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Oscar Levant

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Oscar Levant
Levant in the trailer for
Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
Born(1906-12-27)December 27, 1906
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedAugust 14, 1972(1972-08-14) (aged 65)
  • Concert pianist
  • composer
  • conductor
  • author
  • actor
  • comedian
  • TV talk show host
  • radio personality
Years active1923–1965
(m. 1932; div. 1933)
(m. 1939)

Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906 – August 14, 1972) was an American concert pianist, composer, conductor, author, radio game show panelist, television talk show host, comedian, and actor. He had roles in the films Rhapsody in Blue (1945), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), An American in Paris (1951), and The Band Wagon (1953). He was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 for recordings featuring his piano performances.[1] He was portrayed by Sean Hayes in the Broadway play Good Night, Oscar, written by Doug Wright.[2][3][4] Levant appeared as himself in the Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue (1945).

Early life[edit]

Levant was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, in 1906, to Orthodox Jewish Max, a watchmaker, and Annie, who emigrated from Russia.[5] Levant's parents were married by his mother's father, who was a rabbi.[5]: 4–5 

Levant moved to New York in 1922. He began studying under Zygmunt Stojowski. In 1925, Levant appeared with Ben Bernie in a short sound film, Ben Bernie and All the Lads, made in New York City with the De Forest Phonofilm sound-on-film system. In the 1920s, Levant recorded with the Ben Bernie Orchestra.


Levant traveled to Hollywood in 1928, where his career took a turn for the better. During his stay, he met and became friends with George Gershwin. From 1929 to 1948, Levant composed the music for more than twenty movies. During this period, he also wrote or co-wrote numerous popular songs that made the hit parade, the most noteworthy being "Blame It on My Youth" (1934), now considered a standard.

Levant in An American in Paris (1951)

Levant began composing seriously around 1932. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg and impressed Schoenberg sufficiently to be offered an assistantship (which he turned down, considering himself unqualified).[6] These formal studies led to a request by Aaron Copland to play at the Yaddo Festival of contemporary American music on April 30 of that year. Successful, Levant began composing a new orchestral work, a sinfonietta.

Levant made his debut as a music conductor in 1938 on Broadway, filling in for his brother Harry in sixty-five performances of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s The Fabulous Invalid. In 1939, he was again working on Broadway as composer and conductor of The American Way, another Kaufman and Hart production.[7] He was a talented pianist and was well known for his recorded works of Gershwin, and numerous classical composers. During a time in the 1940s, he was the highest paid concert pianist in the United States.[8]

Also, at this time, Levant was becoming known to American audiences as one of the regular panelists on the radio quiz show Information Please. Originally scheduled as a guest panelist, Levant proved so quick-witted and popular that he became a regular fixture on the show in the late-1930s and 1940s, along with fellow panelists Franklin P. Adams and John Kieran and moderator Clifton Fadiman. "Mr. Levant," as he was always called, was often challenged with musical questions, and he impressed audiences with his depth of knowledge and facility with a joke. Kieran praised Levant as having a "positive genius for making offhand cutting remarks that couldn't have been sharper if he'd honed them a week in his mind. Oscar was always good for a bright response edged with acid."[9] Examples include "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin," "I think a lot of [conductor/composer Leonard] Bernstein—but not as much as he does," and (after Marilyn converted to Judaism when she married playwright Arthur Miller), "Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her.” [10][11][12]

Georges Guétary, Levant, and Gene Kelly in An American in Paris (1951)

Levant appeared in feature films, starting from the 1920s until the mid-50s, often playing a pianist or composer. He had supporting roles in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; An American in Paris (1951), starring Gene Kelly; and The Band Wagon (1953), starring Astaire and Cyd Charisse.[13] Oscar Levant regularly appeared on NBC radio's Kraft Music Hall, starring singer Al Jolson. He not only accompanied Jolson on the piano with classical and popular songs, but often joked and ad-libbed with Jolson and his guests. This included comedy sketches. Their individual ties to George Gershwin—Jolson introduced Gershwin's "Swanee"—undoubtedly had much to do with their rapport. Both Levant and Jolson appeared as themselves in the Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue (1945).

In the early 1950s, Levant was an occasional panelist on the NBC radio and television game show Who Said That?.[14] Levant hosted a talk show on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles from 1958 -1960, The Oscar Levant Show,[15] which was later syndicated. It featured his piano playing along with monologues and interviews with guests such as Fred Astaire and Linus Pauling. Full recordings of only two shows are known to have survived,[16] one with Astaire, who paid to have a kinescope recording of the broadcast made so that he could assess his performance.

Personal life[edit]

Levant married actress Barbara Woodell in 1932. The couple divorced in 1933.[17] In 1939, Levant married singer and actress June Gale; they had three daughters, Marcia, Lorna, and Amanda.[18][19]

Levant talked publicly about his neuroses and hypochondria.[20] Levant became addicted to prescription drugs and was committed to psychiatric hospitals by his wife.[21]


Crypt of Oscar Levant at Westwood Memorial Park

In August 1972, Levant died of a heart attack at his Beverly Hills, California, home at the age of 65. Levant's body was discovered by his wife, June, when she called to him for an interview with Candice Bergen, who was then working as a photojournalist. Bergen had shot photos of Levant on a previous visit, one of which was published in her memoir, Knock Wood.[22]

Levant is interred in the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.


