What was it like to be in Hollywood in the 1930’s and ’40s? You have to read Oscar Levant, I tell ya.
This hearty endorsement comes from Philip Glass, the author and esteemed modern composer of more than 100 features, documentaries, shorts, tv movies, tv productions, video outings — you name it.
On the feature side, Glass is perhaps best known for his terrific scores supporting director Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters and more recently for The Illusionist starring Edward Norton and Taking Lives with Angelina Jolie.
Given his status in the cultural pantheon, Glass surprised a lot of people when he revealed to The New York Times that among his very favorite books on music is Levant’s highly recommended 1965 tome, The Memoirs of an Amnesiac.
Said Glass: It’s a hilariously funny book. (Glass similarly praised Harpo Marx’s 1961 memoir, Harpo Speaks; for more on this silent Marx brother, see our Harpo Quiz published last April 20-21.)
What made these fellows so interesting was that they had tremendous senses of humor and an eye for detail, commented Glass. Having read and enjoyed both books, we completely concur.
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.
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.
In the above photo he’s with director Michael Curtiz and Doris Day, on the set of Doris’ first film Romance on the High Seas. Oscar had a supporting role.
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 The Memoirs of an Amnesia was, To my wife June who picked up the pieces.
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.
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 and wittily eccentric to the end.