MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, singer Pink on her new album and picking up the pieces after divorce. Her first NPR interview is with us, and it's in just a few minutes.
But first, he is probably one of the most famous people connected with the world of theater and film about whom you know almost nothing. He loves intricate words and piloting airplanes. He's the man with the hundreds of blue index cards who has probably interviewed more actors than any journalist in the world. He's even played himself in a Geico commercial.
(Soundbite of TV commercial)
Mr. JAMES LIPTON (Founder and Dean Emeritus, Actors Studio Drama School, Pace University; Creator, Executive Producer and Host, "Inside the Actors Studio"): Human beings behaving humanely. Brilliant.
MARTIN: James Lipton is the founder and dean emeritus of the Actors Studio Drama School of Pace University. He's also the creator, executive producer and host of "Inside the Actors Studio," the interview program now in its 15th year. The program is seen all over the world. It's received more than a dozen Emmy nominations, and it's just marked its 200th episode. Now, Lipton is taking fans inside Inside with a new book by that same title, and he joins us now from our New York bureau. Mr. Lipton, welcome.
Mr. LIPTON: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Can we talk a little bit about you? Although it seems that it should be obvious from your intense interest in the craft of acting, I am not so sure people know that among your many talents you're an actor yourself. So I'd like to borrow a question from you, and you knew that I would. How did it start for you? How did you decide to do what it is that you do?
Mr. LIPTON: Originally, that was not my intention. My father was a poet, a famous Beatnik poet, my mother a teacher. The expectation was I would be a writer like my father. However, because he led such an eccentric life and because we had such a tough life after he left, I decided that wasn't the path for me. So I was going to be a lawyer, and it was the furthest thing from the arts.
And then, when I came to New York from Detroit to finish my education in the law, I had to work. By far, the best way of supporting myself when I was in school was by acting. I met Stella Adler and asked to be her student. She accepted me. And that was the end of the law forever once I had realized that I had been kidding myself all my life and that I really wanted, for better or for worse, a life in the arts.
MARTIN: You had, I think, a stint on the "Guiding Light." Those jobs don't seem very - they seem grueling, in fact. Was it that way - it seems almost, forgive me if this is incorrect, but it just seems as though you're just grinding it out and grinding it out. It seems more like an exercise in stamina.
Mr. LIPTON: It is, in a way. But more important, remember, I had chosen to live in New York. I wanted to study with Stella Adler, which I did for two and a half years, with Harold Clurman for four, with Robert Lewis for two more years. I was studying ballet. I was studying modern dance. I was studying voice. So the daytime soaps were then and are now means by which actors who want to live in New York and work at night in the theater and study in New York are able to remain here.
MARTIN: You mentioned two of just the most famous names in the - the kind of the world of the acting coach-teacher, Stella Adler and Harold Clurman. To those of us on the outside, this seems all very mysterious, almost kind of like - forgive me, a religious cult, in a way. It just seems like the level of intensity and commitment that it seems to demand on the one hand. Is there a conflict between kind of that level of devotion to craft and then what it is you do? Because you're also a very famous producer, for those who don't know or for those who are obviously sort of outside of that world. I mean, produced Bob Hope, and it's just productions that a lot of people would have seen but not necessarily know that you're - that you were connected to them. So is there ever a tension there between what you have to do to live and then that love of artistry and mastery of craft?
Mr. LIPTON: There shouldn't be. Look, there's something cultish about studying and acting. For example, if you walked into a doctor's office to have a serious procedure and there were no diplomas on his wall, would you worry?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LIPTON: Yes, of course. So I consider the study of the craft of acting a very - a very important business, essential, really, to being able to do it.
MARTIN: Would you talk a little bit about how that all started? That's a very interesting story that you tell in the book. But could you just give us the - as brief a version as you can.
Mr. LIPTON: I became very involved very quickly in the Actors Studio, loved the institution, loved its history, loved the people that I met. And that was a time when all the cultural institutions in America were beginning to face rather grim financial barriers. The Actors Studio was no different. The Actors Studio was not a school. There was no tuition, no graduation, no formality to it. It was a gymnasium, a workshop where the best actors in America came and honed their craft between jobs and then went back to another job.
I said to them, why don't we combine our talents and our energies and create for the first time in - then 47 years - a degree-granting program? And we opened our doors in 1994. I was subsequently dean for 10 years. But as we began, I decided that I would have, once every couple of weeks on a Monday night, a seminar where we would invite our most distinguished members of the studio, colleagues, friends with whom we had worked to come and talk with me so students could look ahead and see what might lie in wait for them once they received their Master's degrees. That was the birth of "Inside the Actors Studio."
