Monday, April 17, 2006

Law & Order: Actors Studio Squad

For those who want to know: Yes, James Lipton is that self-aggrandizing. And for those who may have wondered: If you go to an Inside the Actors Studio taping, don't have plans for later on in the evening. A show may only last an hour on air, but the taping – with starts, stops, meanderings and digressions – may go on several times that length.

The Actors Studio, for those who've never seen it, is based in the idea that your host/teacher, James Lipton, is teaching a class/seminar in acting – and his subjects, who are visiting, are well-known and well-respected actors and actresses. This well ran dry around the second season, which led to them broadening their focus from, say, Paul Newman and Jessica Lange to, well, Ben Affleck. And then they brought in music artists, and finally deigned to allow television (including a raucous episode with the voices behind The Simpsons). Why it took so long to get to Law & Order is only something they can answer.

In days past, the seminar/episode taped at the New School, in an elongated auditorium with a raised stage. For reasons unknown to at least me, they moved to PACE University down by City Hall and now tape in a smaller, concave room with stadium-esque seating, and the stage down in front. There are three cameras, all stationary, and one on a big boom that sweeps across the audience heads and nestles in the aisle at times. Sit near this thing and you'll have the impression an errant 5 year old has been running around at church service.

We have tickets (we're on a list) and get in ahead of most of the others on line, but since a good half of the seats are reserved with papers taped to them, it's tricky finding a good location with multiple seats next to one another. The four rows at dead front, level to the stage, are entirely reserved for guests of the cast members, so you have everyone from Dick Wolf's daughters to the publicist for the shows. There's a lot of shifting around; they want the more student-y people up front, and when all of the seats don't fill in right they remove the reserved ones and you can shift around. We end up right under the boom mic and at one point one of us nearly gets clocked.

A warm-up guy comes out and tests our audience applause levels ("Give me a 7 level! Now, give me a full-out 10!"), then vanishes. James Lipton – stout in a beige suit and somewhat Mefistofeles-ian with his pointed, manicured beard – strides out and takes his seat at the left of the stage. There are four seats across from his small desk, some of which have tables with water on them. He does a short introduction of the show, then brings out one at a time: Dick Wolf, Chris Noth, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Chris Meloni.

A sidebar here, impossible to ignore at least for these longtime Noth fans. The man simply cannot dress himself. Who lets him out of the house like this? If you were going on TV – with your boss no less – would you wear black pants, boots, a blazer jacket … and a ratty green and white T-shirt? Compare this to Wolf and Meloni, who are almost identically dressed in casual black suits (no ties) and Merkerson, in a cute pink wraparound top and heels. If this was a one-time thing, we'd let it pass but the truth is we've heard stories for years about the craptacular wardrobe Noth has for his public appearances. He doesn't disappoint tonight, either.

So, they all come out. Lipton announces that thanks to a "coin flip," Noth will be the first to be asked questions, and he sets up what will be a pattern for all of them. It's nothing short of an interrogation – Lipton starts at the very beginning ("Where were you born?" "What's the origin of your last name?" "What did your parents do?" "How many siblings did you have?") and goes through with meticulous detail in just about every area of this person's life, getting even more specific once acting comes into the picture. From what I can recall (bear in mind this is almost a week ago), much of the Noth saga is familiar – from Wisconsin, mother a famous news correspondent for CBS, father fought in Korea and came back to sell insurance but wasn't really quite the same, died in a car crash. Alcohol seemed to be a factor, but I can't recall if it was in the crash or just in life. The family moved around a lot, thanks to mom's job – he recalled their being in Russia because mom was doing a story on the educational system there, and they had to basically flee because they were getting kicked out of the country. Back in America he went to school in Connecticut at a fairly liberal-style school (no grades, for example) and noted that there was, for example, skinny-dipping going on amongst the students. Going to college he woke up and had to do some real hard work. After college he batted around New York doing the acting thing, but found not a lot worth doing, so he ended up at Yale and was immersed in the great roles actors always long for. Later on Lipton would talk to all of them about Law & Order itself; the one thing that stands out to me is that Noth took credit for coming up with a) the American flag lapel pin (which he wore because he'd learned cops were at one point told not to wear them, there was a media flap and then the cops were allowed to; he saw it as a way for the young Logan character to be a bit square, by wearing it) and b) the plaid ties (which he said his mother gave him, if I recall correctly. In any case, they're his and he still has them).

