Credit this to Oscar Levant. He could really make a memorable first impression.
In 1954 essays for the British magazine Punch, drama and film critic Kenneth Tynan wrote in notebook-diary style about encountering Levant at a Hollywood party. Pianist and wit, (his) face awake bears expression of utter disgust most men wear asleep.
Am put in mind, uncharitably, of squashed bicycle saddle. Pearl is disease of oyster: Levant is disease of Hollywood.
Slouching sickly about room, he announces: ‘People either dislike me or detest me.’
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to ruminate about one of the most idiosyncratic personalities ever to emerge from classic Hollywood movies.
Oscar Levant was unquestionably the most talented musician of any actor to appear onscreen — he played classical concerts throughout his career, and was a pretty good composer to boot. He adored George Gershwin and was the first pianist to record “The Rhapsody In Blue” after the composer himself did , a blatant example of my ingenuous dauntlessness, Levant recalled.
I made the recording in fifteen minutes — I just tossed it off. (In Warner Bros.’ 1945 Gershwin biopic, Rhapsody In Blue, starring Robert Alda as the composer, Levant appears as himself.)
Born in 1906, Oscar was raised in Pittsburgh in a Russian Jewish family that prized orthodox religion, education and, above all, music. By the Twenties, Levant was an accomplished pianist comfortable in a wide range of venues, from vaudeville to Broadway pit bands to classical music studios.
His movie acting appearances — usually sitting at or near a keyboard delivering bon mots and earthy wisecracks — are fairly limited. He made about 15 titles. Most memorable would have to be director Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 MGM musical, An American In Paris, with Levant third-billed after costars Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, playing ‘Adam Cook,’ an acerbic would-be concert pianist.
About MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, Levant had this endorsement of sorts: L.B. was a rather humorless man and I never saw him laugh. But if you had an idea and if he was back of the producer, he was a gambler and the money flowed.
Levant was also third-billed in a pair of two other notable MGM musicals, 1949’s The Barkleys of Broadway costarring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and 1953’s The Band Wagon, both written by Oscar’s close social friends, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. He’s pictured below with so-stars Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Astaire and Nanette Fabray.
Off-camera, Levant and his wife, the former actress June Gale, for better or worse, were inseparable. They had three daughters, whom Levant adored. June was definitely the ballast the family needed to cope with Oscar’s innumerable quirks, multiple mental breakdowns and prescription drug abuse. No wonder Levant’s dedication in one of his autobigraphies was, “To my wife June who picked up the pieces.”
Levant is often described as a wit, usually lacerating and self-directed. He recalled in his The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965) that he and guests were once in Chasen’s Restaurant in Hollywood when a slovenly attired man came in and said hello to me. I cut him dead.
Someone said, ‘ That was Howard Hughes.’ Just to reveal my lack of character, I got up, went to his table, and shook hands with him.
On Orson Welles’ performance in a Southern big daddy role in the 1958 adaptation of William Faulkner’s, The Long Hot Summer, Levant observed: Sometimes he was inaudible – those were his best moments.
Late in his career, television was kind to Oscar. He somehow managed to become in the late 1950’s the host of a popular syndicated talk show coming from the West Coast. Observed veteran TV writer-critic Les Brown: …the program was considered in poor taste by many because it seemed to exploit Levant’s neuroses and his eccentric behavior more than it made use of his conversational or musical talents.
With wife June, Levant also became a frequent guest of Jack Parr on NBC’s The Tonight Show. Parr would often sign off with, “Good Night, Oscar Levant, wherever you are.” Parr would occasionally refer to me as a nut. My wife became annoyed and said she wished he’d stop calling me that. I told her that I’d hate to have to go to court about it.
Levant died in 1972 at the age of 65, irredeemably eccentric to the end. As Tynan wrote, undeniably, a powerful soul.