“An Actor by Accident”

How James Lipton narrowly avoided becoming a “stolid, bourgeois lawyer” and instead pursued the arts—including acting, ballet, and epic poetry.
  • Transcript


Question: What were the most important lessons you learned from struggling to “make it” as a young actor?

James Lipton: I became an actor by accident, not by design. My father was a poet, a rather famous American Beatnik poet, Lawrence Lipton. My mother was a teacher and I was taught to read at the age of 1 ½. Hard to believe, but my mother finally convinced me that it was so – showed me evidence, and I was writing epic poetry by the age of three. Terrible poetry, which I dictated. My father would scrupulously note. By the time I was 12, I had written three novels. I mention that only because my father was a famous eccentric, Beatnik and all that. He also left when I was very young and since my father was a poet, my mother was a teacher, we didn’t exactly wallow in money, and once he was gone, there was nothing. So, it was tough times. The point of that is that I associated my father’s profession with my father’s behavior. And as a result, I ran as far away from it as possible.

That said, when I went to school, my intention was to be a lawyer. When I attended university that was still the clear intention; I was going to be a lawyer. Why? Because it was as far as I could get from my father’s antics and world. I thought that the world of the arts probably led people into the kind of behavior I had seen with him and that had resulted in a lot of hard times for my mother and me. So, that was the intention. However, since we didn’t have any money, I had to work from the age of 13. I worked an assortment of jobs and one of the things I liked to do was acting in school; the way on would in high school. I was a member of the Catholic Theater in Detroit, which is a very good theater group, and I acted there. One night someone came backstage and said to me, “You know, you could earn a living as an actor. You’re good enough.” And at that time, I was a copyboy at the Detroit Times. And I said, well do you think that, not immediately but in time, I might possibly earn as much as an actor as I’m currently earning as a copyboy at the Detroit Times? And he said, “Yes, I think you could count on that.”

So, I became a professional actor in Detroit and I was able to earn some money. It was a good job because it permitted me to study. It fit perfectly with school. And I could – in high school and subsequently in college, I was able to earn money which supported my mother and me; she was working as well. And I could go to school. That was all I cared about. I was going to be a lawyer. I was not going to be a poet. I was not going to write. I stopped writing at the age of 18. I had written incessantly before that. I read, of course, because I was in university, but I wasn’t going to write. I wasn’t going to do any of those dangerous things. I was going to be a stolid, bourgeois lawyer.

And then I decided to come to New York to finish my education and to get the law degree. I arrived in New York and looked around me, and this was a time when New York was teaming with great teachers of acting, Stella Adler, Sandy Misner, Robert Lewis, Harold Kerman, Lee Strasberg, The Actor’s Studio was flourishing, and many of the actors that we remember with great admiration, were living in New York in those days; working in the theater at night, studying at night and in the daytime. This was before the exodus to Los Angeles when television moved out there for real estate reasons, and the actors followed of course. But at that time, it was the golden age of American acting education. 

I looked around me and thought, well, if I’m going to continue to support my schooling and my mother and me, she had moved to New York and she was working, but still I had to work. If I’m going to earn a living at all in this, I’m going to have to compete and it’s a very, very fast track. And so, I started looking around. And one day I walked into a room and there was a woman, flamboyant, dyed blonde hair, stentorian voice, grand gestures; a grand dame, in short. Her name was Stella Adler. She talked to me for awhile and asked me why I wanted to study with her and I told her that I had to earn a living and I wanted to do it as well as I could. I just didn’t like amateurism in anybody else, and certainly not of myself, and I would like to learn how to act; really learn how to act and from everything I had read and heard she was the teacher I would like to study with. And she took me.

I studied with her for 2 ½ years; her course was two years and she asked me to stay an additional six months and assist her when I have finished the course. But about six months into it; it was full time, I woke up one morning and looked into the mirror and said, “Who the hell are you kidding? You don’t want to be a lawyer. Never did want to be a lawyer. This is what you would like to do.” And so it began. I embarked on nearly 12 years of full-time education. I studying 2 ½ years with Stella Adler, four years with Harold Clurman, to whom she had been married. He was a founder of the Group Theater; and two years with Robert Lewis, also out of the Group Theater.

I studied modern dance with Hanya Holm and Alvin Nikolai. I then went on to study classical ballet with Ella Digonova. I studied Cecchetti technique with her and then Russian technique with Benhark Harvey.

It came upon me incrementally and finally, I was clearly, for better or for worse, going to devote my life to these arts.

Recorded February 9, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen