Sam Levene (1936)
August 28, 1905
|Died||December 28, 1980 (aged 75)|
New York City, U.S.
|Resting place||Mount Carmel Cemetery, Glendale, Queens|
|Alma mater||American Academy of Dramatic Arts|
(m. 1953; div. 19)
Sam Levene (born Scholem Lewin, August 28, 1905 - December 28, 1980) was a Broadway, film, radio and television actor who in a career spanning more than five decades created some of the most legendary comedic roles in American theatrical history, including Nathan Detroit, the craps-shooter extraordinaire, in the 1950 original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls (1950), Max Kane, the hapless agent, in the original 1932 Broadway production of Dinner at Eight (1932); Patsy, a professional if not always successful gambler, in the 1935 original and longest running Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935); Gordon Miller, the shoestring producer, in the original 1937 Broadway production of Room Service (1937); Sidney Black, a theatrical producer, in Moss Hart's original Broadway production of Light Up the Sky (1948), Horace Vandergelder, the crotchety merchant of Yonkers, in the 1954 premier UK production of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker (1954), a play that became the basis for the musical Hello Dolly, Lou Winkler, a businessman in the original Broadway production of Fair Game (1957) a comedy by Sam Locke that Larry Gelbart attributed its 217 performance run mostly to the performance and star drawing power of Sam Levene who appeared in the comedy with Ellen McRae in her Broadway debut and would later change her name to Ellen Burstyn; and Al Lewis, the retired vaudevillian, in the original 1972 Broadway production of The Sunshine Boys (1972), Neil Simon's beloved salute to vaudevillians opposite Jack Albertson as Willie Clark, a role Levene performed 466 times on Broadway, first with Jack Albertson until October 28, 1974 and later opposite Jack Gilford, October 30, 1974 until February 10, 1975. In 1984, Levene was posthumously inducted in the American Theatre Hall of Fame and in 1998, Sam Levene along with the original Broadway cast of the 1950 Guys and Dolls Decca cast album posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Levene effortlessly segued between starring roles in over 100 productions on stage, radio, television and film, appearing in a variety of roles, including policemen, servicemen, gamblers, gangsters, newspaper reporters, theatrical producer, actor's agent, dress manufacturer and even a psychiatrist was equally adept in segueing from comedy to farce and drama. Levene was the archetypal New Yorker on stage and screen who shined in creating rough character parts, often playing working class roles with names like Patsy, Dino and Hymie and appeared with a legendary roster of stars and directors. For 54 years Levene was a consistent presence on Broadway; in 1927 Levene made his Broadway debut in the melodrama Wall Street with a five line part and in 1980, his last Broadway appearance, a starring role in a comedy directed by Joshua Logan. Levene appeared in a staggering list of 39 Broadway productions, many of them bona-fide hits, 33 of which were the original Broadway productions. A consummate actor, who was equally adept in comedy and drama, Levene received greater recognition and praise for his comedic expertise and extraordinary stage timing who routinely received critical acclaim, even when the show itself was not of top quality. Levene earned a niche in American theatrical history by perfecting a certain species of comic hero and for the majority of those appearances, Levene was a Broadway star who consistently received above-title billing. For his performance as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, Levene, Vivian Blaine and Robert Alda each received above-the-title billing, which Levene continued to receive for each of his subsequent Broadway performances, even starring in Horowitz and Mrs. Washington, receiving above-title top billing in 1980, the year he passed away, with Esther Rolle who received billing after Levene. Although stars of Broadway revivals are generally billed alphabetically Levene received first place over-the-title billing over eight stars in the 1969 all-star Three Men on a Horse revival; followed by Jack Gilford, Dorothy Loudon, Hal Linden, Rosemary Printz, Butterfly McQueen, Leon Janney and Paul Ford whose eighth place billing was preceded with "and", and as a result, Ford's who's who Playbill biography was fourth. Levene's longevity was due in part to his ability to show the amiability and even sweetness beneath the rough hewn tough exteriors of his characters, however bad they may have seemed. Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor observe "the theater has always embraced certain stars as one of their own, comedians who both ennoble and energize a live event with their presence", and include Levene on a list of Broadway stars along with Beatrice Lillie, Carol Channing, Robert Morse, Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane.
Born in Russia, Levene came to the United States when he was two years old. Levene grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Avenue D and 8th Street and attended Public School 64. Levene who should have been a 1923 graduate of Stuyvesant High School dropped out and also failed to qualify for the school's dramatic society. Since Levene had been in the class of Broadway for over five decades, the illustrious dropout was given a special award, his Stuyvesant High School diploma, in a 1976 ceremony held at the New York's Princeton Club. Aspiring to become a physician, Levene's medical career was sidelined when he was exposed to the virus of the theatre at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
In 1923 Levene was working as a cutter for his older brother Joe, proprietor of a Madison avenue dressmaking business, aspiring to become the best dress salesman in the garment industry. Joe agreed to consider Sam for the job if Sam "got more poise" so Sam decided to take diction lessons at night to remove traces of his Yiddish accent at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Charles Jehlinger, Director of the American Academy encouraged Levene to become an actor and provided him with a full scholarship so he could attend as a day student. Levene's speech improved perceptibly; by the time he graduated in 1927, he lost his desire for the garment industry and from then on, his only product was "Sam Levene".