Actor John Garfield used Levant as a model when creating the character of troubled genius Mickey Borden in the 1938 film Four Daughters.[23] Levant was the inspiration for the neurotic, womanizing pianist Henry Orient in Nora Johnson's novel The World of Henry Orient (1964).[24]

In April 2023, a play about Levant's life written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright premiered on Broadway. The play, Good Night, Oscar, premiered at the Belasco Theatre and starred Sean Hayes, who received a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his performance.[25] Good Night, Oscar was a fictionalized version of a true event in Levant's life, when he was given a four-hour furlough from a psychiatric hospital to allow him to appear on The Tonight Show.[26][27]

Acting credits[edit]





Another example of his repartée:

  • "It's not what you are; it's what you don't become that hurts."[33][34]



  1. ^ "Oscar Levant". Hollywood Walk of Fame. October 25, 2019.
  2. ^ Hall, Margaret (March 14, 2023). "Emily Bergl, Alex Wyse, Marchánt Davis, More Join Good Night, Oscar". Playbill. Retrieved March 18, 2023.
  3. ^ "Good Night, Oscar". Goodman Theatre. Retrieved March 18, 2023.
  4. ^ Wild, Stephi. "Full Cast Announced For GOOD NIGHT, OSCAR as Rehearsals Begin". BroadwayWorld.com. Retrieved March 18, 2023.
  5. ^ a b Kashner, Sam (1994). A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant. New York: Villard/Random House. p. 3. ISBN 1-879505-39-8.
  6. ^ Levant, Oscar The Unimportance of Being Oscar, Pocket Books 1969 (reprint of G.P. Putnam 1968), p. 113. ISBN 0-671-77104-3.
  7. ^ "Classical Net - Composers - Levant". Classical Net.
  8. ^ Horowitz, Joseph (August 10, 2019). "'Completely Unmasked at All Times': On the Complete Piano Recordings of Oscar Levant". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved June 26, 2021.
  9. ^ Dunning, John (May 7, 1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199840458. Retrieved November 13, 2014 – via Books.google.com.
  10. ^ Giardina, Anthony (December 23, 2019). "The Lives They Lived". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved June 26, 2021.
  11. ^ Reich, Howard (January 21, 1990). "The Laughs Last". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved June 26, 2021.
  12. ^ Harding, Les (2012). They Knew Marilyn Monroe: Famous Persons in the Life of the Hollywood Icon. McFarland & Co. ISBN 978-0786466375.
  13. ^ "Oscar Levant". IMDb. Retrieved June 26, 2021.
  14. ^ "Show Overview: Who Said That?". tv.com. Retrieved June 25, 2021.
  15. ^ Ethan Thompson (2011). "5". Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781136839801. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  16. ^ "UCLA Library Catalog - Titles". Archived from the original on July 8, 2012. Retrieved December 28, 2009.
  17. ^ Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, A Talent For Genius: the Life and Times of Oscar Levant (Villard/Random House, 1994; Silman-James Press, 1998); ISBN 1-879505-39-8
  18. ^ "Meet your hostess". tessa :: Photo Collection. Los Angeles Public Library. Retrieved December 2, 2021. Photograph caption dated March 10, 1964 reads, "Posed amidst and dwarfed by huge Easter bunnies, Amanda Levant, daughter of wit-pianist Oscar Levant, prepares for her duties as a hostess at the Teen-Age Fair, due March 20–29 at the Hollywood Palladium."
  19. ^ "The Palm Beach Post - Google News Archive Search". Archived from the original on April 11, 2013. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  20. ^ Teichman, Howard, Smark Aleck, the Wit World and Life of Alexander Woollcott (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1976), p. 170
  21. ^ "Oscar Levant: Hollywood's First Celebrity Meltdown". NPR. December 24, 2006. Retrieved August 23, 2023.
  22. ^ Bergen, Candice (2014) [1984]. Knock Wood. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-476-77013-0.
  23. ^ "Four Daughters". www.tcm.com. Retrieved February 16, 2023.
  24. ^ Colapinto, John (April 3, 2012). "A Star is Born, Lost, and Found". The New Yorker. New York City. Retrieved December 12, 2015.
  25. ^ Jacobs, Julia (June 12, 2023). "Sean Hayes Wins Best Leading Actor in a Play for 'Good Night, Oscar'". The New York Times.
  26. ^ Christian Lewis (April 25, 2023). "'Good Night, Oscar' Review: Sean Hayes Gives a Bravura Performance as Late-Night TV Virtuoso". variety.com. Variety Media. Retrieved May 1, 2023.
  27. ^ Jesse Green (April 24, 2023). "'Good Night, Oscar' Review: Sean Hayes With Demerol and Cadenzas". The New York Times. Archived from the original on April 25, 2023. Retrieved May 1, 2023.
  28. ^ "Burlesque". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  29. ^ "Ripples". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  30. ^ "Sweet and Low". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  31. ^ "The Fabulous Invalid". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  32. ^ "The American Way". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  33. ^ "The Memoirs of an Amnesiac". Classicalmpr.org. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  34. ^ Levant, Oscar. "Quotations at wikiquotes". En.wikiquote.org. Retrieved December 30, 2017.


External links[edit]