Epatha goes next; she's wonderful and lively and has a million stories and tries to keep her mouth under control but lets a few gems fly. She's from Detroit (at which point Lipton breaks the conversational flow and decides to let us all know that's where he's from, that he's waited all these years on this show to refer to the high school they both apparently went to, which of course says a lot about Lipton) and she took dancing for many years, but always got relegated to the chorus girl roles – largely because she was black. The "S" stands for something fairly plain and normal, but she always got called "Epatha" and if she tells anyone what "S" stands for they'll just use the "S" name and she prefers "Epatha." (The IMDb says it's "Sharon.") She just tells people it means "Sweet." Anyway, she got stuck with the chorus girl roles because no one would cast her in a lead – fortunately by the time she got to New York she found a lot of great roles (contrasting with Noth's experience) in black theater, which was then being funded by the government, and she had a lot of people give her hints along the way, including Laurence Fishburne and Denzel Washington. She got the job doing "Mushrooms" on the show in the first season and just loved it – she'd never watched the show before deciding to try out, then watched a few and got hooked – and still feels that's the best job she ever did. When the role came up of Anita, Wolf's daughters remembered her from her Pee Wee's Playhouse role and insisted he hire her. She turned to them and noted that whenever she sees them she thanks them for her job, and there was much laughter from that. Anyway, she's just delightful to listen to, clearly thrilled to be doing what she is, and empowered by it. Again: Contrast with Noth, who just kind of seems to show up. I don't know body language but my friend who was with me noted that Noth sat slumped and hostile in his body language (towards Wolf, not Epatha) the whole night; she was delighted by the interplay going on of things not being said.

Early on in Epatha's interrogation, a strange thing happened: Chris Meloni got up and walked off the stage. At first, this seemed the height of rudeness, but no one onstage really blinked. Lipton turned to the audience and noted that Chris had really been a trooper all evening – apparently he had a terrible stomach bug (so did his family) and he might have to leave the stage from time to time. As it turned out, he just couldn't make it back, and they had to re-shoot the entire opening and re-arrange things so that it would appear they only ever intended to have three people plus Lipton on stage.

Another sidebar: They may have had their reasons, but I got furious at the producers of the show at this point – they knew he was ailing and they made that poor man sit on stage and stare at his shoes for over a half hour before he just had to cut out. Why couldn't that "coin toss" have included Meloni first? What a waste. I'd have been pissed if I was him; he was probably too sick to even think much about it. In any case, while he was on stage you'd never have known there was anything wrong with him – he was calm and quiet and present, if not very involved. I thought he seemed relaxed, right until the moment he left.

Lipton finally got around to Wolf. Things I can recall from that interrogation included that both of his parents worked for NBC before they met; he was a member of the Peanut Gallery (on the Howdy Doody Show, I have to presume) because he had connections, as a kid; he lived in Turtle Bay (on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and although I might have misheard I think Chris's brother now lives in the building where Wolf grew up) and went to the prestigious North Andover Academy prep school. One of his classmates was … wait for it: George W. Bush. And while I think it's safe to say that Wolf is no Bush apologist (though maybe he is in secret), he did say that Bush was the most-liked person in the school at the time, and that he really isn't a dummy, Wolf noted that Harvard doesn't give out MBAs to dummies. Fair enough. Beyond that, I can't recall a whole lot about Wolf.

And then Lipton got into the show itself, and talked to them about the show. My guess is the bulk of that will appear on the Actors Studio show, so I'll skim over that part of things (and plus I don't remember but so much).

Afterwards, they took a break and most (like 98%) of the audience left. They had enough to fill the front four rows with students and guests to ask questions; we came back from a bathroom break to watch from the far back corner and Lipton went into the goofy Proustian questions he always asks: What's your favorite word? Least favorite word? Favorite sound? Least favorite sound? What's your favorite curse? Etc. The ones that stood out to me were Epatha's favorite curse: Muthafucka (which she spelled out for us) and Wolf's least favorite sound: "The CSI Theme." Chuckles all around. Following that, the audience got to ask questions. There were some PACE students, but also some New School ones, and even a few invitees from John Jay college (which has a criminal justice program). After about 6 or 7 semi-interesting questions, we took off.

They let us in for seating around 6:30. We left at 10:45. But incredibly well informed!

Inside the Actors Studio: Law & Order airs Sunday, May 7.


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