James Lipton, best known for creating and hosting "Inside the Actors Studio," died Monday at 93 years old, yet his influential show will remain a cultural touchstone for creatives studying the craft of acting for years to come, according to experts and a wave of tributes from performers.
"I am not sure that there had been a program prior to 'Inside the Actors Studio' that gave such sustained, deep attention to the labor of screen performance," Henry Svec, an assistant professor in the department of communication arts at University of Waterloo, told NBC News. "Celebrity culture is so often about the private deeds or misdeeds of the people behind the images, but on 'Inside the Actor's Studio,' especially those first few seasons, there was a foregrounding of the craft of film acting that felt fresh and interesting."
For many artists, it was Lipton's ability to delve deeper into actors' work that most appealed to them about the show, which he hosted for 22 seasons. The show, they say, presented an invaluable resource with its insight into the technical aspects of performance.
"I discovered Inside the Actors Studio when I was 12 and it changed my life. James Lipton helped me understand and fall in love with the craft of acting in ways I can’t express," actor Rishi Mutalik tweeted. "He gave actors an incalculable gift through his series."
Lipton initially studied to become a lawyer in New York, but turned to acting to finance his education. Among his various credits was a role as Dr. Dick Grant on the soap opera "Guiding Light." He also wrote for various shows, and more recently, appeared as himself on an episode of "Glee."
In 1994, Lipton established the Actors Studio Drama School, a graduate program affiliated with The New School in New York City. Within the program, Lipton began a non-credit class called "Inside the Actors Studio," during which he would interview industry professionals about their work. The sessions were taped and became the basis of the widely popular show.
"The show managed both to elevate the discourse of film acting, but also to kind of level it out in a fun, provocative way," Svec said. "'Taxi Driver' and 'Stop or My Mom Will Shoot!' could be treated with equal reverence and curiosity."
Lipton was known for his unique line of questioning, interrogating actors in a way that would reveal the crux of the person behind the acclaimed actor. His famous questionnaire, borrowed from French journalist Bernard Pivot, included, "What is your favorite word?," "What turns you on/off?," "What sound or noise do you love/hate?" and "What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?"
His interview style was so unique and embedded in popular culture that Will Ferrell famously parodied it on "Saturday Night Live." In a 2012 interview with CNN, Lipton said he and Ferrell were friends and of the impersonation he said, "I think he's got me cold, the rat."
While many "Inside the Actors Studio" episodes followed a familiar arc, fans noted that some of the most memorable of the episodes were those that deviated from the formula.
"I always particularly enjoyed episodes where some of the patterns of the show were disrupted," Svec said, citing the 2011 Robin Williams episode, where Williams' improvisation is "antithetical" to Lipton's method acting ethos, which involved connecting actors' roles to the real-life events that happened to them.
Another episode that fans noted as one of their favorites in tributes included the 2006 episode with Dave Chappelle, which was filmed shortly after the comic left "The Chappelle Show." A few years later, Chappelle reappeared on the show, but this time the roles of interviewer and interviewee were reversed as he questioned Lipton.
Others cited episodes with Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Billy Joel and the cast of "The Simpsons" as some of their most beloved episodes. Lipton himself said that his 2011 interview with Bradley Cooper was one of his favorite interviews to conduct. Lipton was dean of the Actors Studio when Cooper auditioned for admission and Lipton had personally accepted him into the program. The pair got emotional when they reunited years later for the "Inside the Actors Studio" episode.
“The night that one of my students has achieved so much that he or she comes back and sits down in that chair next to me will be the night I’ve waited for since we started this thing 23 years ago, and it turned out to be Bradley Cooper,” Lipton told Larry King in 2017. “I auditioned him. If I had turned him down, he would’ve gone on to a different career.”
Cooper, who enrolled in the Actors Studio in 2000, has since been nominated for eight Academy Awards and a Tony Award, and won two Grammy Awards and a BAFTA Award. In the Larry King interview, Lipton attributed Cooper's talent to a "unique accessibility to the self."
The interview also marked Cooper coming full-circle in another major way. As a student at the Actors Studio, the "A Star is Born" actor famously asked Sean Penn about starring in the 1998 film “Hurlyburly." In 2015, Cooper admitted he was nervous about asking the question in a 2015 interview with Howard Stern.
The Actors Studio moved from New School to Pace University in 2006, where Lipton served as dean emeritus, and in 2018, Lipton retired from the legendary show. "Inside the Actors Studio" was nominated for 16 Emmy awards and earned the accolade once.
"James Lipton was one of the most wonderful interviewers there were," tweeted actor Jeff Leach. "He gave gravitas and respect to the craft of acting and reminded audiences that behind the sheen of fame and celebrity, there were humans with their own stories that we could empathize with."