from the trailer for
Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
|Born||December 27, 1906|
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||August 14, 1972 (aged 65)|
|Barbara Woodell (1932-1932; divorced)|
June Gale (1939-1972, his death; 3 children)
Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906 – August 14, 1972) was an American concert pianist, composer, music conductor, author, radio game show panelist, television talk show host, comedian and actor. Though awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for recordings featuring his piano performances, he was as famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and later in movies and television, as for his music.
Levant was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, in 1906, to Orthodox Jewish parents from Russia. His father, Max, was a watchmaker who wanted his four sons to become either dentists or doctors. His mother Annie was a highly religious woman whose father was a Rabbi who presided over his daughter's wedding to Max Levant.
Oscar Levant moved to New York in 1922, following the death of his father. He began studying under Zygmunt Stojowski, a well-established piano pedagogue. In 1925, aged 18, he appeared with Ben Bernie in a short film, Ben Bernie and All the Lads, made in New York City in the De Forest Phonofilm sound-on-film system.
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). 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.
The year 1938 saw Levant make his debut as a music conductor 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.
At this time, Levant was becoming 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." 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."
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 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.
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).
Between 1958 and 1960, Levant hosted a television talk show on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, The Oscar Levant Show, 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. Full recordings of only two shows are known to exist, one with Astaire, who paid to have a kinescope recording of the broadcast made so that he could assess his performance.
Levant was briefly married to actress Barbara Woodell; they divorced in 1932. In 1939, Levant married his second wife, 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.
Levant talked openly on television about his neuroses and hypochondria. Evidently, he talked openly about them many years before his first television appearance. Writer and humorist Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table who died in 1943, said of him: "There isn't anything the matter with Levant that a few miracles wouldn't cure." 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." In later life Levant became addicted to prescription drugs, was frequently committed to mental hospitals by his wife, and increasingly withdrew from the limelight.
A lifelong heavy smoker and longtime pharmaceutical drug user, Levant died in his house 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. According to Bergen's memoir titled Knock Wood, she had visited the same Beverly Hills house on the previous day; Knock Wood includes one of her photographs from that occasion. In the book Bergen reveals that Levant asked her to return the next day to take more photographs, and she agreed. While she was driving with her camera in her car on the following day, she did not know he had died.
Levant is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. In citing an old joke, some comedians have told an apocryphal story about Levant: that his epitaph reads, "I told them I was ill." His gravestone is actually a small plaque on a columbarium with his name, exact dates of birth / death and nothing else.
More examples of his repartée: