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James Lipton Was Serious Enough to Take a Joke

The much-parodied interviewer showed us the value of putting in the work

Ages ago, when Blockbuster Video still existed and streaming content remained a tech nerd’s distant fantasy, getting cable was a huge deal — even if you didn’t subscribe to the premium channels. When my parents finally caved and bought the box, I was thrilled to surf between music videos on MTV and the weirder stuff on Nickelodeon, to catch 1980s movies on Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi channel’s Saturday morning showings of Mystery Science Theater 3000. One channel I didn’t understand (and which had yet to become fully synonymous with Real Housewives fare) was Bravo. Yet I always lingered on episodes of Inside the Actors Studio.

It was the show’s host, James Lipton — who passed today at the age of 93 — that was responsible for my interest. His quiet, tremulous voice created a rapt and reverent mood among his audience, and it seemed to hold his interviewees in a trance as well. At that point in my youth, I was getting heavily into theater and performance; this sacred televisual atmosphere informed me that acting went beyond memorizing lines and hitting cues. The biggest stars would sit in this minimalist studio, opposite an inquiring, bearded fellow I recognized from nowhere else, and divulge the nature of their emotion, how they harnessed it for the purposes of art. It’s the male guests I remember best, as the separation between their big-screen swagger and small-screen humility was strikingly pronounced. How could blockbuster heavies be actual, uncertain people?

Lipton’s style was memorably parodied. Most remember Will Ferrell skewering him as a pompous, simpering Francophile; in a sketch from HBO’s Mr. Show, David Cross took Lipton’s fawning even further, washing an actor’s feet and eventually shrinking himself to take a Fantastic Voyage-style journey into the man’s body.

But while the interviewer had great respect for his subjects, it was craft and ambition that truly took his interest — he approached Hollywood’s brightest in terms of where they currently stood, and where they wanted to go (and why). This, too, was instructive: You saw people who had “made it” searching themselves for the meaning of it all, wondering how they could still improve. Although there was applause for every iconic performance mentioned, these were far from puffball, promotional interviews; the actors discussed regrets, pain, struggle and mistakes. Lipton’s framing of a career allowed one to acknowledge life’s ongoingness, its vacillations, and the processes of creative effort.         

That Lipton hosted his probing series for 22 seasons tells you how durable this format was, right down to the ever-surprising Proust Questionnaire, a set of 10 queries that concluded each episode, the last being: “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?” Lipton was an atheist himself, so his dedication to that hypothetical was also a testament to his open intellect — one that was always curious rather than judgmental. A revelation mattered more than dogma. If he was easily satirized, it’s because he was so at ease within his idiosyncrasies, and absorbed by others’.

It was a style that finally ensured he could play nobody besides himself, in some fashion or other. The sitcom Arrested Development cast him as a prison warden with screenwriting dreams, the familiar L.A. archetype of a hanger-on leaning on every last connection to get his movie made (or at least a reading staged). You could see it as savage commentary on a guy who made his name by cozying up to famous people, but instead, with Lipton’s unfailing élan, Warden Gentles was a warm-hearted portrait of the eternal showbiz striver — someone with an artistic soul despite the reality of their 9-to-5.

By the time I was a few years out of college, my interest in acting had faded. The grind of auditions and a growing sense that I’d always be typecast as the asshole were equally dispiriting. Plus, it left me no time for the novel I wanted to finish. But my years spent on stage — which I could trace back to Lipton’s almost comical seriousness about the skill involved — impressed upon me that the life of an A-list actor isn’t mere luxury, far removed from the toil and tribulations of the underclass. It is still work, as sure as masculine-coded physical labor is work. It’s often punishing, and it tests your endurance, your personal limits.

Lipton was a great sport in serving as caricature just for making that case, and I believe it was commitment to his own role that allowed him to be in on the joke. He knew that the hushed gravitas of his public persona was the flip side of the playfulness that makes for compelling drama and comedy alike. In that light, laughter was the greatest compliment — it meant that he’d welcomed you into his world.