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This time, Lipton answers

Special to The Times

BRIDGEHAMPTON, Long Island -- Regular viewers of “Inside the Actors Studio,” now in its 13th year on Bravo, know a few things about James Lipton. He has acted on the soap opera “Guiding Light”; his wife, Kedakai, won’t allow him to get a tattoo; he flies planes and rides horses; and he treats the interview process as a sacred art, preparing questions for weeks, whether his guest be Charlie Sheen or Al Pacino.

What you don’t know about Lipton could fill a book, as he makes clear in his just-published memoir, “Inside Inside.”

On a late-summer afternoon, Lipton was at his Bridgehampton, Long Island, home, an airy barn-like structure surrounded by trees. He described his work schedule when writing the book over the last year, 14-hour workdays that left him unable to spend even 15 minutes sitting on his deck last summer.

In fact, “Inside Inside” makes clear that he hasn’t relaxed much at all in the course of a long and varied life, one that rivals any of his guests’. In the book’s freewheeling narrative, Lipton reveals his hardscrabble upbringing, his newspaper apprenticeship and his decade-plus of studying acting and dance. He can pirouette, write bestselling books, write lyrics, produce a dozen Bob Hope television specials; he’s run away with gypsies and been a pimp in Paris. Also, he’s had it out with Barry Manilow and learned Pilates from Joseph Pilates himself.

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But it is the show that now defines him, and though he refuses to name any favorite guests, one can glean a few things from the book. Philip Seymour Hoffman receives a couple of lines, but Martin Scorsese is discussed for several pages. And of course his very favorite guest has not yet appeared -- that would be any one of his own former students.

“I wouldn’t be able to begin for 15 minutes. I would be like a fool, in tears,” he said about the possibility. Does he have any likely candidates, graduates who are close to being a star? “We’ve only graduated 10 years of students, and 10 years is a very short time. But Bradley Cooper is ours, hell of an actor. Sandy Meisner used to say it takes 20 years once you’ve finished with me before you can really call yourself an actor.”

“Inside the Actors Studio” has had more than 200 guests. Yet it happens that the only two actors who define acting for Lipton have not appeared on the show. "[Jack] Nicholson and Marlon [Brando] are the two greatest actors I ever saw.”

However, Pacino and Robert De Niro, who have both been guests on the show, “are right behind them. And it’s no coincidence that they are all products of the Stanislavsky system.”

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As for Hollywood today, the state of things there has Lipton very, very worried about his future prospects for guests in the Brando/Nicholson league. “We won’t see their like again for decades, because the film industry demands youth, and not just youth but callow youth. Moguls want blockbusters, and blockbusters are created by repeat viewers, and the Harry Potters and ‘Pirates’ movies achieve those numbers by repeat viewings, so you have 50-year-old moguls signing movies to appeal to 14-year-old kids. So they’re casting 20-year-olds, not even 25-year-olds.”

He took a breath. “And what does that mean? The definition of a 20-year-old actor in one word is ‘untrained.’ Nicholson, Brando, Pacino, these people came from the stage, they served an apprenticeship, they studied for years and their teachers wouldn’t let them go out and work until they were qualified. But now you have a 20-year-old star! Which is why they get into such desperate trouble, because they have more money than brains.”

Lipton himself went through intensive training, studying acting under Stella Adler for more than a decade, as well as dance and ballet and voice. This inspired his decision to start the Actors Studio Drama School at New York’s New School in 1994. “I created the school to provide in three years what I studied over 12 years. I could have had four PhDs now if they had given degrees for those subjects.”

The book has no index because, Lipton said, “I do not want people to browse this book. I don’t want people to say, ‘My favorite actor is Julia Roberts, so I’ll look her up.’ I worked hard to give the book a shape, and structurally there is nothing that’s random. I wrote the book in concentric circles, themes keep coming back.”

Among those themes is a period in the 1950s when Lipton was cast as the lead in a film called “Wheelfire,” being shot in Greece. The film was never completed, but Lipton managed to have several adventures, eventually ending up in Paris, where his red-light district work came into play. The subject had been broached before on his show, when a visibly embarrassed Lipton was interviewing Julia Roberts and made mention of his familiarity with prostitutes.

“I had to set the record straight,” he said. “God, it was awful that night with Julia. I was dying. And those were my students laughing at me!” So was he really, as he writes in the book, a pimp in Paris, albeit a rather classy one who arranged shows for clients rather than actual couplings? “Yes.”

Lipton takes mockery well -- he acquitted himself admirably on “Da Ali G Show” and continues to be self-deprecating on Conan O’Brien’s “Late Night.” But Will Ferrell’s merciless impression on “Saturday Night Live” is almost as famous as the man himself. “He feasted on me,” Lipton said good-naturedly. “He devoured my flesh.”

Although he takes such personal mockery in stride, the key criticism of his show does bother him because it attacks his guests. Several times in the course of the book, he returns to the phrase: “the self-appointed guardians of the Actors Studio.” He was devastated, for example, when critics asked why he had a “nonentity” like Teri Hatcher on the show and the actress told him that she cried and cried about it.

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Partly due to Ferrell’s impersonation, and partly because it’s true, Lipton is well known for hyperbole and over-the-top enthusiasm. But when it comes to himself, he is modest. “I’ve never achieved anything that’s really exceptional in ways that others have,” he said matter-of-factly. “I hope that this book is good. I think it’s the best I could do, but that doesn’t make it good.”

Then he perked up and started reading, out of the blue, from his book: “Here’s a phrase I like: ‘One of the glories of all the arts is their seductive guile, they open the door to you like an impassive maitre d’, then close it behind you like Mata Hari on the make.’ I like that. I like that. Maybe this will be OK.”


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