James Lipton

James Lipton talks about the beginning of professional career.

on Feb 20, 2008

For 10 years, from 1994 to 2004, I lived a double life as Executive Producer, writer, and host of Inside the Actors Studio and dean of the Actors Studio Drama School, the master's degree program whose students you now see in our theater at Pace University. During those years, working two full-time jobs, I was able to take two days off between the first of September and the middle of June, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Our show is still geared to the school year because Inside the Actors Studio began as, is still, and will always be a classroom for our master's degree candidates. When we created the show, I was concerned that that might limit our television audience, but since we're in 84,000,000 homes on Bravo and 125 countries, it's clear I was wrong: witness the e-mails from Vienna and Rome, mentioned above, on our Web site.

Looking back, I can't remember a time in my life when I wasn't working. This excerpt from Inside Inside explains why:

At thirteen I began my professional career, washing glass in nitric acid in a photoengraving plant in downtown Detroit. The plant was a cavernous space designed around what looked like a massive bellows camera that transmitted the images in front of its lens to a three-by-three-foot sheet of chemical-coated glass that served as its film.

Once those huge glass negatives had rendered up the positive images that would appear in print, the glass was coated for reuse. Before the recoating, the exposed coating had to be removed by placing the sheets of glass in vats of nitric acid. In order to protect the plant's workers from the toxic nitric acid fumes, the vats were enclosed in a roofed shed in the middle of the room, with a sink and a single naked light bulb hanging overhead. The shed was my place of employment.

I stood facing the sink, with a vat of nitric acid on one side and a tub of clear water on the other. One by one, as quickly as I could, I hauled the sheets of glass up from the acid and placed them and my hands in the sink under running water. Lifting the glass out of the acid required not only speed but great care, since years of use had broken their edges into jagged shards, waiting for me in the vat. Four or five times a day, the glass would get me, a distinctly unpleasant experience.

Rubber gloves were no solution, since the glass would have sliced through the glove, which would have filled with nitric acid, prolonging the unpleasantness. So the only remedy, such as it was, was yanking my bloodied hand out of the acid and plunging it under the constant stream of cold water in the sink until the bleeding stopped and I could go back to the vat for more glass.

Once the glass was in the sink, I rubbed it clean of the last vestiges of coating with blocks of charcoal, then delivered it to the tub of water, and reached into the acid vat for another sheet of glass.

Everyone who has studied even elementary chemistry knows that nitric acid is a test for protein, turning it yellow; and since I was then, and am now, in large part protein, I passed my thirteenth summer with bright yellow hands, like Mickey Mouse's, which led me to spend most of my time away from the plant with my hands plunged deep into my pockets.

August approached and, as the temperature in the shed soared and my spirits plummeted, I searched desperately for, and finally came up with, a palliative to my plight. Since the Detroit public schools offered Latin, which I'd taken eagerly, I would pass the rest of the sultry, acidic summer translating every popular song I knew into Latin. In the unlikely event that anyone reading these pages wonders what Cole Porter's "Night and Day" sounds like in Latin, here, to the best of my recollection, is the kind of Gregorian pop song that shrilled (my voice hadn't yet fully changed) out of my shed hour after hour: Nox et dies, Tu es unica, Sola tu sub lunam aut sub solem. Sive prope me, sive procul, Non nullius momenti est, cara, Ubi tu es, De te cogito, Dies et nox, nox et dies. Shut away in the shed with my acid and glass, I was unaware of the fact that, as my repertoire grew, so did the ire of my co-workers, in equal -- and, in retrospect, understandable -- proportion.

The inevitable day of reckoning came when the boss wrenched the door of my shed open to inform me that the workers were threatening to strike if he didn't stop me. The rest of the summer was spent under the light bulb, in the fumes, fuming, in silence. September and school rescued me. But my childhood was emphatically over; and there has never been a moment, from that day to this, when I haven't been (more or less gainfully) employed. See what I mean?