Levene's father, Harry Levine, an orthodox Jewish cantor never saw Levene act and never went to a theatre, but Levene's mother, Beth Weiner, saw every one of Levene's performances. Sam Levene was stubbornly proud of his Jewish heritage and refused all requests by directors and producers who tried to persuade the actor to anglicize his last name, something that occurred frequently early in Levene's career. Originally known as Sammy Levine early in his career, Levene changed the "i" to an "e" in his surname to avoid confusion at Actor's Equity, the theatrical union, with another actor at the time using the name "Sam Levine" so Sam decided to spell "Levene" phonetically.
Levene made his Broadway stage debut earning $60 week under his first Actor's Equity contract on April 20, 1927 with a five-line part as an assistant district attorney in the original Broadway melodrama, Wall Street, at the Hudson Theatre. Although Levene's first Broadway show lasted three weeks, his Broadway career ran 54 years; he appeared in 38 Broadway shows, most of them original Broadway productions. Levene's 54 year Broadway career began with five years of steady employment with nondescript roles in ten Broadway plays, including a successive series of flops; one titled Solitaire (1929), was a Broadway play about a Coney Island midget that ran four performances at the now demolished Waldorf Theatre, partially financed with a $500 last minute investment from Levene's brother Joe. In 1932, Levene's career struggle ended when he landed the comedic role of Max Kane, the actor's agent, in a bona-fide hit, the original Broadway production of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's Dinner at Eight, which had a 232 performance run. Seven years after making his Broadway debut, Levene was recognized as a Broadway star when he originated the role of Patsy in his 15th Broadway play, the leader of the bar room turf in the original Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935) directed by co-author George Abbott which had a long-run of 835 performances, which temporarily held a long-run record for a non-musical Broadway play. Levene repeated his Broadway success of Three Men on a Horse when he starred as Gordon Miller, the shoestring producer, in the Broadway farce, Room Service (1937), also directed by the legendary George Abbott, which had a 500 performance long-run on Broadway.
Levene appeared in over 50 theatrical stage productions in the United States and abroad, including 39 Broadway productions, 33 of which were performances Levene created in the original Broadway productions, and a ten-month USO tour. Levene's Broadway credits include lauded legendary star turns creating sharply etched comedic and dramatic performances in original Broadway productions now considered a part of 20th century American theatrical history including: Max Gordon in Dinner at Eight (1932), Gordon Miller, the hilarious shoestring producer, in the smash hit farce Room Service (1937) directed by George Abbott, Patsy, the lovable gambler, in Three Men on a Horse (1935), Officer Finkelstein, a Jewish cop guarding the Nazi consul, played by Otto Preminger, in Margin for Error (1939), Sidney Black, the Broadway producer, a role playwright Moss Hart told Levene was largely a self-portrait of the author, in Light Up the Sky (1948), Nathan Detroit, a role written and crafted specifically for Levene by Abe Burrows in Guys and Dolls (1950), Fair Game'' (1957), Dr. Aldo Meyer in the original Broadway production of The Devil's Advocate (1961), written, produced and directed by Dore Schary, based on the novel by Morris West, for which Levene was nominated for the 1961 Tony Award for Best Actor in a play, and Al Lewis, the retired vaudevillian Levene created and performed with Jack Albertson as Willie Clark in the original 1972 Broadway production of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (1972); Levene and Albertson reprised their star performances in the 1974 first national tour. Levene succeeded Albertson in the role of Willie Clark when he left the 1974 National tour, performing the role opposite Ned Glass as Al Lewis, who was subsequently replaced by Jack Somack.
Sam Levene starred in three Broadway revivals, portraying Boss Mangan in George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House (1959) directed by Harold Clurman, recreated his original Broadway performance as Patsy in the all-star Broadway revival of Three Men On A Horse (1969) and performed the role of Oscar Wolfe in the all-star 1975-76 Broadway revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family (1975) directed by Ellis Rabb; the production was filmed for the PBS series Great Performances on November 9, 1977; this version was released on DVD. Levene succeeded comedian Alan King in the starring role of Dr. Jack Kingsley in The Impossible Years (1965), which Levene directed and starred in the 1967 National tour. Levene starred in numerous touring stage productions including Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; Sidney Black in several productions of Light Up The Sky; Patsy in Three Men on a Horse which Levene directed; Michael Freeman in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?; Jerry Kingsley in Middle Of The Night; Walter Hollander in the first National tour of Don't Drink the Water, which Levene directed and co-starred with several leading ladies including, Vivian Blaine, Selma Diamond, Marjorie Lord and directed a second touring production co-starring Phil Foster and Vivian Blaine; a 1975 tour of Sabrina Fair which included performances at The National Theatre, Washington, DC; on 10/2/75 President Gerald R. Ford and Mrs. Ford invited Levene and co-stars Arlene Francis and Maureen O'Sullivan to a White House State Dinner in honor of the Emperor and Empress of Japan.
Levene starred in two major UK productions; in 1953, he recreated his legendary performance as Nathan Detroit in the first UK production of Guys and Dolls which opened at the Coliseum a few days before the 1953 Coronation which had an extraordinary run of 553 performances. In 1954, Sam Levene originated the role of Horace Vandergelder in the world premiere production of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker (1954), initially at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, and performed the role 274 times opposite Ruth Gordon as Dolly Levi at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London's West End, directed by Tyrone Guthrie.
