James Lipton – TV host, teacher, actor, producer, lyricist
Born September 19, 1926; died March 2, 2020
James Lipton, who has died aged 93, will forever be remembered as the host of Inside the Actors Studio, the no-frills TV talk show in which he interviewed high-profile performers, writers and directors at length about their craft. From modest beginnings in 1994, the show ran for twenty-three seasons, with Lipton’s subjects including the likes of Paul Newman, Sally Field, Dennis Hopper and Sidney Lumet opening up to his forensically researched line of questioning.
Inside the Actors Studio gave Lipton his highest profile in a career that took in acting in The Lone Ranger on radio and playing the ‘surgeon with the golden hands’ in TV hospital soap, Guiding Light. He wrote the book for short-lived musical, Sherry! (1967), and produced American President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural address to the nation – the first to be televised - as well as several Bob Hope birthday specials.
Lipton was arguably also the man who saved the New York based Actors Studio itself from going under when he stepped in to found a masters of fine art programme to help fund its work. Inside the Actors Studio began as a masterclass, in which students would ask established performers, writers and directors questions during lengthy interviews led by Lipton. The edited recordings ended up being broadcast to eighty-nine million viewers in 125 countries, and won numerous awards.
Louis James Lipton was born in Detroit, Michigan, the only child to Betty (née Weinberg), a teacher and librarian, and Beat poet Lawrence Lipton, who wrote The Holy Barbarians, a chronicle of the Beat Generation. Lipton’s parents divorced when he was six, with his father abandoning the family.
Lipton’s mother instilled in him the importance of books, and he read and wrote from a precociously young age. Aged thirteen, he began working as a copy boy on the Detroit Times, and acted in theatre and on radio while still at high school. His first professional acting job came in the 1940s, when he played the voice of The Lone Ranger’s nephew, Dan Reid, although he initially steered away from a career in the arts, which had been tarnished by his errant father.
Lipton began studying to be a lawyer at what is now Wayne State University in Detroit before a spell in the air force. A move to Columbia University in New York saw him return to acting to earn a living. Lipton trained with Stella Adler and others, becoming a jobbing actor in the likes of Guiding Light. He also wrote for the show, as well as for other soaps. A non-fiction book, An Exaltation of Larks (1968), charted the origins of phrases such as ‘a pride of lions.’ A novel, Mirrors, was published in 1981, and a screenplay for TV film Copacabana in 1985.
Lipton’s interviewing style on Inside The Actors Studio left him open to lampoon. Will Ferrell satirised him on Saturday Night Live, while Lipton voiced his own animated caricature in an episode of The Simpsons that had him murdered. Latterly, he appeared in episodes of Arrested Development, Friends spin-off, Joey and Family Guy. A memoir, Inside Inside, was published in 2007. Lipton’s legacy, however, remains the unique archive of actors talking intimately and openly about their work that Inside The Actors Studio created as it eschewed tittle-tattle and trivia for something more substantial instead.
Lipton is survived by his third wife, Kedakai Mercedes Lipton, who he married in 1970.
The Herald, March 29th 2020