When news broke of James Gandolfini’s death, one of the first things to get passed around the Internet was Gandolfini’s Inside the Actors Studio, which was both comforting and sad to watch. What does host James Lipton remember about having the late actor on the show? We asked him last night, at a Jägermeister-sponsored screening of John Travolta’s Killing Season.
Your Inside the Actors Studio with James Gandolfini is so iconic. Can you share your memories of doing that with him, what he was like that we didn’t see in the show, how you feel about him?
You’re talking to a man in full makeup. When it happened last night, when the news broke, my wife e-mailed me, and she said, “Look at this immediately.” Within seconds — seconds! — I got an e-mail from the president of Bravo, a brilliant woman, saying, “Jim, after a certain amount of years, our shows go out of license, and this one is out of license. May we re-license this immediately?” So we did that overnight, and it will be on Bravo tomorrow night, Friday night, and Sunday night, because he was wonderful in that, as was John [Travolta]. So then the next call was Piers Morgan. And I’m in Arrested Development, the fourth season, and I’m preparing for an Inside with the entire cast, they’re coming to be on my show, and I’ve been working sixteen, eighteen hours a day. And I like Piers Morgan, but I said, “I’m so sorry, but I have to continue working until midnight tonight.” The phone calls started up today at five in the morning. Somehow Fox got my home number, and I was awakened at five in the morning. So I’ve been on morning shows, I’ve been on nonstop today, Chris Matthews, and I’ve been turning many of them down.
It’s been a strange 24 hours, because I have the temerity for nineteen years of doing Inside the Actors Studio of ending with the question, “If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say at the pearly gates?” And every time somebody dies, bang! I become America’s eulogist, unwittingly. So this happened, and they’re going to play it nonstop. But I still came here tonight because I would have fallen on broken glass for him [John Travolta]. I can’t wait to see his movie. I had so many reasons for wanting to be here, but one amazing reason why I wasn’t [at the movie]. I’m all talked out, but Gandolfini was so terrific that I wanted to do it. And I don’t say the same thing. Each one was different. I have so many memories of him. And everybody’s on that stage for five hours. So you have a lot of memories.
What are some of the memories you haven’t shared yet? Something that made you laugh or smile?
His answer to that last question. “Take over for a while, I’ll be right back.” Because the audience just screamed when he said it. That I remember very keenly. And he’s a member of the Actors Studio, and he studied with Meisner, and, interestingly, he was coached. In every role he ever played as an adult, from the Sopranos on, every movie, he was coached by Susan Aston at the Actors Studio. So when he was on the show with me, there was a lot of connections. One of the strange things about Inside the Actors Studio is, since it’s a master class, in a school in which I was the founding dean, they are there with me for four or five hours, and a lot happens in four or five hours, so a lot of bonding happens and you become friends. That’s what I like most about it, the lifelong friends. James was a long time ago, and I don’t remember every outtake, it’s in the archives, but all of it was good, all of it was wonderful, and I liked him a lot. I’m sad. Can you imagine how many people are going to tune in this weekend, because it’s the only one he ever did …
Do you remember anything you guys talked about before or after the show?
No, I don’t. It was a long time ago, and there were 100 guests in between, and it all becomes a big blur. But he was a hell of an actor.