MARTIN: How did the idea of filming it start? Because one of the things that is, I think, so appealing to people about it is it feels like an intimate, off-the-record, if you will, conversation with a room full of people. And in fact, of course, thousands, of course, watch, you know, millions watching at home.
Mr. LIPTON: Look, if you had put a gun to my head and said to me in 1994, OK, you can have a television program provided you promise that ultimately it will be in 89 million homes, in 125 countries around the world, and we'll receive 14 Emmy nominations in its first 14 years, promise that or I'll pull the trigger, I would have said, pull the trigger. I'm a dead man.
And it has turned out to be, I think, one of the great adventures in my life, which is why I wrote "Inside Inside." It's - a good deal of it is the story of the creation of both the school and this television program.
MARTIN: And your first guest was?
Mr. LIPTON: Paul Newman. What happened was that I wrote a letter to my colleagues and friends, people I worked with over the years, some of them in the Actors Studio, some not, and I got all these answers - Paul Newman, Sally Field, Dennis Hopper. That was when I sent a message back into the professional world from which I had come and said, look, these people are liable to say something worth preserving. The only way we can do that is with cameras. Anybody interested? And that's when the Bravo network stepped up.
MARTIN: How do you get that intimate feel? Because a lot of the people you are talking to are people who have their story down by it - by now. Do you know I'm saying? They're people who've been interviewed a lot.
Mr. LIPTON: Yes.
MARTIN: And oftentimes by - people who have been interviewed a lot, they've got their narrative.
Mr. LIPTON: Guess what? This is the only television program of its kind that has no pre-interview. But the result of that is that there is no way that the guest on "Inside the Actors Studio" knows what's coming next.
(Soundbite of TV show "Inside the Actors Studio")
Mr. LIPTON: When he stands up in the AA meeting, he says to them...
Mr. JACK LEMMON (Actor): And my name is - and I'm an alcoholic.
Mr. LIPTON: It is as simple as that.
Mr. LEMMON: Which I am, incidentally.
Mr. LIPTON: Who?
Mr. LEMMON: Me.
Mr. LIPTON: Are you talking as Clay now or as Jack Lemmon?
Mr. LEMMON: No, as Jack Lemmon. I'm an alcoholic.
MARTIN: Do - how do you prepare? Do you call friends and say, give me a nugget?
Mr. LIPTON: No, nowadays there's information that's available on the Internet and in libraries and periodicals and so forth. And it's then emailed me, and I put it into my computer. Now I have all of this information, and I assemble it into the blue cards, which are meant to tell a story and narrative from A to Z. And they're - they're the guests, and they're with me from three and a half to five and a half hours.
MARTIN: Three and a half to five and a half hours?
MR. LIPTON: Very seldom three and a half, more often four and a half, five and a half hours. Dustin Hoffman holds the record. Barbra Streisand came in second.
MARTIN: Does anyone turn you down?
Mr. LIPTON: Brando did. Brando, he used to call me up. I'm never going to do your show. Why are you calling me?
MARTIN: Do you think he was afraid to visit with the...
Mr. LIPTON: No, he was by then - he was by then so eccentric. And he had come to hate acting, which is the tragedy of his life.
MARTIN: If you are just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with James Lipton, creator, executive director and host of "Inside the Actors Studio." He's also the author of a new book, "Inside Inside," and he's celebrating his 200th episode.
And I understand that to celebrate the 200th episode, you took the chair on the other side of the table. Yes?
Mr. LIPTON: Yep. I decided it was time for me to go sit there in the other chair and to demand of myself the same candor I've asked of my guests. It's not easy. And we debated about possible hosts, and finally it came down to most logical person in the world, and that's Dave Chappell.
MARTIN: OK, now, explain that to me. How is he the most logical person? I was thinking Meryl Streep or Dustin Hoffman, who you - has the record for longest interview. Tell me. Dave Chappell.
Mr. LIPTON: I think because Chappell came the first time, and he was with me for five and a half hours, and we edited it to a two-hour special because he was so incredibly smart, so funny, so sensitive. He was a revelation. He had just returned from Africa after walking out on $15 million at Comedy Central, and the world wanted to know where he'd been and why he'd left that money behind on the table, and he revealed it on my show. He was amazingly frank.
And the result of it was that we became very good friends. He would call me when he was on stage in nightclubs around the country, comedy clubs. And then he would put it on speaker, and we would do 15 minutes together on his stage. We've become very, very close friends and it - I felt that I would be very comfortable with him as the host. He accepted the gig, and he comported himself brilliantly. I knew he would. And I was - after that I was embarrassed to go back into the chair because I thought he was so much better than I was.
