A Couple of Questions with…James Lipton

Yes, that’s right: the host of “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” The series is continuing onward, with Kyra Sedgwick as its latest guest, and we had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Mr. Lipton – who, if you can believe it, is eighty years old! – about a few items on his resume, as well as one we’ve always wondered about the students in the audience of the Actor’s Studio…

Bullz-Eye: Hi, Mr. Lipton.

James Lipton: Hi.

BE: Could you speak a little bit about your experiences working on “Arrested Development”?

JL: I loved it. Why wouldn’t I? Those people are extraordinary, beginning with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard at the top, and those actors are amazing. It was a wonderful show; I wish it were still on the air. It came as a surprise. They called me, and they pleaded with me to be on the show – don’t ask me why – and I couldn’t. I said, “Look, I…” At this point, I was still the dean of the (Actors Studio Drama School). I said, “I’m a dean, which is a full-time job, I’m executive producer, writer, and host of ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio,’ which is a full-time job…I can’t expand my week! I work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, without exception, from the beginning of September ‘til the middle of June. I take two days off – Thanksgiving and Christmas – and that’s it. And I can’t come.” Finally, they got in touch with me, and they said, “Look: if you will come, we will do all your scenes in one day. Everybody else will lay off, and only the people involved in your scenes will come in and do your stuff with you, and we’ll get it all done in one day. We’ll fly you out, do it one day, and fly you back.” I agreed to do that. And then about a week before I was to arrive, they said, “Hey, we’ve written a second script for you…but we’ll do it all in the one day.” And then the night before I was to get on the plane, I got an E-mail which contained a third script, and they said, “But we’ll do it all in one day!” I did them all in one day! I did three shows in one day. And subsequently, of course, several months later, I did the final show. I came back for one show. And it was a great experience.

BE: I know that David Cross’s impression of you was not quite as good-natured as Will Ferrell’s…

JL: His was much less good-natured. I’d never seen it – I was only told – but do you want to hear a story about that?

BE: Sure!

JL: I was sitting in my trailer, and I had…the first scene was with Jeffrey Tambor and extras, but my second two scenes that I had to shoot that day – the second show and the third show – were with David Cross. And my agents from ICM came in, and they said they had…well, I had shot the scene with Tambor in the morning, and it had gone great. It was on location. Now, I’m waiting to go into the soundstage to shoot the second and third scenes, and my agents came in, and they said, “They are terrified out there!” I said, “Why?” They said, “They’re afraid you might blow up at David Cross!” I’d never seen (the impression). I’d heard it was awful, that he made fun of me. But I think what he did was that, when I won the ACE Award, I made a speech in which – like any other recipients before me – I had paid tribute to my wife, who’s a person very dear to me, and that was what he chose to make fun of. So I thought that was rather unkind. But, anyway, the agents said, “What shall we do?” I said, “Don’t do anything. Don’t say a word. You know I’m not going to do anything; I couldn’t care less. But don’t say anything. Let him worry.” And they left, and about half an hour later, there’s a timid knock at the door, and it’s David Cross. And he came in… (Begins to laugh) …and he said, “I just want you to know what an honor it is for us to have you here. We are so thrilled.” And I said, “Good.” And he was silent, waiting for me to say something. I said nothing. Anyway, we had this inane conversation, and he kept repeating how happy they were that I would do this thing, and, finally, he said, “Well, I’ll…I’ll see you on the set!” So he went out to the set, and when I arrived, nothing transpired, of course, except the scene. And it was great fun. He’s marvelous to work with. And he said, “My God! Not only can you act, but you’re funny! You’re really funny!” I said, “Good, I’m glad.” Then we were setting up for the final scene, and one of the stagehands…because we were just idling time…and one of the stagehands said, “I hear you got a new album.” He said, “Yeah, I do.” And I said, “Am I in it?” And there was this… (Laughs) …this terrible moment that really turned to ice on the set. He said, “No, no! That was only once! I only did that once!” We ended good friends.

BE: I was reading about how you spent some time as a soap opera writer…

JL: Yes, I did.

BE: …and one of the shows you worked on was “Capitol.”

JL: That is correct.

BE: Did you feel that the show got its due? It didn’t last as long as a lot of soap operas tend to.

JL: It should’ve lasted longer. The funny thing is that, when I was brought in by the executive producer, the fellow who owned the show, it was in the last months of the show, when he was worried about it. And he said, “Would you come in and, please, just take us somewhere? Get us going!” And, so, I became the head writer during the last two months of its career. And the funny thing is that when “Capitol” went off the air…you know that soap operas are shown in Europe in prime time, and some of them are among the most popular American exports. “Capitol” was one. And when the show went off the air, I had written… (Starts to laugh) Just perversely…because, out of respect for John, the executive producer, I wanted to make everybody suffer for it going off the air… I had the leading lady up against a wall in this exotic kingdom in North Africa – typical soap opera – and her lover was galloping toward this location to try and save her, and the firing squad was about to annihilate her, and the officer said, “Ready…aim…” And that was the end of the show! (Laughs) And this young fellow arrived with a crew from RAI, in Italy, where the show had been shown, and he said to me, “Now, what happens next?” I said, “I won’t tell you.” He said, “Turn off the camera.” I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “Mr. Lipton, you’re gonna cost me my job.” I said, “Why?” He said, “I was sent here by RAI. We haven’t shown this last episode yet. This interview is to precede the last episode, and this is to prevent rioting in the streets!” I wouldn’t tell him. He wept! He broke down in tears and said, “This will cost me my job!” And I knew…but I didn’t tell him. (Laughs)

BE: (Hesitates) You wouldn’t tell me, would you?

JL: (Scoffs) No, I won’t tell you! I won’t!

BE: (Laughs) And just to close, have you ever had a student ask a question of a guest that just made you wonder, “How did you even get into this school?”

JL: Well, the students ask questions of varying quality, just as I do, but, no, I’ve never had… (Hesitates) Look, we became the largest drama school in America, and we are currently auditioning for the fall…well, not auditioning. I say auditioning, but we’re not auditioning actors, of course. This is for students, for the fall at Pace University. We choose very carefully. The studio has always been very tough, you know, with its entrances. It’s not the same as the entrances into the school, but similar. It’s nearly impossible. Jack Nicholson had to audition five times, Dustin Hoffman six, and Harvey Keitel eleven. The studio is notoriously tough, so we choose very well, and the students who get in are smart enough, I think, to ask good questions of the guests. Besides, to them, it’s such an extraordinary experience. Remember, each guest is with me on the stage for between three and a half to five and a half hours…with me, and then they’re with the students in the classroom. Well, if you were a student at the university, and Paul Newman walked in, or Steven Spielberg walked in, or Barbara Streisand walked in, or Dave Chappelle walked in…you name it, any of the 216 guests I’ve had…wouldn’t you say that that’s a special treat? The students do. And they prepare, and they care…and they’re Masters Degree candidates. They’re not dewey-eyed fans, you know.

BE: Thank you very much.

JL: Thank you, sir.

  

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