Little about the show screamed success: No real action, just a bespectacled school dean conducting interviews, a sparse setting and students in the studio audience.
But “Inside the Actors Studio” bloomed into an unconventional hit for Bravo, while its host James Lipton, the former dean of the Actors Studio Drama School who created the show, became a celebrity among celebrities, the interviewer who could book pretty much everybody.
Now, after 24 years, more than 200 episodes and 20 Emmy nominations, Lipton, 92, is retiring and the show has found a new home on Ovation TV.
On Monday, the independent Santa Monica channel dedicated to the arts announced a two-year agreement with the Actors Studio, a 70-year-old group founded in New York by Elia Kazan as a workshop for artists to explore their craft.
“You know, it’s one of those things,” actress Ellen Burstyn, co-president of the Actors Studio, said in a phone interview with The Times. “We started at Bravo when they were an arts network and, over time, they have evolved into something else. Ovation has become the arts network; it’s a more suitable home for us.”
The arrangement allows Ovation to produce and televise the next incarnation of the series. Beginning next year, it will at first feature a rotation of hosts; Ovation will also run up to 10 past episodes of the show each year, which should provide continued exposure for Lipton and his penetrating interviews.
It’s very gratifying to see the legacy of ‘Inside the Actors Studio’ being carried forward for a new generation to appreciate and enjoy.
“It’s very gratifying to see the legacy of “Inside the Actors Studio” being carried forward for a new generation to appreciate and enjoy,” Lipton said in a statement. “I made a vow early on that we would not deal in gossip — only in craft, and Ovation, as a network dedicated to the arts, will continue that tradition.”
Bravo, now popular for its “Real Housewives” franchise and “Watch What Happens: Live” With Andy Cohen, has all but abandoned its roots in cultural programming. It is also owned by NBCUniversal and network executives provided input on the actors featured on “Inside the Actors Studio.” Lipton’s and Burstyn’s comments hinted at some friction over the format.
“We are very happy to be moving to Ovation,” Burstyn said. “And we are going to open [the show] up a little and focus not just on actors but also directors, screenwriters and other people who contribute to the overall artistry of film.”
Ovation executives pursued the show several years ago, but the Actors Studio was locked into its deal with Bravo, which is more widely distributed. Bravo, for its part, suggested the parting was a logical extension of Lipton’s decision to retire.
“Inside the Actors Studio was Bravo’s first original series … and it will always be a part our family,” the network said in a statement. “We’ve had a legendary run with Jim and … now that there will be a new host, we felt it was time to close this chapter and pass the baton.”
Lipton came up with the concept for “Inside the Actors Studio” in 1994 when the Actors Studio was grappling with severe financial pressures and risked shutting down. Lipton initially struck a partnership as part of a degree program between the Actors Studio and the New School for Social Research. He felt the program should include guest lectures by famous members of the Actors Studio and he wanted those conversations to be preserved on film. Using the material to produce a TV show solved another problem by providing a needed stream of revenue for the Actors Studio.
Over the years, such talent as Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese appeared on the show, which is now affiliated with the masters in fine arts degree program at Pace University in New York.
“This is truly a master class that delves deeply into the art of acting,” said Scott Woodward, executive vice president of programming and production for Ovation TV. “We are a perfect match for this show. We feel it is at the core of Ovation’s DNA to dive deeply into the arts.”
The challenge for Ovation will be attracting the audience that grew to love the show and new viewers, as well as finding a host with the skills and finesse of Lipton, who spent hours researching his interview subjects, filling blue index cards with questions that elicited unguarded insights from prominent actors. And the media landscape has changed since the show debuted 24 years ago. Actors today can bare their souls on social media, making it more difficult to find fresh material.
“There is great reverence for this show,” said Woodward. “The interview is quite extensive and you find out things that were unexpected. It’s not the same thing you get from a Twitter feed.”
Lipton, who has long tailored his interviews to highlight the craft of acting, might not be going away entirely.
“He will be involved in this new iteration of the show as much as he wants to,” Burstyn said. “But we are going to have rotating members of the Studio host the show, people who understand and can talk about the craft.”