually had been a student in the audience several years beforehand, asking Sean Penn a question during an interview with Lipton. Some performers made stunning revelations, such as Jack Lemmon in 1998 who admitted he was an alcoholic. And in 2008, Lipton took the guest’s seat and was interviewed by his close friend, comedian Dave Chappelle, during the show’s 200th episode.

Lipton always concluded his interviews with a list of 10 famous questions, one of which was: “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?” Once, when Lipton himself was asked to reply to this question, he answered, “I would like to hear God say, ‘You see, Jim, you were wrong. I exist. But you may come in anyway.”

Lipton is survived by his wife, Kedakai Turner.

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