Levene has been synonymous with the role of Nathan Detroit for seven decades; Guys and Dolls book writer Abe Burrows specifically crafted the role of Nathan Detroit around and for Levene who signed for the project long before Burrows ever wrote a single word of dialogue, a similar break Burrows said he had when he wrote Cactus Flower for Lauren Bacall. In "Honest, Abe: Is There Really No Business Like Show Business?", Burrows recalls "I had the sound of their voices in my head. I knew the rhythm of their speech and it helped make the dialogue sharper and more real." Burrows had the advantage of writing dialogue built around Sam Levene's New York Jewish cadences. The creative talent of Guys and Dolls agreed Levene was perfect for the role of Nathan Detroit (Damon Runyon had one of Levene's fans). Frank Loesser agreed it was easier adjusting the music to Levene's limitations than substituting a better singer who couldn't act. Levene is the reason the lead role of Nathan Detroit has only one song, the duet "Sue Me".Laurence Olivier said that Sam Levene's performance as Nathan Detroit was the greatest stage performance he'd ever seen. Not known as a singer, Levene originated the "craps-shooter extraordinaire" Nathan Detroit in the seminal American musical Guys and Dolls on the Great White Way in the original 1950 production directed by the inimitable George S. Kaufman, which ran for 1,200 performances.
Hundreds of productions of Guys and Dolls are mounted annually and Sam Levene's legendary comedic performance as Nathan Detroit still makes headlines, largely because it the gold standard classic. Frank Rich, Chief Theatre Critic, The New York Times, like most critics, lauded the 1992 Guys and Dolls revival directed by Jerry Zaks stating: this is an enchanting rebirth of the show that defines Broadway dazzle. However, regarding Nathan Lane's performance as Nathan Detroit, Frank Rich observedthe supremely gifted actor Nathan Lane does not remotely echo the first Nathan Detroit, Sam Levene, for whose New York Jewish cadences the role was written. Mr. Lane is more like a young Jackie Gleason and usually funny in his own right, though expressions like "all right, already" and "so nu?" do not fall trippingly from his tongue. Los Angeles Times Critic Emeritus Sylvie Drake reviewed the 1993 touring production of Guys and Dolls also directed by Jerry Zaks at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre had a similar observation, comparing David Garrison's portrayal of Nathan Detroit to Sam Levene's original 1950 Broadway performance, writing: The wiry Garrison's Detroit physically harks back more to the 1950 original played by Sam Levene, than to Nathan Lane, who played the role on Broadway last year. But unlike Levene, Garrison doesn't come across down, dirty or gritty. Knowing this actor's talent, one finds his amiable New York gangster surprisingly bloodless and almost genteel.
Levene performed the role of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls over 1,600 times, initially 41 times in the 1950 pre-Broadway Philadelphia tryout where each performance was different, two years performing his classic role in the original Broadway production, a week's stint at London's Bristol Hippodrome before co-starring with Vivian Blaine for a year in the first UK production, six months performing the role twice daily in the first Las Vegas production and the 15th anniversary six week production, three weeks in Mineola, New York and three weeks in Paramus New Jersey in 1965. In a 1974 interview with The New York Times, "Levene said he played the part of Nathan Detroit so long that some Broadway wag once suggested he was born born playing the Damon Runyon character".
Levene reprised his legendary performance on the Decca original cast recording of the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls according to Variety magazine, original cast album sales totaled 250,000 as of 9/1/54. Guys and Dolls composer and lyricist Frank Loesser specifically wrote "Sue Me" in one octave for Levene and structured the song so he and Vivian Blaine never sang their show-stopping duet number together; the son of a cantor, Levene was fluent in Yiddish: "Alright, already, I'm just a no-goodnick; alright, already, it's true, so nu? So sue me." Frank Loesser felt "Nathan Detroit should be played as a brassy Broadway tough guy who sang with more grits than gravy." Levene sang "Sue Me" with "such a wonderful Runyonesque flavor that his singing had been easy to forgive, in fact it had been quite charming in its ineptitude."
Alan Alda, son of Guys and Dolls co-star Robert Alda, recalls watching Levene perform Nathan Detroit while standing in the wings. In "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed; And Other Things I've Learned", Alan Alda recalls "Watching Sam Levene was thrilling. He could ride a moment as if a wild animal. New meanings occurred to him on the spot. Not only did he play the same lines differently every night, but the laughs rolled in from the audience in different places. How did he do it? This kind of spontaneity and this utter commitment to the moment became what I wanted to have. As good as my father was, what I was seeing as they played together a few feet away was the difference between burlesque and theatre, between performing and acting. I chose acting. I wanted to be Sam."
In 1953 Levene reprised the role of Nathan Detroit in the first UK production of Guys and Dolls at London's Coliseum, performing the legendary role for 555 performances, including a Royal Command Variety Performance for Queen Elizabeth on November 9, 1953. Sam Levene performed the role of Nathan Detroit twice daily in a reduced version of Guys and Dolls when the first Las Vegas production opened a six-month run at the Royal Nevada, September 7, 1955, the first time a Broadway musical was performed on the strip. In 1965, Sam Levene and Vivian Blaine, recreated their original Broadway roles as Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide in the 15th anniversary revival of Guys and Dolls at the Mineola Theatre, Mineola, New York and Paramus Playhouse, New Jersey.
For three decades Levene reprised his role as Patsy from Three Men on a Horse (1935) numerous times on stage, film, TV and radio; the first time when he made his motion picture debut in Three Men on a Horse (1936) directed and produced by Mervyn LeRoy; three times on radio, two USO tours playing 200 shows to 120,000 servicemen, the first legitimate U.S. theatrical production mounted overseas. Due to security, the USO cast was reduced from 12 to 7 without losing a minute of running dialogue. According to a May 26, 1945 Billboard interview, Levene said, "the G.I.s' gratefulness is absolutely embarrassing. They express it not only by applause but by meeting you personally and giving you objects which they have fought and bled for. They lose sight of the fact that they are the ones fighting the war."
