The Pompous Charm of James Lipton

Lipton's fame as the host 'Inside the Actor's Studio' overshadows everything he did before, and he has done a lot, including pimping for prostitutes in postwar Paris.

James Lipton arrives for the premiere of the film "Burnt" in New York October 20, 2015.
Reuters

Whenever I have to fill in a questionnaire – I use the French term advisedly; read on – and come to the slot which allows me to admit what my real profession is, I pause for a couple of minutes. Yes, I’m a journalist, of course, one of the three oldest professions in the world (along with spies and prostitutes). The last appears for a good reason – because it has some qualities with which journalists had better be endowed. But I’d rather write what I believe is the occupation I really excel in, in my modest view, and that is a “professional layman.”

Allow me to elaborate: My beat as a writer for the paper that sees fit to pay me, is that of a theater (in Hebrew and English) and TV (English) reviewer. It is composed mainly of being a viewer, for which the most important qualification is to be there and see the play or program, closely followed by an ability to report precisely, concisely and (preferably) wittily on the proceedings and put them in perspective. In that respect, I’m a professional viewer, with my main advantage over any other viewer being the fact that I’ve logged many more hours sitting on my backside facing front, in a dark room, mostly with others, exercising very often the difficult art of sleeping with my eyes open while sitting bolt upright.

Anyway, the TV program that takes into account all the abilities I’ve boasted of above, and the one I want to tell you about, is “Inside the Actors Studio,” conceived, created, written, produced and hosted by James Lipton, 89, who has been involved with it – he actually was and still is its pivot – for the last 21 years, and still going strong.

Lipton is an actor, dancer, choreographer, writer, teacher of acting, and in questionnaires he often adds that he is also a pilot, a fencer and an equestrian. After his discharge from the U.S. Army he studied law (briefly) before turning to acting, having studied with Stella Adler and Harold Clurman. In the 1990s he managed to combine the reputation of the Actors Studio (the Stanislavski’s system, abridged, improved and mumbled) with the academic curriculum of Pace University in New York City. As dean of the Actors Studio he came up with the brilliant idea of having a non-credit course in the form of a master class with a working, preferably very successful and famous member of the acting trade, televised in an auditorium-cum-TV studio, with an audience of young theater hopefuls to provide a live crowd and eager sometime interlocutors (I’m so-and-so, second year acting student and would like to ask).

Since then, Lipton retired as dean (he is an emeritus), and his fame as the host of this TV talk-show about theater – because that is what it is – overshadowed everything he did before, and he has done a lot, including pimping for prostitutes in postwar Paris (“there was no opprobrium because it was completely regulated () It was a different time () a whole bordello. I represented them all () I did a roaring business, and I was able to live for a year. The French mecs didn’t exploit women. They represented them, like agents. And they took a cut. That’s how I lived.”)

In May 2013 the show celebrated its 250th episode (it started with about 12 episodes a season, had seasons of more than 20 episodes and now is down to about five per year), and it can boast of an illustrious roster of guests over the years. They come and deliver willingly, gracefully and mostly also humbly and honestly. And why shouldn’t they? The critic A.A. Gill summed up its simple charm in The Sunday Times: “The format is simple and idiotically inspired () The cleverness is in the vanity it allows the guests, who are the very greatest and most self-regarding performers and creators of theater and film. People who are too grand to talk to anyone will talk to Inside the Actors Studio. They believe they’re giving something back, offering precious pearls of insight to a new generation. And who doesn’t look good passing it on to adoring students?”

The oddest thing about the program and its charm is the personality of the host, who – at first, second and umpteenth view – is as unhospitable as a host can be. Unlike Bernard Pivot, the French TV host of “Apostrophes,” who chats with his guests, willing to elaborate on a point or belabor a theme, Lipton rarely follows up on a point, his eyes mostly on his cue-cards, reading well phrased questions intended to have the guest review his or her own career, peppering the plot of their careers with masterly delivered anecdotes about the “behind the scenes” of show-business. Lipton makes a point of being on the verge of pompous, and in time one gets used to him, and watches him with resignation, marking the points where he misses a lead, but being grateful that his stature in the thespian world of Broadway and Hollywood gets all those performers to share with us their little secrets.

Some of their words of advice are priceless. For instance, George Clooney, who was a guest in 2012, was asked about auditions, and came up with a perfect “reframing” of the issue for aspiring actors: “You start the audition without having the part you are auditioning for; chances are that by the end of it the part will not be yours. So, what have you got to lose?” – which is, of course, easier said (by him, in his position) than done (by them).

George Clooney talks about being yourself on "Inside the Actors Studio."

In Israel one can follow this on HOT Channel 8 at various times during the week, with mini-binges on Fridays and Saturdays, rerunning mainly the last two seasons, where episodes sometimes closely follow what was going on currently on TV or on Broadway. Thus Lipton chats – in Israel (in the U.S. the 21st season is on the Bravo channel) – with Sting, who wrote the musical “The Last Ship,” which sank on Broadway in mid-2015, and sang a few songs in the studio. He talks to Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory,” who performed briefly on Broadway in 2015 in the play “An Act of God” by David Javerbaum. Parsons played God, who says, among many other things, that celebrities are his “chosen people.” Yes, I know the Jews are the chosen people, but there are some overlaps. The program included footage from the performance.

The piece de resistance of the James Lipton show is the “questionnaire,” a sort-of-end-of-program quick quiz for guests that Pivot (Lipton pronounces his name with veneration) devised, based on Marcel Proust – yes, our brow is that high. The guest is asked about his most and least favorite word, profession, and sound, a favorite curse (the f-word in various combinations, represented by a “bip” sound, instead of saying aptly “pardon my French”), and the coup de grace “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?”

When I heard the question for the first time, I of course answered it for myself, and came up with an answer I thought was both original (pardon my vanity) and funny: “Ah, it’s you, again” You can imagine my joy and mirth when I heard Barbra Streisand (in March 2004) coming up with the same answer.

Lipton’s own answer – remember, he is 89 and insists he is not retiring – was: “‘You see, Jim, you were wrong. I exist. But you may come in anyway.’”