By John H. Foote
James Lipton, host of the long running program Inside the Actors Studio, which he created and hosted, has passed of bladder cancer. He was 93.
The kindest and most professional things I can say about James Lipton are that he loved the art and craft of acting with a passion very few men have ever had. I did not know him personally, I have never met him, but like most I am aware of him through his work hosting Inside the Actors Studio.
Created by Lipton to bring in actors and directors who did not possess the time to teach a course at the famed Studio in New York, over the years he interviewed more than three hundred of the biggest actors and directors in movies, beginning with Paul Newman. My struggle with Lipton was that his interviews always felt like puff pieces, he never dug deep, asked the tough questions, took a chance.
Lipton was the King of the Flattering Interview, avoiding the hard questions for soft, lob ball queries to actors and directors about their careers, life and work. Nothing controversial, nothing terribly demanding, but rather a love in for whoever happened to be on the show that day. Now this is not to suggest he was not a good interviewer, on rare occasions he most certainly was, but I always wished he had gone deeper. Probe into the psyche of the artists he was speaking with, offer us a chance to learn something about them we never knew before. Did anyone really care about what their favourite swear might be?
With Kevin Spacey, ask him straight up about the rumours that existed that he was a homosexual predator. Everyone knew, why not ask him?
With Steven Spielberg, ask him about the reason he did The Color Purple (1985), ask him if it was to win the Academy Award? It was. Ask him why he ruined one of the greatest novels in his meek transition to the screen, Disneyifing the film, cleaning up the tough bits. Ask him that.
With Robert Duvall, ask about the two sides of Marlon Brando, the fun actor he encountered on The Godfather (1972) or the distant man who would rarely speak to him on The Chase (1966)?
Now he might have been working from an artist approved script, which I hate, so it might not have been his fault at all, but with the level of power he had achieved with the program, with the near rabid following it had, he certainly could have called the shots. He lacked the edge Brian Linehan had in discovering little known facts about the subject and blind siding with them. I will never forget Shirley MacLaine looking at Linehan with such awe asking him “how did you find that out? No one knows this.” It just never happened with Lipton.
Lipton had a program in which he could have given a real look into these artists and explored who they were off screen. I think audiences would be amazed to discover, most of them are just common folks like you and I, very aware of who they are. But some are not, some are blinded by their success, some live for the praise Lipton showered upon them. Watch Kevin Spacey grin when asked about his impersonations and then going through all in a mini show, such a praise junkie.
His greatest accomplishment was bringing the Method Acting system to the world, giving them insight into what it was and how it is used. Not all the actors interviewed were method actors, but as Lipton believed, if they sought the truth in their role, then in some way they were a method actor.
By all accounts he was a good, decent man, cultured, genteel, talented, and a man who led a life of adventure. At various points in his life, and it was a very long life, he was an actor, a writer for radio and TV, a lyricist on Broadway, an actor on daytime TV, a pimp (I kid you not), fought in WWII, and finally, created this long running, Emmy Award winning program.
Rest in peace sir. And with some serious considerations, thank you.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.