James Lipton was an actor, academic, author, choreographer, interviewer, scriptwriter, and producer for stage and television projects. He was known for creating and hosting the noted and popular TV series Inside the Actors Studio (1994), where successful and prominent actors discussed their craft for the benefit of acting students.
James Lipton was born Louis James Lipton in Detroit, Michigan, to Betty (Weinberg), a teacher and librarian, and Lawrence Lipton (originally Israel Lipschitz), a writer and beatnik poet. His father was a Polish Jewish emigrant, from Lodz, and his maternal grandparents were Russian Jews. Lipton’s parents divorced when he was quite young. As a reaction against his beatnik father’s anarchic and chaotic lifestyle, Lipton at first chose to pursue a stable and staid career as a lawyer. He originally took up acting as a sideline to finance his law studies but eventually he shifted the focus of his career to acting.
Lipton moved to New York City and undertook twelve years of intensive studies in the performing arts. He studied acting and directing under Stella Adler, widely regarded as the most respected acting teacher in the history of American dramatic arts. Adler’s other students at various times have included Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. Lipton also studied with Harold Clurman and Robert Lewis. He studied movie/TV production and directing at New York University and at The New School. He also studied voice, modern dance, classical ballet, and jazz technique.
Lipton performed in the play “The Autumn Garden” on Broadway in 1951. He became active in several TV soap operas, joining the cast of Guiding Light (1952) where he acted and wrote scripts for several years and later became head writer, all while undertaking his formal acting studies. He was a scriptwriter for The Edge of Night (1956) and he became head writer for Another World (1964), The Best of Everything (1970), Return to Peyton Place (1972) and Capitol (1982).
Lipton wrote the book and the lyrics for the Broadway flop “Nowhere to Go But Up” (1962), and he did the same for “Sherry!” which was produced on stage in 1967 and released as an audio CD in 2004. Also for Broadway, he produced “The Mighty Gents” (1978), “Monteith & Rand” (1979) and co-produced the Tony award-winning “Ain’t Misbehavin'” (1978). He choreographed “Charlot” for ballet theater, and for Moliere’s play “The Doctor In Spite of Himself” he translated from the original French, adapted it as a musical version, wrote the lyrics, directed and choreographed.
A lover of words, Lipton has made a study of group terms, sometimes called nouns of multitude (examples: a gaggle of geese, a host of angels, etc.). He has published the definitive work on the subject in a best-selling book titled “An Exaltation of Larks”. It has been in print continuously since its first edition in 1968. The latest edition, now expanded, contains over 1,100 such phrases. In the book Lipton himself jumps into the lexical fray by offering many new terms of his own invention, including: a score of bachelors, an unction of undertakers, a shrivel of critics, and a queue of actors. Other writings of his have appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine and The Paris Review.
In 1983 Lipton published his novel “Mirrors” which is about the lives of dancers. He later wrote and produced it as a TV movie. In television, Lipton has produced some two dozen specials including: twelve Bob Hope Birthday Specials; “The Road to China”, an NBC entertainment special produced in China; and the first time ever televised presidential inaugural gala, for Jimmy Carter.
In the mid-1990s Lipton sought to create a three year educational program for actors that would be a distillation of what he had learned in the twelve years of his own intensive studies. In 1994 he arranged for the Actors Studio — the home base of “method acting” in the USA for some sixty years now — to join with New York City’s New School University, to form the Actors Studio Drama School, a formal degree-granting program at the graduate level.
At the same time, Lipton created a sub-project within the drama school: a non-credit class called Inside the Actors Studio (1994) where successful and accomplished actors, directors and writers would be interviewed and would answer questions from acting students. These sessions were also taped and broadcast on television for the general public to see. Lipton himself hosts the show and conducts the main interview.
The TV show Inside the Actors Studio (1994) has become a substantial success. In the more than 12 years that it has been on the air, the craft of acting has been discussed by the show’s over 200 guests who have included Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Kate Winslet, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Charlize Theron, Robin Williams, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Samuel L. Jackson, Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Al Pacino, Cate Blanchett, Martin Scorsese and Dustin Hoffman. The show is viewed in 80 million homes in the USA on the Bravo cable channel and is seen in 125 countries. It has been nominated for 12 Emmy awards. The Actors Studio Drama School performed very well also. During Lipton’s term as dean, the school became the largest graduate-level drama school in the United States.
Important changes began in 2004 for both the TV show and the drama school. The New School underwent a major reorganization and seriously cut back its support for drama education. The Actors Studio’s collaboration with the New School came to an end and a new drama school as well as a new venue for the TV show were both set up at Pace University, also in New York City.
Lipton’s TV show made him so famous that he was frequently parodied on Saturday Night Live (1975) by comic Will Ferrell. Lipton continued to host and produce Inside the Actors Studio (1994), and served as a vice president of the Actors Studio. He held the lifelong title of Dean Emeritus of the Actors Studio Drama Program. In 2007, he wrote a book about the TV show and his life, which was titled “Inside Inside.”
The last episode of Inside he hosted aired on January 11, 2018, with Ted Danson as guest. The show began rotating hosts in its 2019 season. James Lipton died on March 2, 2020, in Manhattan. He was survived by wife Kedaki Turner.