June 08, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Any celebrity who pays a visit to James Lipton’s ”Inside the Actors Studio” finds the host seated behind a curved table — ”a little TV tray,” as this week’s celeb, Robin Williams, calls it, and indeed it does seem like a lacquered, Ethan Allen knockoff of the rickety little thing on which your father might have perched his tinfoil-topped dinner 40-some years ago. Except your dad would have been tuning into ”The Honeymooners,” not Lipton’s celebration of artsy smarm courtesy of Bravo, the quality cable channel that likes its quality edited for vulgarity and interrupted by the occasional classy commercial.

Lipton — his neatly trimmed goatee framing a pair of permanently pursed lips, his eyelashes arduously trained to flutter over his spectacles for maximum impishness — is the epitome of what the writer-editor L. Rust Hills termed the ”fussy man.” The host ceaselessly fingers a thick stack of blue note cards containing questions and biographical trivia: the name of one’s high school drama teacher; the title of the school play that Made You Realize That This Was What You Wanted to Do in Life (factoids that frequently prompt less artful performers to gasp with brazenly faked amazement, ”How did you know that?”).

It’s no wonder Lipton can pull in big names like Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey, and even Tommy Lee Jones, a man who chews up interviewers and squirts them out like tobacco juice. How could anyone resist the sort of sucking-up one receives from Lipton? Just put yourself in an actor’s place. You spend precious chunks of your life promoting your latest projects, sitting across from needy print journalists with sweat-warped reporter’s notebooks and jammed tape recorders (EW writers excepted, of course), answering questions like, ”So what drew you to this role?” The problem is, you never know which of these little buggers is out to ambush you, trying to get you to say something they can twist into an insipidity — or, worst of all, an ”exclusive” — that’ll enable them to show off their own brave independence and their prose style, invariably to the detriment of your image and the multi-jillion-dollar movie of which you’re holding the precarious back-end percentage.

What a relief it is, therefore, for you to enter the precincts of the New School University and know that once the auditorium’s hot lights illuminate you and Lipton, all you’re going to receive is a wet but soothing tongue bath of praise. Not that Lipton doesn’t have his own agenda, of course — it’s just that his dovetails so neatly with your own. His throaty deference makes him look erudite and makes you look like a modest genius in front of a tuition-paying audience of actor/writer/director wannabes, most of whom are hoping, once you see how smart and appreciative they are, you’ll say, ”Hey, why don’t you work on my next film with me?” (Fat chance — no big-shot gave you the time of day when you were coming up; why should you help out one of these theater nerds?)

I started watching this expanded, two-hour version with Robin Williams assuming it would be the ultimate Actors Studio episode: After all, who enjoys adoration more than Williams, the man who took his idol Jonathan Winters’ spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness brilliance and turned it into a carefully rehearsed impersonation of spontaneity?

There are, to be sure, a few priceless Liptonian moments — he asks, ”Are you thinking faster than the rest of us?” and brings hilarious gravitas to the question, ”How was Mork born?” But it turns out that Williams is not Lipton’s ideal object of desire. What usually makes the show a hoot is the way guest and host inter-gush; Williams, however, knows what the audience members want: interaction with them. So he seizes an audience member’s pink shawl and riffs with painful predictability, imitating a gay rabbi (the shawl’s pink — get it?), or draping it over his head to mimic an East Indian, using a pun-punchline about a song he calls ”Whose Sari Now?”

The host, jilted but stalwart, never turns on Williams — you’ll hear effusions for ”Mrs. Doubtfire” and nary a peep about ”Patch Adams.” But Williams does leave Lipton stranded behind his TV tray, his blue cue-card dinner getting colder by the minute.

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