Levene as Patsy and Shirley Booth as Mabel reprised their original Broadway roles in two ABC radio versions produced by the Theatre Guild on the Air, the first adapted by playwright Arthur Miller aired January 6, 1946; the second aired June 1, 1947 with David Wayne as Erwin. Three decades after creating the role of Patsy in the Broadway production of Three Men On A Horse, Levene reprised the role of Patsy on Broadway in Let It Ride (1961), a Broadway musical which had an abbreviated run of 69 performances at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Levene performed the title song from Let It Ride on the Let It Ride float in the 1961 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Levene performed the role of Patsy one last time in the 1969 all-star Broadway revival of Three Men On A Horse directed by George Abbott, the original Broadway director and co-author which was preceded by a national tour Levene directed, starring Levene as Patsy and Bert Parks as Erwin.
43 years after making his Broadway debut, Levene made his Off-Broadway debut, starring in Irv Bauer's A Dream Out Of Time at the Promenade Theatre, Levene's only Off-Broadway appearance. In 1976, Levene was cast as Tubal, Shylock's business partner, in the Broadway production of The Merchant based on an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice but withdrew from the Philadelphia tryout after Zero Mostel, the play's star and Levene's lifelong dear friend died after first collapsing in his dressing room. When John Dexter, the director, asked Levene if he would continue in the show, Levene told Dexter "we just had one death, we don't need two". Understudy Joseph Leon replaced Zero Mostel for the Broadway production of The Merchant which closed November 19, 1977 after five performances. Levene's final Broadway role was the star role of Samuel Horowitz in the Broadway comedy Horowitz and Mrs. Washington (1980) co-starring Esther Rolle, directed by Joshua Logan. In 1980, Levene starred in a summer stock and National tour of Horowitz and Mrs. Washington co-starring Claudia McNeil.
Over five decades Al Hirschfeld, considered the greatest caricaturist of the 20th century, created nine caricatures capturing seven original Broadway performances created by Levene, the first in 1935, the last 1975. The most iconic Hirschfeld caricature of Levene captures his legendary performance as Nathan Detroit wearing his iconic pinstripe suit designed by Alvin Colt in the original 1950 Broadway production of Guys and Dolls published in The New York Times 11/19/50. In 2000, the iconic Guys and Dolls caricature included in The Museum of The City of New York exhibition "Guys and Dolls: The Fabled Musical of Broadway". In 2015 the caricature was exhibited in "The Hirschfeld Century" at The New York Historical Society. The first time Hirschfeld captured Levene was his Broadway performance as Patsy along with Shirley Booth as Mabel in the 1935 original Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse; a second caricature of Levene and Booth featuring the Broadway casts from Tobacco Road and The Children's Hour published in the Herald Tribune 6/7/36 celebrates Broadway long-runs. Hirschfeld created two caricatures of Levene's critically acclaimed performance as Max Gordon, the shoestring producer, in the original 1937 Broadway production of Room Service, published in the Herald Tribune and Brooklyn Eagle. Hirschfeld captured Levene's poignant performance as Al Lewis giving Willie Clark "the finger" in the original Broadway production of The Sunshine Boys published in The New York Times, 12/13/72. Hirschfeld also captured Levene's legendary original Broadway performances in Margin For Error and Light Up The Sky. Other notable caricaturists who memorialized Levene's legendary stage performances include Sam Norkin and Al Frueh. Al Frueh, who created caricatures of Broadway shows, mostly for The New Yorker for three decades until 1962, captured six of Levene's original Broadway performances, including Busch from the original Broadway production of Yellow Jack (1934), Patsy from the original Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935), Sidney Black from the original Broadway production of Light Up The Sky, Nathan Detroit from the 1950 original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls; Boss Mangan in the 1959 all-star Broadway revival of Heartbreak House directed and co-starring Maurice Evans and Officer Finkelstein, the Jewish policeman, in the 1939 original Broadway production of Margin For Error.
Nine years after making his Broadway debut, Levene was lured and moved to Hollywood in 1936 when he made his motion picture debut as Patsy in the Warner Bros. film Three Men on a Horse (1936) directed and produced by Mervyn LeRoy. Levene earned $1,000 a week to recreate on film his comedic Broadway role as Patsy he had played for seventy weeks in the original Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935). Known as a dependable character actor, Levene appeared in 50 films and worked with every major studio over his five-decade Hollywood career. 14 of Levene's films were shot at MGM, which include two appearances as Police Lieutenant Abrams in MGM's Thin Man series: After the Thin Man (1936) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), plus Yellow Jack (1938), The Shopworn Angel (1938), Married Bachelor (1941), Sunday Punch (1942), Grand Central Murder (1942), Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), I Dood It (1943), Shoe Shine Boy (1943 short), Dial 1119 1950, The Opposite Sex (1956), Designing Woman (1957) and The Champ (1979). Levene appeared in five RKO films, including The Mad Miss Manton (1938); Sing Your Worries Away (1942); The Big Street (1942) and A Likely Story (1947) and Crossfire, the first B picture to receive a best picture nomination. Levene appeared in six films at Universal Pictures: Destination Unknown (1942), Gung Ho! (1943), The Killers (1946), ''Brute Force'' (1947), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), Kathy O'.
