NEW YORK — You’re on your way to claiming a niche on the cultural map when 1) a cast member of “Saturday Night Live” turns you into a subject of parody and 2) your name turns out to be the correct answer to a question on ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
By those two criteria, James Lipton, the host of Bravo’s signature series “Inside the Actors Studio” and dean of the Studio’s master’s degree program, has arrived.
Will Ferrell, the “SNL” parodist, is almost cruel in the way he exaggerates Lipton’s fawning, sycophantic encomiums to the guest’s movies. Then there’s Lipton’s tendency to preen before the live audience (made up mostly of students), swiveling his head slowly as he gazes out at the assemblage, enunciating his oracular insights with the studied, deadpan rhythms he cultivated when he played Dr. Richard Grant on CBS’ “The Guiding Light.”
The “Millionaire” question — “Who is the host of ‘Inside the Actors Studio’?” — proved a breeze for Ben Stiller, a celebrity guest on that night’s “Millionaire,” because, through a lucky accident, Lipton had booked him as an interviewee on “Studio.”
To “SNL” and “Millionaire,” add profiles in the New York Times and GQ, and a guest appearance on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” and it’s evident the showbiz community is taking notice of the charismatic personality whose show is about to get picked up for another three years by Bravo in a deal worth more than $8 million overall.
Since “Inside” started in 1994, Lipton has taped 105 guests. Bravo plans a two-hour special on Oct. 14 to celebrate the 100th episode, featuring Gene Hackman in a Q&A taped in March, interspersed with highlights of some of the previous hours. (There’s a lead time of roughly four to eight months between the taping and the airing of each episode.)
Leading up to the two-hour primetime special will be a marathon of the 10 most requested episodes of the series.
“Inside” “has become a breakthrough show for the network in terms of awareness and recognition,” says Frances Berwick, senior VP of programming for Bravo.
The guest list has included Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, Michael Douglas, Steven Spielberg, Helen Hunt, Mike Myers, Kevin Spacey, Robert De Niro and Anthony Hopkins.
Gary Lico, president of Cable Ready, which distributes “Inside” to countries around the globe, says, “I can’t think of another American chatshow that’s more widely seen outside the United States.”
Lico declines to discuss dollar figures, but one source says the show has racked up more than $2 million in foreign sales and still is going strong. These revenues get divvied up among the Actors Studio, Bravo and Cable Ready.
In the U.S., “Inside” has solidified its status as the program that most defines Bravo, consistently drawing more viewers every Sunday night (for both originals and repeats) than the network’s primetime average.
Since Nielsen began tracking the numbers for Bravo in March 1998, the ratings for “Inside” have risen each year, from a 0.29 in cable homes in 1998 to a 0.30 in ’99, a 0.35 in 2000 and a 0.43 so far this year.
The five highest-rated individual hours have featured actors Ford (a 0.93 rating on Aug. 20, 2000), Douglas (0.81 on Feb. 18, 2001), Hanks (0.74 on Dec. 12, 1999), Sharon Stone (0.65 on Jan. 10, 1999) and Hunt (0.64 on April 15, 2001).
“The show has definitely created a buzz in the community,” says Ray Solley, a veteran L.A.-based program development consultant. “Actors will rise to the occasion on the show and say things they’ve never said before on camera.”
For example, without prompting from Lipton, Jack Lemmon revealed he had once suffered from alcoholism. The eternally angry Spike Lee actually choked up and cried as he started recounting the obstacles he faced in getting the money to make “Malcolm X.”
“But Lipton is the opposite of Barbara Walters, who deliberately asks direct personal questions” in hopes of stimulating the tear ducts of her unguarded guests, Berwick says. “Lipton is interested in exploring the creative process, which can result in a guest’s opening up. Gwyneth Paltrow started talking about her father’s illness because it affected her performance in ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley.’ ”
Lipton is somewhat defensive about his tendency to praise his guests, not bury them.
“I have an effusive personality, and I’m not a journalist,” he says. “I’m a teacher with students who want to learn.”
One of the ground rules of the show is that guests can look at the final edit of the tape and request deletions. “The print media gets so pissed off at me for that practice,” Lipton says.
He justifies it by saying it helps the guests to reveal more about themselves than they might in a standard TV interview because they know that, at their request, Lipton will cut out anything embarrassing in the editing room.
Lipton also says his guests have rarely exercised their censorship privilege. “And when they do,” he says, “it’s often for something that’s hardly controversial. Alec Baldwin asked me to cut out the section where he did his imitation of Woody Allen because he might want to work in another Allen movie.”
Although Lipton’s star has never shone brighter than in the past year or so, he says he knew he had made it to celebrity heaven as far back as the mid-’90s when, as he puts it, “a Bravo executive said to me, ‘You have defined our network. You are to Bravo what Beavis & Butt-head are to MTV.’ “