In Conversation with James Lipton

On November 14, 2012 Jonathan Fanton sat down with Inside The Actor’s Studio’s distinguished host James Lipton  for a conversation about his life and career.

James Lipton Introduction

Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure you welcome you to a very special evening. Many of you have been here before to enjoy book discussions like Ira Shapiro’s The Last Great Senate, hear world leaders like former Chile President Michelle Bachelet who now heads UN Women, or talk politics with the likes of Ed Rollins, mixing it up with Roosevelt House Fellow Geoff Kabaservice on the state of the Republican party.

Tonight is different. I have been long wanted to have a series of conversations with the most interesting people I know personally. Ed Koch was my first guest, followed by former MoMA President Agnes Gund, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Foundation, and, most recently, philanthropist Rita Hauser. But tonight is very special to me as I talk with my model and mentor, James Lipton.

You probably know him as the creator and host of Inside the Actors Studio, the award-winning Bravo show that reaches 89 million homes in the US and is seen in 125 countries around the world. In 19 years on the air, Jim has interviewed over 250 actors, directors and writers. No one is better at creating safe space where Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Kate Winslet and more open up about themselves and their craft.

And James has even interviewed one of Hunter’s own – Ellen Barkin, who majored in history and drama at Hunter and eventually starred in the 1987 smash hit, The Big Easy, opposite Dennis Quaid. Who knows? Perhaps one of the current 200-plus undergraduate and MFA students taking classes in Hunter’s renowned Film, Media, or Theater Departments is a future Inside interviewee.

One reason Jim is so good is that he has done it all in his own career. In the 1940s, he played the Lone Ranger’s nephew on WXYZ in his hometown Detroit. He was on Broadway in Autumn Garden in 1951, was a character in TV soap opera The Guiding Light, and a scriptwriter for The Edge of Night in the 1950s, wrote the lyrics for Nowhere To Go But Up and Sherry! in the 1960s, co-produced Tony award winning Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 1978. But there’s more. He was the Executive Producer of Jimmy Carter’s inaugural gala and 12 Bob Hope birthday specials.

He is author of the bestselling An Exaltation of Larks, published a novel Mirrors  and contributes articles to the New York Times Magazine and Paris Review.

So when famous actors, producers, musicians and writers sit across from his stack of blue cards they know they are talking with a peer – one who has done his homework.

I met Jim through his lovely wife, Kedakai, who served on the Board of Parsons School of Design, a division of the New School when I was President. Late one evening, after a Board dinner at the President’s House on 11th Street, Jim lingered to propose an idea. He reminded me of the New School’s distinguished history in drama electives. In the 1940s  Erwin Piscator had organized the Dramatic Workshop at the New School, drawing faculty from the Group Theater including Stella Adler with whom Jim had studied.

And then he made a bold proposal: let’s start a drama school in cooperation with the Actors Studio of which he was Vice President. And we could subsidize it with a TV interview show with members of the Studio. I like the idea and I respected Jim. But I wanted some due diligence. Was the Actors Studio really on board? “No problem,” Jim said, “I set up a meeting.” A few days later my assistant said Mr. Lipton and others were in my conference room at the appointed time. I walked in to find Arthur Penn of Bonnie and Clyde fame, Norman Mailer, Ellyn Burstyn and apologies that Paul Newman who was behind the project had a schedule conflict. The rest is history, well told in Jim’s biography Inside Inside.

So Jim and I will have a conversation for a bit and then open up for your questions.


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