One of the most prolific interviewers in the history of the movie business has died. According to TMZ, James Lipton — the star and host of the popular Inside the Actors Studio television series for over 20 years — “passed away peacefully” in his home on Monday. He was 93 years old.

Although Lipton became famous interviewing others, he lived a fascinating life in his own right. Before Inside the Actors Studio began airing on Bravo in the 1990s, he had already worked for decades as a writer, producer, and, of course, as an actor — appearing on The Guiding Light for many years, among other jobs in television, Broadway, and radio.

In 1994, he launched the Inside the Actors Studio series, a filmed non-credit class that became part of the Actors Studio Drama School. (In addition to his hosting duties, Lipton was also the school’s dean.) Before Lipton retired in 2018, he hosted 22 seasons and hundreds of episodes of the series, interviewing almost all of this generation’s biggest names in film and television in front of audiences of aspiring actors. They always got the last word, and were permitted to ask their own questions of the guests at the end of each episode.

One of the most famous moments in Inside the Actors Studio history came during an audience Q&A, though it only became well-known in retrospect. The Sean Penn episode of the show from 1999 featured an audience question from future Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper.

Cooper later became the first graduate of the Actors Studio Drama School to appear as a guest on the show in 2011.

Lipton’s distinctive interview style became a signature of the show. He was more of an extremely erudite fan than a probing journalist, leading his guests gently through their career highlights with enormous enthusiasm and wry humor. Every interview ended with Lipton’s version of a Proust Questionnaire, and the memorable line “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?”

Eventually, Lipton’s flattering questions, droll delivery, and impossibly large stack of note cards became spoofed on a hilarious series of Saturday Night Live sketches. Will Ferrell played Lipton.

Lipton’s persona certainly loomed large over the show, but he was fun to impersonate. But he also probably deserved more credit than he was given for being a thoughtful and attentive interviewer. In the era before podcasts, Inside the Actors Studio was one of the few venues for movie and TV fans to see their favorite stars and directors speak at length — and sometimes with surprising honesty — about their craft. After Dave Chappelle walked away from his wildly popular sketch series on Comedy Central in the middle of production, the place he eventually went to discuss the situation was Inside the Actors Studio. The result was one of the show’s best episodes.

While Lipton left the show a few years ago, Inside the Actors Studio continues, now on Ovation. And the 260-plus episodes Lipton hosted remain a wonderful resources for actors and cinephiles. Lipton leaves behind an enormous legacy as a teacher whose influence exceeded well beyond the bounds of the classroom, and inspired thousands of people who never set foot in the Actors Studio.

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