WASHINGTON — James Lipton, who also wrote words and music to Broadway shows, scripted soap operas, and oversaw Bob Hope specials and other star-studded spectacles but became best known to a national audience as the probing but deferential host of the Bravo TV show ‘‘Inside the Actors Studio,’’ died Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.
The cause was bladder cancer, said his wife, Kedakai Mercedes Lipton.
As a young writer and actor brimming with theatrical ambition in the 1950s, James Lipton struggled for years to make his mark. He contributed scripts to soap operas — sometimes three shows simultaneously — and his two efforts to break through into mainstream musical theater as a lyricist/librettist in the 1960s were embarrassing flops.
He returned to TV, where he gradually found his pace as the impresario behind Hope specials as well as grand-scale, made-for-TV galas to honor the arts and American history. He was head writer from 1982 to 1987 of the TV soap opera ‘‘Capitol,’’ set in the Washington, D.C., area, and continued to pour out television films, one based on his novel ‘‘Mirrors,’’ about ballet dancers in the competitive New York.
‘‘I’m not that fond of everything that’s been written or filmed about dance,’’ Mr. Lipton told The New York Times. ‘‘They’re essentially variations on ‘42d Street.’ The star is hurt, the understudy goes on and a new star is born. More interesting to me are all those dancers to whom that never happens.’’
After decades working in genres that rarely attract critical esteem, Mr. Lipton received a board seat at the Actors Studio workshop. It was vaunted and highly selective organization, established in 1947 by Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis, and Cheryl Crawford to train generations of actors, directors, and writers and had been dominated almost from the start by artistic director Lee Strasberg until his death in 1982.
But the Actors Studio finances were in grave condition when Mr. Lipton was recruited. He proposed a drama school to attract tuition funding, and it proved to be a near-instant success from the moment he took over as dean in 1993. The next year, he created ‘‘Inside the Actors Studio’’ to attract an even bigger audience for the workshop’s approach to teaching and to help spur marketing.
From Paul Newman to Robin Williams to Steven Spielberg, Mr. Lipton invited hundreds of actors, directors, and other show-business personalties on the program, quizzing them before a live audience of eager pupils. Beyond asking guests to recount their biography, often in exhaustive fashion, Mr. Lipton used his deep knowledge of stagecraft and show business to plumb their thoughts on their philosophies toward their trades and share anecdotes about the real world often guided by luck and circumstances beyond their control.
In style, Mr. Lipton could be cerebral as well as sycophantic. He approached his work not as a journalist but as a serious-minded fan, never attempted to paint his guests in an uncomfortable light or ask them uncomfortable questions of a personal nature. He used large blue index cards, based on his voluminous research into the lives of his interviewees, to guide the conversation.
‘‘The show is, in the end, about the interior life of those who love the art form, about the struggle that leaves them lonely, introspective, unsure,’’ New York Times journalist Chris Hedges wrote. ‘‘Mr. Lipton’s encyclopedic knowledge and unconditional acceptance — he lets his guests edit things they do not like from the tape — combine to create intimate and often moving portraits of lives in progress.’’
The show was ripe for lampoon by Will Ferrell on ‘‘Saturday Night Live.’’ His parody of Mr. Lipton was one of his most well-known routines.
‘‘I love it, I love it,’’ Mr. Lipton said. ‘‘It’s flattering.’’
Mr. Lipton said the two had actually become friends, and Ferrell had dropped by Inside the Actors Studio and he, in turn, had appeared in Ferrell’s 2005 film ‘‘Bewitched.’’
‘‘We’re good friends — and I think he’s got me cold, the rat,’’ Mr. Lipton told CNN.
In the interview, Mr. Lipton was asked one of the classic Actors Studio questions he asks his quests: ‘‘What would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?’’ Mr. Lipton responded, ‘‘You see, Jim? You were wrong. I exist. But, you may come in, anyway.’’
James Lipton was born in Detroit on Sept. 19, 1926. His mother was a teacher and librarian. His father, who had emigrated from Poland as a child, abandoned the family for an itinerant living as a fiction writer and educator.
Raised by his mother and maternal grandparents, the younger Mr. Lipton showed a precocious interest in books and tried to write novels by the time he was 12.
After attending Wayne State University and brief military service, he found himself discharged in Paris, working as a procurer of prostitutes. He returned to the United States, settled in New York and began taking classes in art and theater. He immersed himself in a cultural mileau that included Strasberg and Stella Adler, a protege of Russian theater director and actor Constantin Stanislavski, and Adler’s husband Harold Clurman, a noted director.
His first marriage, to the actress Nina Foch, ended in divorce in 1959. In 1970, he married Kedakai Turner, a former model who became a real estate executive with whom he shared a townhouse on Manhattan’s East Side and a property in Southampton, New York.
She is his only immediate survivor.