(Soundbite of TV show "Inside the Actors Studio")
Mr. DAVE CHAPPELL: (As host) It's your first time in that chair, man. What's it feel like? Honestly. When you look back at it all and now you're sitting in that chair, some black dude in a Malcolm X T-shirt in your chair.
(Soundbite of audience laughter)
Mr. LIPTON: This is the only the place in the world where it could have happened. And I can tell you now that when we decided we wanted to do this for the 200th episode, the question arose, well, who would the host be? In the end, I had something beyond a wish. It was a prayer. My prayer tonight has been answered, and I thank you very, very much.
(Soundbite of audience applause)
MARTIN: How did it feel to be on the other side of the blue cards, as it were?
Mr. LIPTON: Well, I mean, I'm being interviewed at this moment. I don't feel uncomfortable. I don't think I'm as good at it as most of my guests, but I do my best. It was strange, though, in that circumstance, and of course, the students had a ball.
MARTIN: What it's like for you now to be on the one hand so well-known - as I mentioned, a Geico commercial I think a lot of people will have seen, Will Ferrell's imitation of you on "Saturday Night Live" - so what's it like on one hand to be so well-known on the one hand, but not really well-known on the other? I think that reading this book will be a revelation for many people and hearing the interview will be a revelation, but I don't think a lot of people know the extent of your career.
Mr. LIPTON: That's why I wrote the book. You know, talk-show host, what do you know about Letterman personally? Jay Leno, personally?
MARTIN: Cars. He likes cars.
Mr. LIPTON: But Charlie Rose, I mean, the people who do this, they're - as I am, they're all in the shadows. You don't want to try to overshadow your guests. You sit there. You ask the questions. You don't talk about yourself very much. And most talk-show hosts are really shadowy figures. That included me. But after 14 - I've been pressed to do this so many times, and finally, I decided that for our 200th episode I would do it.
MARTIN: I know it's hard to put into few words, but do you have some wisdom to share, perhaps, with students who are just beginning their careers?
Mr. LIPTON: Study, study, study. There is nothing else. It is a difficult craft. In order to achieve something that looks just like everybody else in world, in front of a camera or on the stage, you have to go through a period of self-consciousnesses and eliminate it. One of our difficulties today is that with the accent on youth, both in the audience and on the screen, large and small, we don't have the kind of developmental time and process that used to give us year after year after year of great, great actors like De Niro, like Pacino, like (unintelligible), et cetera.
MARTIN: What about now for you, now that you have, in essence, come out from behind the blue cards, you filled in the blanks for us in ways that perhaps you didn't anticipate. What's it been like for you?
Mr. LIPTON: Well, you know, one of the reasons that I wrote the book is I said, OK, it's time. I am going to do it. One of the reasons that I did the 200th episode in the guest chair can be summed up in two words - Will Ferrell. Will turned me into this creature, this very public creature. And then in recent years, I've gone on the Conan O'Brien show, I guess, now, 30 or 40 times doing bits with Conan. That led to appearance on "Arrested Development." The Geico commercial was part of it, and the result of that is that it's true, I walk in the street, people stop me every few feet. They stop. Cars stop. It's worse, by the way, in other countries, in France, where the show is hugely popular. I'm told in Japan - I haven't tested it - but in France, I can't move in public. And people are stopping their cars and yelling at me, you know, what's your favorite curse word?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Oh, dear. Well, what is your favorite curse word?
Mr. LIPTON: Well, we're NPR so I guess we're OK, huh? It's not very - by the way, it's not very shocking because it is not scatological. It's not obscene. It's profane, which is bad enough and offends some people, and I always apologize before I say it, but when I am really upset, really, really upset, what comes out of my mouth is Jesus Christ.
MARTIN: Well, I think you might be forgiven for that one.
Mr. LIPTON: Not by heaven.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Well, we'll find out, won't we? What is next for you?
Mr. LIPTON: A lot more shows. We're deep into our 15th year. I've got Josh Brolin coming up. I've got Conan O'Brien coming up. I've got Daniel Radcliffe coming up on the air. This is one of the most exciting seasons we ever had. It's an accelerated moment in my life, and I must say, I am enjoying it immensely.
MARTIN: James Lipton is the creator, executive director and host of "Inside The Actors Studio," which marked its 200th episode recently. He is also the author of "Inside Inside," and he was kind enough to join us from our studio in New York. Mr. Lipton, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. LIPTON: Thank you very much, Michel.
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