Lipton was born on September 19, 1926, in Detroit, Michigan, to Betty (née Weinberg), a teacher and librarian and Lawrence Lipton, a journalist and poet. Lawrence was also a graphic designer, a columnist for the Jewish Daily Forward, and a publicity director for a movie theater. James was an only child.
His parents divorced when he was six and his father abandoned the family.
Due to financial instabilities,Lipton started to work at age 13. In high school, he worked as a newspaper copy boy for the Detroit Times, as an actor in the Catholic Theater of Detroit and in radio. After graduating from Central High School in Detroit, he attended Wayne State University for one year in the mid-1940s and enlisted in the United States Air Force.
Lipton portrayed Dan Reid, the Lone Ranger’s nephew, on WXYZ Radio’s The Lone Ranger. He also wrote for several soap operas including Another World, The Edge of Night, Guiding Light where he played the role of doctor Dick Grant , The Best of Everything and Capitol. In 1951, he appeared in the Broadway play The Autumn Garden by Lillian Hellman and In the 1953 film,The big break,he portrayed Marty, a shipping clerk turned gang member.
He was the librettist and lyricist for the 1967 Broadway musical Sherry!, based on the Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman play The Man Who Came to Dinner, with music by Laurence Rosenthal. The score and orchestrations were however lost for over 30 years, and the original cast was never recorded. In 2003, a studio cast recording with Nathan Lane, Bernadette Peters, Carol Burnett, Tommy Tune and Mike Myers, just to name a few, renewed interest in the show.
Lipton’s book ,An exaltation of Larks, was first published in 1968. In 1983, Lipton published his novel, Mirrors that he later wrote and produced as a made-for-television movie.
Lipton appeared on several episodes of Arrested Development as Warden Stefan Gentles. In 2008, he provided the voice for the Director in the Disney animation film Bolt and played “himself” as Brain Wash, interviewer of the monster Eva’s acting teacher in the Paris-Vietnam animated film Igor. Lipton also appears twice in the third episode of season 8 “Spies reminiscent of us” of Family Guy where he simply says “Improv!” both times.
Lipton married his first wife, actress Nina Foch, in 1954 but they divorced in 1959. He later married his second wife, Kendakai Lipton, in 1970,who was the book and illustration designer for An exaltation of Larks,The Limited Edition.
Lipton was a pilot, certified in Airplane Single Engine Land planes and had been flying since 1980.He had learned in a Cessna 152 and 172, at Van Nuys Airport. As of 2013, he had logged more than 1,000 hours of flight time. He was also a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
Lipton died of bladder cancer at his home in Manhattan on March 2, 2020, at the age of 93.