Levene established himself as one of the great film noir stalwarts with a long list of film noir credits in notable noir films, a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas. Levene's film noir credits includes his riveting performance as Samuels, the murdered GI, in Crossfire (1947), considered one of RKO's if not perhaps of any studio's best film noirs and as Lieutenant Lubinsky in The Killers, considered the Citizen Kane of noir. Levene's film noir credits include: William Holden's taxi-driving brother-in-law "Siggie" in Golden Boy (1939), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), a Doolittle Flyer and Japanese POW in The Purple Heart (1944), a police lieutenant in The Killers (1946), Brute Force, (1947), Crossfire (1947), Boomerang (1947), Killer McCoy (1947), Dial 1119 (1950), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957).
Levene was the only member of the original 1934 Broadway production of the play Yellow Jack to appear in the 1938 film of the same name. Sam Levene was cast as a police lieutenant in After the Thin Man (1936), The Mad Miss Manton (1938), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and The Killers (1946), which included the motion picture debut of Burt Lancaster, who just a year prior was professionally credited as Burton Lancaster when Levene helped the former circus acrobat land a part in the original Broadway production of A Sound of Hunting. In The Killers (1946), Sam Levene plays Police Lt. Sam Lubinsky, a childhood friend of the Swede, a role played by Lancaster; Levene's co-starring role as a childhood friend of Lancaster was fortuitous as he was credited in making Lancaster feel at ease in his motion picture debut.[page needed]
When several Hollywood studios initially wanted to sign Burt Lancaster, Levene, Lancaster's co-star in the 1946 Broadway melodrama A Sound of Hunting, agreed to represent him; eventually the two actors became lifelong friends. Together Lancaster and Levene fielded offers from David O. Selznick, 20th Century-Fox and Hal B. Wallis, who had a deal at Paramount Pictures, ultimately introducing Lancaster to Harold Hecht, his long-time agent and Hollywood film production partner. Burt Lancaster remembered Levene and spoke at the West Coast memorial organized by the actor's son.
Levene film career includes a who's who of Hollywood actors and directors. Levene made two films with Barbara Stanwyck, in 1938, Sam Levene co-starred as Lieutenant Brent who "steals a few scenes with his great delivery of lines", in The Mad Miss Manton (1938), a screwball comedy that also starred Henry Fonda; 31 year old Stanwyck earned $60,000 for the film; 33 year old Fonda earned $25,000 and 35 year old Sam Levene was paid $1,500 a week. The following year Levene appeared in Golden Boy an adaptation of the Clifford Odets play about the brutality of prizefighting; critics praised the performances of William Holden's at times perfect interpretation of fighter Joe Bonaparte, but it was 27 year old Lee J. Cobb as the senior Bonaparte and Sam Levene as the taxi driver brother in law who walked away with the picture and the reviews. Other Hollywood legends Levene worked with include Anthony Quinn: A Dream of Kings (1969); four films with Burt Lancaster: The Killers (1946), Brute Force, (1947), Three Sailors and a Girl (1953), Sweet Smell of Success (1957); Humphrey Bogart: Action in the North Atlantic (1943); two films with Henry Fonda: The Big Street (1942), The Mad Miss Manton (1938); Robert Ryan: Crossfire; Vincente Minnelli: Sing Your Worries Away (1942); two films with Myrna Loy & William Powell as Police Lt. Abrams: ''After the Thin Man'' (1936), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941); Gregory Peck: Designing Woman (1957); two films with Red Skelton: Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), I Dood It (1943); Al Pacino: ...And Justice for All (1979); his final film role.
For most of his early film and Broadway stage career, Sam Levene straddled an active schedule with starring roles in a range of productions on all radio networks, including comedic performances and skits along with dramatic and comedy roles in important plays and adaptations on leading series. Levene co-starred with Orson Welles in two productions of Welles' The Campbell Playhouse (radio series), first as Lefty in Burlesque, 2/17/39 and five weeks later, 3/34/39 as Owen O'Malley in Twentieth Century (play). Levene starred in nine productions for Theatre Guild on the Air; two radio versions of Three Men On A Horse, the first adapted by Arthur Miller aired January 6, 1946; the second aired June 1, 1947 with David Wayne joining the cast as Erwin.
Levene reprised his film role as Dave Woods, the reporter in Elia Kazan's Boomerang for Theatre Guild on the Air; and appeared as Moody, the fight manager, in Golden Boy by Clifford Odets opposite long-time friend and co-star June Havoc and Dana Andrews whom Levene had just worked with filming Boomerang. For Suspense Radio on CBS, Levene reprised his film role as Samuels, the murdered Jewish soldier, in Crossfire, 4/10/48. Levene and Havoc worked with each many times in radio, film, theatre and television. In 1942, Havoc and Levene co-starred in the RKO film Sing Your Worries Away. In 1957 Havoc and Levene guest starred on The Mother Bit in Season 9 of TV's Studio One series; in 1959 Levene and Havoc were guest stars in The Larry Fay Story for Season 2 of The Untouchables; in a dramatic role, Sam Levene was nightclub owner and mob boss Larry Fay, accused of price fixing milk and June Havoc was Sally Kansas, Fay's lover, who also appeared as a lounge singer in one of Fay's niteclubs.
