James Lipton, the longtime host of the acclaimed interview series Inside the Actors Studio, died Monday, The New York Times reports. He was 93.
Lipton’s wife, Kedakai Mercedes Lipton, confirmed his death and said the cause was bladder cancer.
Lipton created and launched Inside the Actors Studio in 1994 and hosted the Bravo series for 24 years, finally stepping down in 2018 (it now airs on Ovation with rotating guest hosts). The show garnered acclaim and popularity as Lipton, with a pile of blue notecards, guided renowned actors and entertainers through in-depth interviews that delved into their lives and the intricacies of their craft. During Lipton’s tenure, Inside the Actors Studio racked up 21 Emmy nominations, finally winning the prize for Outstanding Informational Series or Special in 2013.
As an interviewer and host, Lipton was equally admired and lampooned. He was adept at peeling back the emotional layers of some of the most well-known performers, although critics often noted the way he excessively flattered his guests, and his imperious, all-knowing aura was ripe for parody. Will Ferrell famously spoofed Lipton for years on Saturday Night Live, but Lipton loved the impression, telling CNN in 2012, “We’re good friends, and I think he’s got me cold, the rat!”
Lipton was born in Detroit in 1926; his mother was a teacher and his father was the Beat poet, Lawrence Lipton, who left the family when his son was six. At first, Lipton wasn’t interested in pursuing the arts — in part because of his father — and initially studied to be a lawyer and spent some time in the Air Force. However, he earned his first acting job in the Forties on the radio drama, The Lone Ranger, and after his time in the Air Force, he continued to seek out work as an actor in order to make ends meet.
Lipton studied acting with distinguished teachers like Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, and Robert Lewis, but his career in that realm never really took off, with arguably his biggest role being a surgeon on the soap opera Guiding Light. Lipton ultimately found more success as a writer and, later, a producer of various television specials (including Jimmy Carter’s inauguration gala). For a time in the Fifties, Lipton even worked as a pimp in Paris, telling Parade in 2013, “There was no opprobrium because it was completely regulated. Every week they had to be inspected medically. The great bordellos were still flourishing in those days before the sheriff of Paris, a woman, closed them down. It was a different time.”
In the Nineties, Lipton pivoted to education and helped the Actors Studio — the acclaimed drama school best-known for teaching Method acting — stave off financial ruin by launching a graduate program with the New School (it later moved to Pace University). Lipton served as the chairman and later as the dean of the program, and it was there that he launched the craft seminar that would become Inside the Actors Studio.
Lipton and a researcher would spend weeks prepping for an interview, and the actual chat itself would often run three to four hours, before being edited for broadcast. At the end of each episode, Lipton would run through a series of 10 questions known as the “Proust Questionnaire,” which he borrowed from the French journalist and TV host Bernard Pivot.
Thanks to the success of Inside the Actors Studio, Lipton began making cameos on various TV shows. He guested twice on The Simpsons, lent his voice to Family Guy and even appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2009 — not because of Ferrell’s impression, but because one of his former Actors Studio students, Bradley Cooper, was hosting. Lipton even had a recurring role on Arrested Development, playing a theater and film-loving prison warden.
In a 2002 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Lipton distilled his approach to his life’s work incidentally, when asked why he didn’t tend to ask his interview subjects about their scandals and flops. “That’s career, and we don’t give a damn about career!” he said. “There is not one day our teachers talk about careers — we talk about acting, directing, and writing.… A life in the creative arts is not a profession, but a vocation, a calling.”