“An Actor by Accident”

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

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

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.