STAGE TO SCREENS: James Lipton Chats About Sherry and "Inside the Actor's Studio"

By Michael Buckley
15 Feb 2004

Mike Myers' interpretation of Banjo excites Lipton. "This is [supposed to be] Harpo Marx, for Christ's sake, not Jimmy Durante, as in the movie. That was terrible casting. Woollcott wouldn't have hung out with Durante — and vice-versa — but he and Harpo were like blood-brothers."

I say how good I thought Lewis J. Stadlen had been as Banjo in the recent Man Who came to Dinner revival, starring Nathan Lane. "But he was doing Jimmy Durante!" insists Lipton. "He sang, 'Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go. . .' [Stadlen] is very good, but I didn't like what they did; I can't imagine why they went with Durante. I've never seen it with Harpo Marx [perhaps because people didn't know what he sounded like] — until Mike Myers. Like Nathan, he's a genius!"

To write for the Noel Coward character (Beverly Carlton, played by Tommy Tune) particularly delighted Lipton. "Coward is one of the most underrated songwriters of the twentieth century. In the play, they often interpolate a Noel Coward song, but ours is a real pastiche. [Lipton sings the beginning of "Au Revoir":] 'Magic moments all too quickly melt away. . . ' That's Coward!"

Sung by Marilyn Maye, the pop single of the Sherry title song "climbed to number three on the charts," relates Lipton. "Did you know that? In those days, the recording world drew primarily from musical theatre. [I remember it well.] I think that song is irresistible. I think I wrote a good lyric, but the real secret to that song is Larry's music, which is ineluctably charming and beguiling. Larry was trained by Nadia Boulanger in Paris."



I mention that I first heard the song performed by Jonathan Freeman and Christine Baranski on an "Unsung Musicals" CD, and had loved it. "Carol sings it to a fare-thee-well, to my taste," declares Lipton. (As much as I admire Burnett and Lane, to my taste, the Freeman-Baranski version is definitive.) One wonders if the title-song lyric, "The crowd at El Morocco is snarling/ About some dumb bum/ Who created mass disaster/ Kicking Elsa in the Astor," is intended as homage to Cole Porter, who wrote about a Miss Finch, who "got pinched in the Astor Bar. . ." (Well, did you evah?)

***

Born in Michigan, Lipton was the son of "the beatnik poet, Lawrence Lipton. He taught me to read when I was one-and-a-half. He was eccentric, and left my mother and me while I was still quite young. I wrote from a very early age. I was writing when I was three. It was trash, but I could do it. When I was 12, I wrote three novels; again, junk, but I was doing it. I tried to steer away from that; I tried to choose a very bourgeois life. When I went to university, I thought I was going to be a lawyer.

"When your father's a poet and your mother's a teacher, there's not much money, not much food in the larder. I became an amateur actor at 13 in Catholic theatre in Detroit. When I came to New York, I acted to support myself and my mother, who was then retired." He made his Broadway debut (and, to date, his only appearance) as Frederick Ellis in Lillian Hellman's 1951 play, The Autumn Garden, which starred Fredric March and (wife) Florence Eldridge.

"I began this insane training: two-and-a-half years with Stella Adler, four years with Harold Clurman, two years with Bobby Lewis. I also studied voice, modern dance, Russian technical ballet, jazz technique; for 12 years, I studied full time. The Actors Studio Drama School [at New School University] is essentially those 12 years of my life compacted into a Master of Fine Arts [program accomplished] in three years. I invented [the series of courses] then, and reinvented it for the school."

Over the years, Lipton, who pilots his own airplane, has appeared in an independent film, "The Big Break" (1953), written for soap operas ("The Edge of Night," "Another World"), scripted several TV movies, choreographed a ballet and twice produced for Broadway (The Mighty Gents, Monteith & Rand). He also supplied the book and lyrics (to music by Sol Berkowitz) for the 1962 musical, Nowhere to Go but Up, directed by Sidney Lumet. Marking Dorothy Loudon's Broadway debut, it had a cast that included Tom Bosley, Martin Balsam, Phil Leeds, Bert Convy and Mary Ann Mosley, and ran nine performances.

From 1952 to '62, Lipton played Dr. Dick Grant on the soap opera "The Guiding Light." Actress Nina Foch was his first wife; married in 1954, they were divorced in 1959. He met his second wife, Kedakai, "when she was a supermodel; now, she's a real-estate broker. She's half-Japanese, half-Irish. We've been married 34 years. When I am asked, 'What is your greatest achievement?' I reply — without hesitation — that, by far, [his marriage] is." While the Liptons have no children, he says, "I have 200 actors and writers [at the school]."

The Actors Studio Drama School began suddenly, remembers Lipton. "Bang! — it was accredited. Since it was my idea, they insisted that I become its Chair. Today, it's the largest graduate drama school in America, and I'm the Dean. From September until May, I work seven days a week, 14 hours a day.

"One of the courses I created became 'Inside the Actors Studio' in September 1994. There will be a 10th-year celebration show near the anniversary." Among upcoming guests on "Actors Studio" are Hugh Jackman (March 7) and Barbra Streisand (March 21). "We're doing premiere after premiere. At the moment, there's an Oscar [nominee] marathon. Seems that having our show on during the nominating season is helpful. I'm not saying that we got them nominations, but we didn't hurt them." (And those who don't win are reminded of their favorite curse words.)

On the Feb. 15 edition of "Inside the Actors Studio," Lipton's guest is Jay Leno (whom I've enjoyed in numerous plays and movies), and the host says, "I do a monologue at the beginning." In today's New York Times magazine, a layout called "Domains" was photographed at the Liptons' home. "It's supposed to picture objects that mean the most to me," reports Lipton, "but they've included some things that don't mean anything."

Does James Lipton hope that the Sherry recording will lead to a production? He replies, "If God is good, if Fate is kind, it will. . . " Suddenly, he switches gears: "Of course, I want a production — and not only in musical theatre. I'm especially interested in film. Since the success of 'Chicago,' everyone's looking for musical properties."

***

END QUIZ: On November 29, 1972, TV's "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presented "The Man Who Came to Dinner," in which Sheridan Whiteside was portrayed by a) Zero Mostel; b) Orson Welles; c) David Niven? (Answer: Next column, March 16)

The January 18 question was: Which of the following actors appeared with Uta Hagen in the 1959 TV version of "A Month in the Country": a) Luther Adler; b) Richard Easton; c) Alexander Scourby? The answer is a), b), and c).

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and may be reached at mbuckley6@nyc.rr.com.