Other notable Theatre Guild on The Air appearances included performing the role of "Banjo" with Fred Allen as Sheridan Whiteside in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's The Man Who Came To Dinner and recreating his original Broadway performance as Sidney Black, the loud-mouth producer, in Moss Hart's Light Up The Sky opposite Joan Bennett and Thelma Ritter, 4/16/51. Levene frequently appeared on Fred Allen's Texaco Star Theatre in a sketch comedy segment known as "Allen's Alley". Sam Levene along with twelve major Hollywood and Broadway stars, including Helen Hayes, Fredric March and Ralph Bellamy created 13 episodes of Lest We Forget, a series of radio programs that directly addressed prejudice and discrimination. Created by the Institute for Democratic Education and Boston University Radio Institute, Sam Levene starred as a cab driver who becomes in a hero in Hey Cabbie, an episode that unabashedly addresses anti-semitism. Produced by the American Heart Association in 1952, Levene starred in Too Careful, one of eight radio plays presenting information and knowledge of the heart. Levene along with Edward G. Robinson and Frank Sinatra made a series of appearances in We Will Never Die, a memorial pageant dedicated to the two million Jewish dead of Europe; performed around the country at major venues, including Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl, the elaborate production, also broadcast on radio, was co-authored by Ben Hecht and Kurt Weill and directed by Moss Hart. On a lighter note, Levene made a New Year's Eve appearance on The Big Show (NBC Radio), December 31, 1950 with Tallulah Bankhead and Jose Ferrer; Levene performed with Bankhead, satirizing the difficulty of purchasing theatre tickets to his then standing room only Broadway musical, Guys and Dolls.
The legendary stage and film actor recognized the name "Sam Levene puts a kind of stamp on the kind of roles that producers think the actor can play". In a 1967 interview with journalist Norton Mockridge for The World-Telegram, Levene recalled when he was up for a role in The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944) starring Gary Cooper and produced and directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille; the actor auditioned for the role of Murdock, an Irishman. Levene recalled "ten or eleven or other actors auditioned too" and afterwards, DeMille called Levene and said "Of all the actors who auditioned, you're my first choice". Levene replied, "I thanked him and said 'Did I get the part?"
"No" said DeMille, who told Levene "I'm sorry but it would disturb me to have an actor named Sam Levene play the role of an Irishman". Levene asked DeMille: "Did you find anything Jewish in my audition?" to which DeMille replied "No, that's what disturbs me. You were a better Irishman than the Irishman. But I can't give you the part as I just can't see the film credits reading the part of the Irishman played by Sam Levene". Shortly thereafter Levene got another call from DeMille, who told the actor: "I just want you to know that I've let the actor go that I first picked for the role of the Irishman, Murdock, and if your name weren't Sam Levene, I'd have given you the role. Instead I am going to give it to Paul Kelly". Levene said, "you called to tell me that?" "Yes" said DeMille "I thought you'd like to know!," Levene reminisced saying "I lost the role twice!".
Sam Levene was one of the few actors who had a Jewish name in the 1930s and 1940s; notably in The Purple Heart (1944) Levene played the role of Lt. Wayne Greenbaum, a level headed, brave New York bred Jewish lawyer who is defender and spokesman for a group of eight aviators brought to trial when they are downed in Japanese held territory; in Crossfire (1947), Levene was cast as Samuels, a Jewish civilian who was murdered at the start of the film; in a 1947 personal appearance, Levene said Crossfire is a powerful denunciation of anti-Semitism and naturally I played the Jew and naturally I was killed." Cy Feuer, co-producer of the original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls (1950) said in a New York Times interview "Sam Levene was the ultimate Jew," referring to the original Nathan Detroit. "It was perfect casting. He created the character by living." Unanimous raves greeted Sam Levene for his portrayal of the skeptical but good-hearted Jewish doctor, Dr. Aldo Mayer, in the 1961 Broadway production of "The Devil's Advocate". In a review of "The Devil's Advocate" for the New York Herald Tribune, theatre critic Walter Kerr wrote "Mr. Levene is genial true. As a Jewish doctor who must forever feel himself an outsider in the Catholic Italian hills...Sam Levene is superb in a role of many colors and nothing is more helpful than the tension of his unyielding integrity. There is bite as well as bravura elsewhere." In a 1967 interview with theatre critic William Glover of the Associated Press, Sam Levene said "the Jews I've played sometimes may have been similar but they were never schmaltzy; regarding the roles I've done, I've tried very carefully to define humor even if there was none."
Levene lost the role of Nathan Detroit to Frank Sinatra in the film version. "You can't have a Jew playing a Jew, it wouldn't work on screen", producer Samuel Goldwyn argued, explaining he wanted Frank Sinatra rather than Levene -- who had originated the role -- to play the part of Nathan Detroit in the film version even though film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz wanted Levene, the original Broadway star. Joseph L. Mankiewicz said "if there could be one person in the world more miscast as Nathan Detroit than Frank Sinatra that would be Laurence Olivier and I am one of his greatest fans; the role had been written for Sam Levene who was divine in it". Levene will break your heart when you listen to him sing 'All right, already, I'm just a no-goodnick . . .' on the original Guys and Dolls cast recording of 'Sue Me'".
Fordham Professor of Music Larry Stempel, author of Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, said if given a choice, he would cast Levene, who created the role on Broadway, as the ideal Nathan Detroit instead of Nathan Lane, who played the part in the Broadway revival or Frank Sinatra, who played the part on film, stating "Musically, he may have been tone-deaf, but he inhabited Frank Loesser's world as a character more than a caricature.
Levene married Constance Kane in 1953. The couple had one son together, Joseph K. Levene, before their divorce.
In 1960, Levene was awarded the prestigious Actors Fund Medal of Honor, at the time, the second actor awarded the honor; Levene's son Joseph K. Levene donated the medallion to the Sam Levene archives at MCNY, The Museum of the City of New York.
On April 9, 1984, Levene was posthumously inducted in the American Theatre Hall of Fame; his son, Joseph K. Levene, accepted the American Theatre Hall of Fame award from Dorothy Loudon stating "if my dad were here today; he would want to know one thing: why did it take you guys such a long time to give me this award?"
