A Mad Mad Mad 'Mad Men'

James Lipton discusses the intense preparation he (gladly) underwent to interview the cast of 'Mad Men.'

The title of this blogs tells the story. On May 14th you'll see the largest cast ever assembled on our stage. Eight -- count 'em, eight -– members of the Mad Men cast arrayed in front of me and our students and you the viewers.

If you've been watching our show you know we've interviewed casts before -- The Simpsons, Law and Order, Will and Grace, Everybody Loves Raymond, Modern Family, Family Guy, Glee -- but this one breaks the population record: Jon Hamm, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Jared Harris, Kiernan Shipka and the show's co-creator Matt Weiner, lined up and ready to go.

And bear in mind that when I have groups like this on stage, I prepare for each member of the group as if he or she were my only guest. Since it normally takes between seven and 14 days to prepare for a single guest, this show took. . .well, you can do the math. And you know what? I loved every minute of it. I normally watch everything a guest has put on film. In the cases of television series, I watch selected episodes from each season. In the case of Mad Men, I watched every frame of every episode, from their premiere to the night they walked on our stage -- 54 episodes. Not because I was obliged to do so, but quite simply because I was hooked.

In a little more than three years, Mad Men has won three Best Drama Emmys and three Best Drama Golden Globes, and for good reason. It's that good. The writing, the acting, the direction -- every element of the series is fresh, different, and constantly surprising.

Over the years, I've said on Inside the Actors Studio that nothing impresses me more than the ability of an actor -- or a dramatic work -- to stay ahead of the audience. What lay at the heart of Marlon Brando's great gift was the ingenuity and brilliance of his choices. You could never outguess him, never anticipate him. You simply surrendered to the utter unpredictability -– and ultimate inevitability -- of his choices.

For me, the collective creators of Mad Men possess that ability to first startle, then persuade us, drawing us deeper and deeper into the lives of the series' characters. And that's what Matt Weiner and his cast brought to our stage, laying bare their characters' -- and at moments -- their own souls for our students -- and you.

If you watch the episode you'll learn how alike Jon Hamm's and Don Draper's stories are. Look at the faces of his co-stars as he reveals the source of Don. Time and again the groups who've come to us have expressed their astonishment at how much they’re learned about each other on our stage, secrets they hadn't learned in years of intimate daily contact. This night was no exception.

There were lighter moments, too, as when Vincent Kartheiser revealed the similarities between himself and his character, Pete Campbell. Both, he lamented, "are creepy." Jared Harris described his stepfather Rex Harrison with a dry and revealing "He wasn't that fond of children." And Matt Weiner revealed -- to us and Jon Hamm -- that the reason Jon had to audition seven times for the role of Don was that someone at the network kept complaining he wasn't "sexy enough."

Twelve-year-old Kiernan Shipka revealed that she isn't allowed to watch any of the show's scenes but her own, for obvious reasons -- and for the same reason, she was confined to her dressing room with her mother as the cast and I discussed the events and storylines that would have made her presence on stage inappropriate. Since the cast, in their fervor, spent a generous six hours with our students, it was midnight before Kiernan was allowed to come to the stage to be interviewed -- whereupon she, in the words of Entertainment Weekly, stole the show -- by responding to my frequently expressed invitation to dance for our students with a balletic display that brought the house down.

There was more -- much more -- but you'll have to tune in on May 14th to see and hear it. Not exactly a hardship.

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Just Get Me There

James shares why the 'Glee' episode feels so special.

Here it comes: Spring, my favorite time of the year, when everything's new and fresh and promising. Outside my study window, the magnolia tree is exploding into magenta bloom under an azure sky -- and to top it all off, here comes Glee. . .literally and figuratively!

On the night of Glee's visit, our theater at Pace University was packed with 750 ebullient fans, front and center among them the master's degree candidates of the Actors Studio Drama School, as the stars of Glee paraded out on our stage -- Matthew Morrison, Jane Lynch, Cory Monteith, Lea Michelle, and Chris Colfer, led by the series' co-creator Ryan Murphy.

They're all there, waiting for you on Bravo at 8/7C on Monday, April 9th. You've never seen anything like this episode -- not on Inside the Actors Studio -- and maybe not anywhere else. The episode is a non-stop cascade of revelation, confession, songs and dances -- on the screen and live on our stage.

Full disclosure: I admit to a bias toward this episode and these people and Glee because of the world from which I came to Inside the Actors Studio. It's precisely the world to which Rachel Berry, Finn Hudson, and Kurt Hummel aspire, and from which Lea and Matthew come -- the Broadway musical theater, they on the stage and I behind the scenes as the lyricist and book writer of two musicals, Nowhere to Go but Up and Sherry!

When my first musical opened on Broadway, I was only a little older than the characters in Glee, with dreams just like theirs. This is the account of my first opening night in my memoir "Inside Inside":

The show opened on a chilly November night at the historic Winter Garden Theater, where Jolson had sung and, in the years to come, Cats would play 7,485 performances. But on that night when my show opened, I stood alone at the back of the theatre, wrapped in a tuxedo and impenetrable gloom, dead certain that Nowhere to Go but Up would fail, deservedly, and slink off in the direction predicted slyly, if unconsciously, in the first word of its title.

As the couples hurried past my post at the rear of the orchestra, women in evening gowns, men in black tie (in the sixties, evening dress was de rigueur at musical opening nights), I had to fight the impulse to apologize to every one of them for my inadequacies, with which the poor innocents were about to be inflicted.

As the house lights dimmed to half, in sync with my mood, the survival instinct in me stirred. On similar dark occasions in my life, I'd devised a strategy for backing away from the brink by dividing myself into two quite separate beings, one who's in the mess, and one who isn't. By this admittedly schizoid means, I was, in theory, afforded a dispassionate, objective observer who could talk sense to me -- literally. Not aloud (which would constitute legitimate schizophrenia), but silently, sanely, patiently. Over time, I'd had some interesting colloquies with this alter ego -- and one transpired in the Winter Garden Theater that opening night.

"Listen to me," the Other Me said.

"I'm listening."

"Good -- you ungrateful son of a bitch!"

"Ungrateful . . . ?"

"If a genie had popped out of a bottle five years ago, and promised you that one night you'd be standing in the Winter Garden, with the orchestra warming up, and the cast throwing up, and the curtain going up in front of a houseful of people who dressed up, only -- only -- because you sat down one day and wrote, 'Act One, Scene One,' would you have said, 'Yeah, but it's gotta be a hit; promise me that or forget it'? Not a chance! You know what you'd have said? 'Just get me there.'"

On the instant, the hovering clouds broke and scudded away, and somehow on that dark November night, the sun shone in the Winter Garden Theater. My tuxedo nearly burst with the elation and good will, toward everyone -- even me! -- that was surging through me.

Nowhere to Go but Up failed, as I predicted, but a lesson was learned, and I passed it on in my book, and pass it on now to illustrate the incomparable lure of our profession. That's what Glee is all about, and that's what shone like a. . .well, a star. . .on the evening Ryan and the Glee cast came to Inside the Actors Studio. It explains why I'm so fond of this episode, and why I hope you’ll watch it and enjoy it.

As we say on Broadway, break a leg!

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