You can be forgiven if you missed the news that James Lipton passed away this week at his home in New York City at the age of 93. In the lingering shadow of Kobe Bryant’s death and the more recent losses of Katherine Johnson and Jack Welch, it would be possible to overlook the passing of a man who didn’t seek the spotlight for himself but instead sought to spotlight the work of others.
But the passing of James Lipton stopped me in my tracks. As the host of my own talk show, I’ve drawn significant inspiration from James Lipton in shaping my own approach to interviewing influential and interesting people.
I feel compelled to pause this week and reflect on the moxie of a man I have long admired, whose work has so influenced my own. Here’s what I see in James Lipton:
Moxie flows and evolves.
Lipton didn’t set out to be a masterful interviewer. As with some of the most significant pivotal moments of his life, he started out doing one thing, and it became another.
Lipton first moved from his hometown of Detroit to New York City for law school. He was rebelling against his beatnik poet father by pursuing the staidest profession imaginable. But he’d acted in radio as a boy back home in Detroit, and when he needed money to get by in NYC he naturally turned back to his roots and began acting. It’s remarkable. Most people have a second job to support their dream of becoming an actor; Lipton instead used acting to support his dream.
But Lipton’s dream of spending his days in the courtroom or board room was soon swallowed up by his creative endeavors. He turned his attention to acting and his true passion, writing.
He eventually guided the formation of the Actors Studio Drama School, a graduate degree program that’s now part of Pace University in New York City.
His iconic interview show Inside the Actor’s Studio is actually a seminar class. Students gathered to hear Lipton interview some of the most accomplished and interesting actors of the day, asking their own questions as Lipton queries guests about their craft. It’s a refreshing antidote to the gossipy, tabloid-style interview that dominates. Lipton’s tone was thoughtful and respectful, and his guests responded with honesty and vulnerability.
The classes were taped and edited for television, and they became a critical and popular hit.
It takes moxie to turn a graduate seminar into must-see TV, and Lipton had it.
Moxie loves to play.
Lipton’s serious demeanor might have fooled those who were not paying attention to thinking that he was pretentious, but in my observation, he was far from it. Lipton was not only not pretentious, but he was also downright playful.
He wrote a book – still in publication! – called “An Exaltation of Larks.” The book is a collection of nouns of a multitude (think the murder of crows, a herd of cows, etc.) It’s witty and wry and fascinating, just like the man who penned it.
He also famously loved Will Ferrell’s impersonation of him for sketch comedy. He was also not above parodying himself and made frequent appearances on television shows as himself.
Lipton’s moxie gave him the freedom to treat others with care and respect, even as he poked gentle fun at himself.
Moxie gets to the heart of what matters most.
Lipton always took his guests seriously. He spent weeks preparing for interviews, researching actors’ work carefully and writing out dozens of questions and insights on blue notecards.
His interviews were carefully constructed to focus on the craft of acting and avoid the low-hanging fruit of gossip. Ironically, he often got actors to reveal so much more than “gotcha” questions would ever reveal. It was not unusual to see actors grapple with deep emotions during interviews with him in moments that felt tender and genuine.
That’s my dream as an interviewer – to achieve such trust with a person that the moment ceases to be an interview and instead transforms into a time of genuine human connection.
Lipton famously asked each guest the same 10 questions:
1. What is your favorite word?
2. What is your least favorite word?
3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
4. What turns you off?
5. What is your favorite curse word?
6. What sound or noise do you love?
7. What sound or noise do you hate?
8. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
9. What profession would you not like to do?
10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
How would you answer?