In 1998, the 1950 Guys and Dolls Decca original cast album and the original Broadway cast, Robert Alda, Vivian Blaine, Sam Levene, Isabel Bigley and Pat Rooney, Sr. were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Although Levene has two songs on the original Guys and Dolls cast album, his portrayal of Nathan Detroit in the landmark musical is so popular Levene's legendary performance appears on over 38 Guys and Dolls albums and compilations.
Levene never received a Tony Award; by the time the Tony Award's were established in 1947, Levene had already created roles in 16 original Broadway shows, including legendary performances in the original Broadway productions of Dinner at Eight (1932), Three Men on a Horse (1935), Room Service (1937) and Margin For Error (1939).
In a 1996 New York Magazine letter to the editor, Sam Levene's son Joseph K. Levene, thanked film critic David Denby stating "my father, the late great Sam Levene, has received many kudos illuminating his career as an actor, none recalled the passion for the theater more clearly than David Denby's comment in his review of Everyone Says I Love You: Sam Levene playing Nathan Detroit in the original Guys and Dolls couldn't sing a note but his gruff toneless outbursts could break your heart. Levene was not cautious and that made all the difference. Joseph K. Levene said: "There were no Tony's in his career but thanks for the Denby".
|Wall Street (1927)
William Thompson, Asst. District Attorney
|April 20, 1927-May 1927|
Guest at Leedman's Party
|September 24, 1928-January 1929|
|Tin Pan Alley (1928)
|November 1, 1928-December 1928|
|March 9, 1929-March 13, 1929|
|Street Scene (1929)
|January 10, 1929-June 1930|
|December 4, 1929-December 1929|
|This Man's Town (1930)
|March 10, 1930-March 1930|
|The Up and Up (1930)
|September 8, 1930-November 1930|
|Three Times the Hour (1931)
|August 25, 1931-September 1931|
|Wonder Boy (1931)
|October 22, 1931-November 1931|
|Dinner at Eight (1932)
Starring as Max Kane
|October 22, 1932-May 6, 1933|
|Yellow Jack (1934)
|March 6, 1934-May 1934|
|The Milky Way (1934)
|May 8, 1934-July 1934|
|Spring Song (1934)
|October 1, 1934-November 1934|
|Geraniums in My Window (1934)
|November 5, 1934-November 17, 1934|
|Three Men on a Horse (1935)
Starring as Patsy
|January 30, 1935-January 9, 1937|
|Room Service (1937)
Starring as Gordon Miller
|May 19, 1937-|
July 16, 1938
|Margin for Error (1939)
Starring as Officer Finkelstein
|November 3, 1939-June 15, 1940|
|A Sound of Hunting (1945)
Starring as Pvt. Dino Collucci
|November 20, 1945-December 8, 1945|
|Light Up the Sky (1948)
Starring as Sidney Black
|November 18, 1948-May 21, 1949|
|Guys and Dolls (1950)
Starring as Nathan Detroit
|November 24, 1950-November 28, 1953|
|The Hot Corner (1956)
Starring as Fred Stanley
|January 25-January 28, 1956|
|Fair Game (1957)
Starring as Lou Winkler
|November 2, 1957-May 10, 1958|
|Make a Million (1958)
Starring as Sid Gray
|October 23, 1958-July 18, 1959|
|Heartbreak House (1959)
Starring as Boss Mangan
|October 18, 1959-January 23, 1960|
|The Good Soup (1960)
Starring as Odilon
|March 2, 1968-March 19, 1960|
|The Devil's Advocate (1961)
Starring as Dr. Aldo Meyer
|March 9, 1961-June 17, 1961|
|Let It Ride (1961)
Starring as Patsy
|October 12, 1961-December 9, 1961|
|Seidman and Son (1962)
Starring as Morris Seidman
|October 15, 1962-April 20, 1963|
|Cafe Crown (1964)
Starring as Hymie
|April 17-April 18, 1964|
|The Last Analysis (1964)
Starring as Philip Bummidge
|October 1-October 24, 1964|
|The Impossible Years (1966)
Starring as Dr. Jack Kingsley
|October 13, 1965-May 27, 1967|
|Nathan Weinstein, Mystic, Connecticut (1966)
Starring as Nathan Weinstein
|February 25-26, 1966|
|Three Men on a Horse (1969)
Starring as Patsy
|October 16, 1969-January 10, 1970|
|Paris Is Out! (1970)
Starring as Daniel Brand
|February 2, 1970-April 18, 1970|
|The Sunshine Boys (1972)
Starring as Al Lewis
|December 20, 1972 - April 21, 1974|
|Dreyfus in Rehearsal (1974)
Starring as Arnold
|October 17, 1974-October 26, 1974|
|The Royal Family (1975)
Starring as Oscar Wolfe
|December 30, 1975-July 18, 1976|
|Horowitz and Mrs. Washington (1980)
Starring as Samuel Horowitz
|April 2-April 6, 1980|
|6/14/1949||The Ford Theatre Hour||TV||Light Up the Sky||Sidney Black|
|12/19/1950||The Milton Berle Show||TV||Season 3 Episode 14||Himself|
|1/27/1952||The U.S. Royal Showcase||TV||Vivian Blaine and Sam Levene
Season 1 Episode 3
|3/27/1954||Medallion Theatre (Chrysler Medallion Theater)||CBS||The Alibi Kid|
|5/26/1954||Douglas Fairbanks Presents Rheingold Theatre||TV||Johnny Blue
