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March 17, 2017

The Inside Man

The how-to of craft — never Hollywood scandal — is at the core of Inside the Actors Studio, where James Lipton has shuffled his index cards for 22 seasons.

Bruce Fretts
  • Anthony Behar/Bravo

Even at 90, the show must go on for James Lipton. The Emmy-winning host of Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio recently taped the show’s 22nd season, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

When you started the show, did you think it would run so long?

If you had put a gun to my head and said, “Either you predict that in 22 years you will still be hosting the second-longest running show in the history of cable TV, viewed in 125 countries around the world, or I pull the trigger,” I would’ve said, “Pull the trigger.”

Why has it been so successful?

It goes back to the first decision I made: that there would be no gossip. The astonishing thing to me was, by focusing on craft, we became one of the most intimate talk shows in the history of TV.

We’re zeroing in on the thing that means the most to our guests. I blundered into the heart and soul of my guests. The second decision I made was that we have no pre-interview. Neither the guest nor I know what’s going to happen. Maybe people tune in to see us fall, the way people watch NASCAR.

You’re famous for your index cards. What do you write on them?

My questions. Then below, in boldface, is what I expect will be the answer. The best moments are when they give me the wrong answer! Something I totally didn’t expect. Then we’re off and running. Actors will tell you on our stage that they pray for mistakes. Christopher Reeve described film as a “happy accident.”

You end each episode with the same questionnaire. Do guests ever prepare their answers?

They don’t prepare. They get it. They want it to be spontaneous.

Who’s the guest you’ve wanted the most and never gotten?

Marlon Brando. By the time I started Inside the Actors Studio, he was a recluse. He used to call me all the time. We’d talk on the phone. I’d say, “For God’s sake, Marlon, why are you wasting my time? Let’s do this on the air!”

When did you realize you were becoming a pop-culture icon?

The answer is two words, and the first one is Will, with a capital W, and the second is Ferrell. He did that to me — and for me — on Saturday Night Live, for which I am forever grateful.

How do you stay in such good humor about being spoofed?

It was funny! I mean, what could I do? I started laughing. You can fake drama, but you can’t fake comedy. Then, of course, it became so popular that I hoped he would never stop.

How have you affected the public’s perception of actors?

People think actors are vain. They are 180 degrees wrong. Most of the actors on my show, and most of the actors I know, began as very shy people. Acting for them was a refuge, because they could don somebody else’s persona — they could then be brave. These are quite admirable people who are taking risks every day of their working lives.

Will you ever retire?

I don’t know. I feel swell. I have never worked harder, with better effect. Where would I go where I could have this much fun and excitement in my life? That I could get up every day, eager to go to work? No, I’m not going anywhere. I hope the show’s not going anywhere. I hope that we can continue doing this for several more years. It would make me very happy.

This show has been the best. It’s been a lovely life. And I’m still on the upslope.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2017

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