James Lipton could make me cry.
The diminutive writer, lyricist, actor and dean emeritus of the renowned Actors Studio Drama School in NYC loved film; what’s more, he had an innate appreciation of all of the wonderful gremlins that toil in the making of celluloid magic. James Lipton could so concisely get to the heart of what made a good movie work and do so with such an economy of words that the man never failed to leave me – a two-bit writer who muses daily about pop culture – breathless. And he seemed to do all of this effortlessly. More importantly he had a fun time doing it as is evidenced by the hours of footage from the award winning television program he hosted, Inside the Actors Studio.
Mr. Lipton passed away on March 2, 2020 at the age of 93.
In an era of the dreaded click-bait articles that would give cockroaches a run for their money in the endurance department (“Justin Bieber reveals how many kids he wants to have with wife Hailey” or “George Clooney’s secret diet tricks”), and in an age where abbreviation of word and thought is expected in many quarters and, in fact, encouraged, James Lipton hailed from a school that celebrated the language of cinema and he never chinced out when talking about his love of actors and film. Yet, importantly, he never made his one-on-one interviews with such renowned actors and directors as Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Steven Spielberg, Jack Lemmon, Paul Newman and Robin Williams about him. Here was a man who asked the questions a lot of us armchair film history fans would have liked to have asked these stars ourselves given the opportunity, and he seized the many chances he had to do so.
He also seemed to have fun in his job and he was a light presence even as he addressed serious and scholarly questions with the likes of Bradley Cooper. James was not of the Film Comment crowd with its formidable and uninviting club members who seemed weary of letting in the riff raff that enjoyed “Before Sunset” and “Friday the 13th” (ahem – this guy). Nor was he of the “so-lite content it feels like air” Entertainment Weekly group. Rather, James Lipton was a Premiere Magazine sort of film aficionado; substantive yet fun and welcoming. He invited viewers into his pow-wows with the Hollywood industry and really introduced us properly to many of these talented folks for the first time. He cut through the noise of the internet era and demanded of us only two things: to put our respective thinking caps on but also to have a fun time doing so.
If I may, a personal note: In my capacity as a freelance writer and as an author of a handful of books about pop culture, I have tried my hardest to steal all that I can from three gentlemen in the entertainment industry: Robert Osborne, Roger Ebert and, yes, James Lipton. The one thing they all have in common is that they presented the lives of the extraordinary in very ordinary terms that was neither elitist nor fluff. Reading their words, listening to their interviews, a certain warmth always comes through, a relatability and a folksiness that is all but extinct in this day and age. They say that if you’re going to steal then you should steal from the best. If I’ve written even one word that is on par to Mr. Lipton’s voluminous and tireless work then that’s enough for me. James Lipton was a hero to me and millions of others and there’s damn few of those to be found in the world today.
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