Inside James Lipton's Lighter Moments
James Lipton, Inside the Actors Studio
is a man of many talents — not to mention many words. Over the past five decades, the octogenarian intellectual has worked as an actor (he appeared on Guiding Light
for a decade), an author (in addition to writing for numerous soaps, he also penned two musicals and a number of books) and an instructor (as dean of the Actors Studio Drama School). Yet despite his diverse accomplishments, he didn't become a household name until he began hosting Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio
13 years ago. Not only has Lipton managed to attract showbiz's biggest and brightest names to his stage (everyone from Sondheim
to the cast of The Simpsons
he became a pop-culture icon when Will Ferrell
parodied his signature, at times stilted, interview style on Saturday Night Live
. And although we spoke very seriously about his upcoming projects — his next two interviews, Julia Louis Dreyfus
on June 4 and Kyra Sedgwick
on June 11, both at 8 pm/ET, and the Lifetime Achievement Award that the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will present to him on June 14 — he isn't afraid to laugh at himself, when appropriate.
TVGuide.com: Talking to you is intimidating. I read that you take two weeks to prepare for your interviews. I think I had about 20 minutes. Have you ever been interviewed as vigorously and as thoroughly as you interview your guests?
James Lipton: No. Remember that my guests are with me for four or five hours. I've never been asked to be interviewed for that long. Because there is no pre-interview, I must take the time to prepare.
TVGuide.com: How do you choose your guests?
Lipton: I do it in the loneliness of my study late at night. The choices are all mine. From the beginning, I have always thought of this as a class for the Actors Studio Drama School, a three-year MFA program for actors, writers and directors at Pace University. My only criterion for inviting a guest is whether the person has something to teach these students. We're not looking for people who are out there publicizing their appearance next Friday night in Las Vegas. Nor are they coming to us for that reason. It's a different dynamic than they're accustomed to. They're taking a big chance. They're going out on that high wire with me, and so far nobody's ever let me down.
TVGuide.com: You attract a diverse array of guests, both highbrow and lowbrow.
Lipton: It's not a question of that. Remember that the students' average age is about 25 or 26. They love it when people from their own generation come on. The purpose of the show is for them to look ahead as if through a telescope, to see what lies ahead for them. They meet these artists and discover what lies ahead for them: the triumphs, the tribulations, the trials, the disappointments and the glories.
TVGuide.com: Is there anyone you've desperately wanted on the show who you couldn't get?
Lipton: Brando never agreed to come on.
TVGuide.com: But he did do Larry King.
Lipton: Yes, but I don't think that was a very satisfying experience, not for him, or Larry, or the audience. He was being silly. A silly Brando is not the one I would have liked to have interviewed. We talked about it on the phone. The phone would ring, it would be Marlon and he'd say, "I'm never going to do your show." Then we would end up talking for 45 minutes.
TVGuide.com: You've accomplished so much in your life. Is there anything you didn't get to?
Lipton: My ambition as an equestrian was to ride in the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden. I never made it. But I got up there, I got close. I did ride once for the United States equestrian team, and that was a big thrill. You have to be awfully good to do that. I was good, I was good!
TVGuide.com: You're very cute when you're proud of yourself.
Lipton: I know the things I don't do well. I'm very bad at math. I can't tell you what 7 times 6 is if you put a gun to my head.
TVGuide.com: Because of your unique style, many comedians have imitated you. What did you think of Will Ferrell's impression?
Lipton: Will Ferrell is my hero. Will makes me laugh. I think he is hilarious, and he had me cold. And we've become great friends. Ultimately he asked me to be in his movie Bewitched. I played a crucial scene in which I interviewed his character. I have been imitated so many times by so many people. Some of them get it wrong.
TVGuide.com: Was David Cross one of the comedians who got it wrong? I know he parodied you on Mr. Show and also goofed on you in a stand-up act. Then you ended up working with him on Arrested Development.
Lipton: [David Cross' impression] was much less good-natured than Will's. I've never seen it, I was only told about it. You want to hear a story about working with him on [Arrested Development]? I was sitting in my trailer and my agents from ICM came in and said, "Everyone's terrified out there. They're afraid you might blow up at David Cross." And I said," You know I'm not going to do anything, but don't say a word. Let them worry." About half an hour later there was a timid knock at the door and it was David Cross. He came in and he said, "I just want you to know what an honor it is for us to have you here. We are so thrilled." I said, "Good" and then he was silent, waiting for me to say something. I said nothing. Anyway, we had this inane conversation in which he kept repeating how happy they were that I would do this thing and finally he said, "Well, I'll see you on the set." Of course, nothing nasty transpired and he was marvelous to work with. When we were setting up for the final scene, one of the stagehands said [to Cross], "I hear you've got a new album." He said, "Yes" and I said, "Am I in it?" There was this terrible moment when everything turned to ice on the set. And he said, "No! No! That was only once." We ended up good friends.
TVGuide.com: You were also a guest on Da Ali G Show. How did you feel about that?
Lipton: After reading the extensive waiver, I knew something was afoot. But I was fascinated by it and decided to go ahead with it. I was so thrilled with what he was doing that I went along with it all the way. Even when the cameras stopped rolling I didn't try to make him come out of character. The only thing I did say was, "Look, you guys will be in the edit room and there are two things I would like you to promise me. Ali G's homophobia and his misogyny are repellent to me. And during the show we had debated it very vigorously and it was very amusing. If you make it look like I went along with it then I'll test that no lawsuit clause of yours." They kept my side of the debate so I was content. Each of us was nominated for an Emmy that year and when I saw him at the dinner after the ceremony, we greeted each other like old comrades in arms.
TVGuide.com: Have you ever thought of inviting Sacha Baron Cohen on your show?
Lipton: I'd have him on in a heartbeat. I suggested it; I sent a letter to his people and I said, "Look, why doesn't he come on and I'll interview each one of his characters in succession and then finally I'll interview Sacha?" But he won't do that. He never comes out of character. That's his thing, and he's brilliant.
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