When “Inside the Actors Studio” quietly made its debut in 1994, Bravo was a decade-plus-old, little-watched cable network that aired highbrow art films, opera and ballet.
Nineteen years, 300 guests and 15 Emmy nominations later, the show, one of Bravo’s first original series, remains the lone holdout in a lineup populated by Real Housewives, an earnest oasis on a top-10 cable network where guilty pleasures pay the bills.
The long-running series celebrates its 250th episode Wednesday with a two-hour special featuring new interviews with Dave Chappelle, Katie Couric and Jennifer Lopez. The survival of “Inside the Actors Studio” is remarkable by any measure, but all the more so given Bravo’s transformation over the last two decades.
“It is a vestige of the original roots of Bravo, but I still think it’s absolutely appropriate for the network,” said Bravo President Frances Berwick. “It’s about peeking behind the curtain getting into the creative process, just as we do on ‘Top Chef’ or ‘The Rachel Zoe Project.’”
Host and creator James Lipton, for one, never expected to reach this milestone.
“If you had put a gun to my head, I wouldn’t have predicted this,” he said recently via telephone from the Hamptons.
He attributes the show’s longevity to its unique focus on craft rather than gossip or the usual canned chatter of celebrity-driven talk shows. Each episode is a condensed version of a four- or five-hour master class in acting for graduate students at the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York City.
“The relationship between the guest and the audience is totally different from any other show that I know of. Our guests come here because I’ve asked them to come and teach,” said Lipton, 86. “I ask questions that will elicit answers that will be of use and interest to our students, and it turns out they’re of use and interest to Bravo’s 94 million subscribers.”
About those questions: In a rarity for television talk shows, Lipton does not conduct pre-interviews. The result, he said, is that “the guest and I are out here on a high wire for four hours.”
“Not once in nearly 19 years has anyone ever said don’t ask this question — not one single time,” Lipton added.
This lack of a safety net, not to mention Lipton’s talent for conjuring tearful and unexpected confessions from his guests (e.g. the late Jack Lemmon’s declaration that he was an alcoholic), has made the show even more enticing to actors looking to be taken seriously.
This focus on “the craft” has turned “Inside the Actors Studio” into a magnet for the type of A-list talent — Angelina Jolie, George Clooney — who would never deign to visit the channel’s “Watch What Happens Live.”
A famously meticulous researcher, Lipton spends weeks wading through a “mountain of material” on his subjects, looking for pivotal moments in their life and work. He frequently dazzles guests with inquiries about obscure biographical details — what he calls the “Oh My God” questions.
When all is said and done, Lipton heads into a typical episode with a stack of 300 blue index cards, organized roughly in chronological order.
“What I’m asking for is an un-self-conscious self-portrait. I hand you the palette and the brushes, and I hold up the canvas and I’ll just ask questions,” he said.
Lipton scored his dream guest in 2011, when Bradley Cooper became the first graduate of the Actors Studio Drama School to appear as a guest on “Inside the Actors Studio.” (In various clips floating around the Internet, fans can see Cooper, in all his late ‘90s glory, asking Robert De Niro and Sean Penn detailed questions about their acting technique.)
“When he walked onto stage, we both burst into tears,” Lipton said. “It was fulfilling in a way that no other show could ever be.”
Cooper may be the school’s most famous graduate to date, but the erudite Lipton has also become a celebrity in his own right, appearing as a prison warden in “Arrested Development” (yes, he’s in the new season) and inspiring a beloved impression by Will Ferrell on “Saturday Night Live.”
For Lipton, “Inside the Actors Studio” is but the latest accomplishment on an eclectic résumé. The son of Lawrence Lipton, author of the Beat Generation novel “The Holy Barbarians,” Lipton was, by his own account, able to read by the age of 1-and-a-half.
By 12, he’d written three novels, though he is reluctant to offer up details about their subject matter. “I would normally say that modesty forbids me from telling you,” he said. “But it’s shame.”
Lipton attended law school, but eventually turned to, of all things, acting to pay the bills. He studied at the Actors Studio under the legendary Stella Adler and starred in the soap opera “Guiding Light.” Later he worked as a lyricist on Broadway, and in 1968 published “An Exaltation of Larks,” a collection of terms of venery (e.g. “a pride of lions”).
The book, Lipton is proud to note, has never gone out of print. Oh yeah, he’s also a trained pilot, an accomplished equestrian and once worked as a Parisian pimp.
It was his idea to align the Actors Studio, the birthplace of Method acting, with the New School to create a formal, degree-granting M.F.A. program (it later moved to Pace University), and to turn master classes with studio actors into a television series.
Though it has never been a ratings hit on the order of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Lipton’s program helped establish Bravo’s reputation within the production community, paving the way for subsequent, brand-defining series like “The Awful Truth” with Michael Moore and “Project Runway.”
It also made Bravo a destination for the same kind of affluent, culturally savvy viewers who tune in regularly to the network’s highly addictive reality fare.
Lipton confesses he doesn’t keep up with the latest housewives happenings.
“I work 12 hours a day, 7 days week,” he said. “That doesn’t leave a lot of time for television.”
‘Inside the Actors Studio’
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)