Oscar Levant

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Oscar Levant
Oscar Levant in Rhapsody in Blue trailer.jpg
from the trailer for
Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
Born (1906-12-27)December 27, 1906
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died August 14, 1972(1972-08-14) (aged 65)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
Years active 1923–1965
Spouse(s) Barbara Woodell (1932–1932; divorced)
Doris Gilmartin; 1939–1972, his death; 3 children)

Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906 – August 14, 1972) was an American pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor. He was as famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and in movies and television, as for his music.

Early life[edit]

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, in 1906, to an Orthodox Jewish family from Russia, Levant moved to New York in 1922, following the death of his father, Max. He began studying under Zygmunt Stojowski, a well-established piano pedagogue. In 1924, aged 18, he appeared with Ben Bernie in a short film, Ben Bernie and All the Lads, made in New York City in the DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film system.

Career[edit]

In 1928, Levant traveled to Hollywood, where his career took a turn for the better. During his stay, he met and befriended George Gershwin. From 1929 to 1948 he 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.

Around 1932, Levant began composing seriously. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg and impressed him sufficiently to be offered an assistantship (which he turned down, considering himself unqualified).[1] His 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.

At this time, Levant was perhaps best 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."[2] Examples include "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin," "I think a lot of 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."[3]

From the 1930s through the mid-1950s, Levant appeared in a number of feature films, often playing a pianist or composer. He had major supporting roles in the movie musicals The Barkleys of Broadway (1949),[4] starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, An American in Paris (1951),[5] starring Gene Kelly, and The Band Wagon (1953), starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.

From 1947 to 1949, Levant regularly appeared on NBC radio's Kraft Music Hall, starring Al Jolson. He not only accompanied singer Jolson on the piano with classical and popular songs, but often joked and ad-libbed with Jolson and his guests. This included comedy sketches. The pairing of the two entertainers was inspired. 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).

Levant in An American in Paris (1951)

In the early 1950s, Levant was an occasional panelist on the NBC game show Who Said That?, in which celebrities would try to determine the speaker of quotations taken from recent news reports.[6]

Between 1958 and 1960, Levant hosted a television talk show on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, The Oscar Levant Show,[7] which later became syndicated. It featured his piano playing along with monologues and interviews with top-name guests such as Fred Astaire and Linus Pauling. A full recording of only two shows is known to exist,[8] 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 was briefly married to actress Barbara Woodell; they divorced in 1932.[9] In 1939, Levant married for the second time, to singer and actress June Gale (née Doris Gilmartin), one of the Gale Sisters. They were married for 33 years until his death in 1972, and had three children: Marcia, Lorna, and Amanda.[9]

Levant was open about his neuroses and hypochondria. The 1920s and 1930s wit Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, once said of him: "There isn't anything the matter with Levant that a few miracles wouldn't cure."[10] Despite his afflictions, Levant was considered a multifaceted genius by some. He himself wisecracked "There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line."[11] In later life Levant became addicted to prescription drugs, was frequently committed to mental hospitals by his wife, and increasingly withdrew from the limelight.

He was the inspiration for the neurotic, womanizing pianist "Henry Orient" in Nora Johnson's novel and subsequent Hollywood film, The World of Henry Orient (1964).[12]

Death[edit]

Crypt of Oscar Levant at Westwood Memorial Park

A lifelong heavy smoker, Levant died in Beverly Hills, California, of a heart attack in 1972 at age 65. His death was discovered by his wife June when she called him from their bedroom to meet for an interview with Candice Bergen, a photojournalist at the time. He is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. In citing an old joke, comics tell an apocryphal story about Levant: that his epitaph reads, "I told them I was ill."[13]

Filmography[edit]

Broadway[edit]

Memoirs[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Oscar Levant, The Unimportance of Being Oscar, Pocket Books 1969 (reprint of G.P. Putnam 1968), p. 113. ISBN 0-671-77104-3.
  2. ^ On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Books.google.com. Retrieved November 13, 2014. 
  3. ^ https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Oscar_Levant
  4. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041158/
  5. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043278
  6. ^ "Show Overview: Who Said That?". tv.com. Retrieved June 12, 2011. 
  7. ^ Ethan Thompson (2011). "5". Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture. New York: Routledge. Retrieved 13 November 2014. 
  8. ^ [1][dead link]
  9. ^ a b "The Palm Beach Post - Google News Archive Search". News.google.com. Retrieved November 13, 2014. [dead link]
  10. ^ Teichman, Howard, Smark Aleck, the Wit World and Life of Alexander Woollcott (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1976), p. 170
  11. ^ The Author of Love. Books.google.com. Retrieved November 13, 2014. 
  12. ^ Colapinto, John (2012-04-03). "A Star is Born, Lost, and Found". The New Yorker. New York City. Retrieved 2015-12-12. 
  13. ^ "Oscar Levant". Answers.com. Retrieved November 13, 2014. 
  14. ^ Burlesque at the Internet Broadway Database
  15. ^ Ripples at the Internet Broadway Database
  16. ^ Sweet and Low at the Internet Broadway Database
  17. ^ The Fabulous Invalid at the Internet Broadway Database
  18. ^ The American Way at the Internet Broadway Database
  19. ^ The American Way at the Internet Broadway Database

References[edit]

  • 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
  • Dr. Charles Barber. "The Concert Music of Oscar Levant". Department of Music, Stanford University, 1998-2000

External links[edit]