Season 2 Episode 26
|6/22/1954||The United States Steel Hour||American Broadcasting Company||Fearful Decision
Season 1 Episode 18
|12/11/1955||The Colgate Comedy Hour||TV||Salute to George Abbott
Season 6 Episode 10
|4/8/1957||Studio One (American TV series)||CBS||The Playwright and the Stars
Season 9 Episode 26
|6/10/1957||Studio One (American TV series)||CBS||The Mother Bit
Season 9 Episode 35
|9/11/1957||Kraft Television Theatre||NBC Television||The Old Ticket
Season 10 Episode 51
|12/26/1957||Tonight starring Jack Paar||NBC Television||
Season 1, Episode 108
|3/9/1958||Omnibus (American TV program)||NBC Television||Mrs. McThing
Season 6 Episode 25
|11/25/1958||Tonight starring Jack Paar||NBC Television||
Season 2, Episode 61
|12/14/1959||Play of the Week||NET Television||The World of Sholom Aleichem
Season 1 Episode 10
|4/21/1960||The Ed Sullivan Show||CBS||
Season 13 Episode 47
|11/16/1960||The Aquanauts||CBS||Night Dive
Season 1 Episode 9
|11/17/1960||The Witness (TV series)||CBS||Louis 'Lepke' Buchalter
Season 1 Episode 7
|12/15/1960||The Untouchables (1959 TV series)||American Broadcasting Company||The Larry Fay Story
Season 2 Episode 9
|1/22/1961||The Ed Sullivan Show||CBS||Season 14 Episode 15||Dramatic Reading|
|1/14/1962||Directions||TV||Sam Levene interviews Dore Schary||Himself|
|2/27/1962||The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson||NBC Television||Season 1, Episode 106||Himself|
|10/25/1962||The Joe Franklin Show||WWOR-TV||Interview||Himself|
|11/5/1962-11/9/1962||Password (game show)||TV||Joan Fontaine vs Sam Levene;
|4/28/1963||17th Tony Awards||WWOR-TV||Presenter||Himself|
|1/5/1965||The Les Crane Show||American Broadcasting Company||Season 1 Episode 41||Himself|
|1/11/1965||The Les Crane Show||American Broadcasting Company||Season 1 Episode 45||Himself|
|1/18/1965||The Les Crane Show||American Broadcasting Company||Season 1 Episode 50||Himself|
|2/8/1965||The Les Crane Show||American Broadcasting Company||Season 1 Episode 65||Himself|
|11/1/1965||The Merv Griffin Show||NBC Television||Season 3, Episode 41||Himself|
|11/1/1965||Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre||NBC Television||A Small Rebellion Season 3 Episode 13||Noel Greb|
|10/30/1969||What's My Line?||CBS||Season 20 Episode 30||Himself|
|2/15/1970||The Ed Sullivan Show||CBS||Season 23 Episode 21||Dramatic Reading|
|12/26/1973||The Dick Cavett Show||American Broadcasting Company||Season 2 Episode 47||Himself|
|12/28/1973||What's My Line?||CBS||Season 5 Episode 180||Himself|
|11/9/1977||Great Performances||PBS||The Royal Family||Oscar Wolfe|
|2/17/1939||Orson Welles The Campbell Playhouse (radio series)||CBS Radio||Burlesque
adapted from play by Arthur Hopkins & George Manker Watters
|3/24/1939||Orson Welles The Campbell Playhouse (radio series)||CBS Radio||Twentieth Century (play)
adapted by Charles Bruce Millholland
|5/25/1940||Lincoln Highway||NBC Radio||Three Thousand Miles to Glory||Himself|
|4/9/1941||Texaco Star Theatre with Fred Allen||CBS Radio||Shortcut to a Nervous Breakdown||Himself|
|7/21/1943||We Will Never Die||NBC Radio||Hollywood Bowl, Broadcast live||Himself|
|11/21/1943||CBS Radio||Algie and Gus|
|12/24/1943||Christmas Roundup||CBS Radio||Romance in the Roaring Forties
Sam Levene narrates story by Damon Runyon
|2/28/1944||The Screen Guild Theatre||CBS Radio||Three Men on a Horse||Patsy|
|1/6/1946||Theatre Guild on the Air||ABC Radio||Three Men on a Horse||Patsy|
|11/17/1946||Theatre Guild on the Air||ABC Radio||The Man Who Came To Dinner||Banjo|
|11/24/1946||Theatre Guild on the Air||ABC Radio||Burlesque
adapted from play by Arthur Hopkins & George Manker Watters
|12/6/1946||Lest We Forget These Great Americans||Radio||Hey Cabbie Institute for Democratic Education syndication||Cabby|
|12/8/1946||Theatre Guild on the Air||ABC Radio||Golden Boy||Moody|
|1/1/1947||Theatre Guild on the Air||ABC Radio||Three Men on a Horse||Patsy|
|4/10/1948||Suspense Radio||CBS Radio||Crossfire||Samuels|
|3/27/1949||Theatre Guild on the Air||ABC Radio||June Moon||Fred Stevens|
|9/25/1949||Theatre Guild on the Air||ABC Radio||The Gentle People|
|12/17/1950||Theatre Guild on the Air||ABC Radio||Boomerang||Dave Woods|
|12/31/1950||The Big Show (NBC Radio)||NBC Radio||Variety Show hosted by Tallulah Bankhead||Himself|
|4/15/1951||Theatre Guild on the Air||ABC Radio||Light Up the Sky||Sidney Black|
|1952||The Human Heart Radio Series||Radio||Too Careful||Himself|
|12/20/1957||The Barry Gray Show||Radio||Interview||Himself|
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