There are two ways to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Actors Studio, the workshop famous for molding Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and other great actors of our time. You can rent an armful of great videos and stake out the couch for the weekend. Or you can watch “Inside the Actors Studio: A 50 Year Celebration” on Bravo (Sunday Dec. 7 at 9pm), as host James Lipton presents favorite moments from his series of interviews with actors, writers and directors.
“Inside the Actors Studio” has become Bravo’s highest-rated program thanks to such guests as Newman, Jessica Lange, Faye Dunaway, Sally Field and Shelley Winters. But Lipton deserves primary credit for earning the three-year-old series a CableACE award as this year’s best talk show. Lipton’s exhaustively researched interviews raise “Actors Studio” to a level far above the usual celebrity gab-athon. “I tell our guests, we don’t care how many times you’ve been married, or if you’ve met Princess Di,” Lipton says in his trademark voice that’s soothing yet — there’s no other word for it — dramatic. “We’re going to talk about your craft. But by sticking to that, we open [emotional] doors that would not be opened otherwise. Danny Glover told a story about ‘Places in the Heart’ and his mother that reduced some in the audience to tears.”
The Actors Studio, founded in 1947, gained attention as Brando, James Dean, Tennessee Williams and other early members practiced their new “method” and emerged with a naturalistic style of acting previously unseen in movies. “Brando was famous for playing a lout in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ so people decided that the studio was just teaching actors to mumble and scratch themselves,” says Lipton. “The public saw it as a cult.” But, in fact, the Actors Studio was started to help theater actors escape from audiences and critics, while working with such revered teachers as Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg. “The plan,” says Lipton, “was for actors to take big chances and break rules, which they can’t do in public if they’re stars.”
The Studio’s highly selective admittance process is legendary (Harvey Keitel’s 11 auditions before his acceptance might stand as the record, according to Lipton), but membership is for a lifetime. Members often drop in for sessions throughout their careers. “These are never called ‘lessons,'” Lipton stresses. “Members go and make a movie and then come back to clean up any bad habits they’ve developed.”
Lipton’s guests help to demystify the Studio (although not all of his visitors, including Billy Crystal, Julia Roberts, Neil Simon and Nathan Lane, are members). Watching the program, it’s amazing to see how the Studio’s technique has influenced so many performers with wildly different acting styles. Both the perpetually intense Christopher Walken and the chronically manic Gene Wilder discuss how they plumb their emotions while acting, a far cry from the days when, as Lipton puts it, “Alan Ladd acted with his hat, pulling it down low if he was serious, pushing it up if he was happy.”
Sunday’s 50th anniversary show culminates Bravo’s “Actors Studio Marathon Weekend,” which begins Saturday at 11 a.m. and includes selected repeats of past episodes interspersed with showings of such films as “The Days of Wine and Roses” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”