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Oscar Levant

Oscar Levant

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Also Known As: Died: August 14, 1972
Born: December 27, 1906 Cause of Death: heart attack
Birth Place: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA Profession: pianist, actor, composer, piano teacher

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Raconteur, TV personality, concert pianist, self-described "verbal vampire" and sometime supporting player in films. Levant had originally planned a career as a concert pianist but, after playing in dance bands and becoming George Gershwin's protege, he devoted himself to interpreting the composer's works and, utilizing his own eccentric personality, played character parts or more accurately variations on his own character in films. He did, however, enjoy considerable success as a concert pianist and, at one point in the 1940s, was the highest paid concert artist in the US. Levant's film appearances, too, whether they were musicals or not, usually gave him a chance to play a piano as well. A chain-smoking neurotic and self-professed genius, Levant was noted for his mordant, scathing wit and finely honed insults often hurled against himself and his own hypochondria, manic depression and addictions. Levant first went to Hollywood in 1928, composing film scores and songs (frequently with lyricists Sidney Clare, Dorothy Fields and William Kernell) and, after a bit part in the 1929 "The Dance of Life", was featured in best-chum-of-the-star roles from the 40s on. His first major role was as comic foil for...

Raconteur, TV personality, concert pianist, self-described "verbal vampire" and sometime supporting player in films. Levant had originally planned a career as a concert pianist but, after playing in dance bands and becoming George Gershwin's protege, he devoted himself to interpreting the composer's works and, utilizing his own eccentric personality, played character parts or more accurately variations on his own character in films. He did, however, enjoy considerable success as a concert pianist and, at one point in the 1940s, was the highest paid concert artist in the US. Levant's film appearances, too, whether they were musicals or not, usually gave him a chance to play a piano as well. A chain-smoking neurotic and self-professed genius, Levant was noted for his mordant, scathing wit and finely honed insults often hurled against himself and his own hypochondria, manic depression and addictions.

Levant first went to Hollywood in 1928, composing film scores and songs (frequently with lyricists Sidney Clare, Dorothy Fields and William Kernell) and, after a bit part in the 1929 "The Dance of Life", was featured in best-chum-of-the-star roles from the 40s on. His first major role was as comic foil for Bing Crosby and Mary Martin in "Rhythm on the River" (1940). In the reverent Gershwin biopic, "Rhapsody in Blue" (1945) he played himself (a role for which Levant insisted he was "horribly miscast"); in "An American in Paris" (1951) he was a semi-autobiographical bohemian pianist; and in "The Band Wagon" (1953), he portrayed an Adolph-Green-like Broadway songwriter.

A popular panelist on the radio quiz show, "Information Please" in the 1940s, Levant segued into the role of controversial guest on late night TV in the 50s. Outrageously nasty and curmudgeonly, he paraded his neuroses and illnesses, leavened by his shockingly frank self-awareness, and skewered the famous and near famous with his bitchy repartee: of Zsa Zsa Gabor he said "the only person who ever left the Iron Curtain wearing it" and of hostess Elsa Maxwell: "I once took her to a masquerade party...at the stroke of midnight, I ripped off her mask and discovered I had beheaded her!" About his own TV talk show he commented: "Little did I know when I talked about the lunatic fringe that one day I would be its leader". The titles of his three memoirs relieve the depths of his self-derogatory wit, "A Smattering of Ignorance" (1942), "Memoirs of an Amnesiac" (1965) and "The Unimportance of Being Oscar" (1968).

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Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 The Cobweb (1955) Mr. Capp
2.
 The Band Wagon (1953) Lester Marton
3.
 The I Don't Care Girl (1953) Charles Bennett
4.
 O. Henry's Full House (1952) William Smith
5.
 An American in Paris (1951) Adam Cook
6.
 The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) Ezra Miller
7.
 You Were Meant for Me (1948) Oscar
8.
 Romance on the High Seas (1948) Oscar Fararr
9.
 Humoresque (1947) Sid Jeffers
10.
 Rhapsody in Blue (1945) Himself
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Left home at age 16 to study music in New York; supported himself by teaching piano
:
Performed with small dance bands
1928:
Film composing debut, "My Man"
1929:
Had a minor role in a Broadway show, "Burlesque" and made film acting debut in film version of that play called "The Dance of Life"
:
Was a participant on radio program, "Information Please"
1951:
Hosted "G E Guest House" TV quiz show
1991:
Subject of Stan Freeman's one-man play with music, "At Wit's End" at Michael's Pub in New York
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Notes

Levant walked "a tightrope most of his life between the rich and celebrated who loved his sardonic wit and the audience that never knew quite what to make of his crude, irreverent bitchery."--Rex Reed in his NEW YORK OBSERVER column (October, 1991)

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Barbara Smith. Dancer. Married 1932; divorced 1933; died January 16, 1997 at age 86.
wife:
June Gale. Actor, dancer. Married December 1, 1939; sister of dancers Joan, Jane and Jean Gale; married screenwriter Henry Ephron in 1978, he died September 6, 1992; died of pneumonia on November 13, 1996.

Family close complete family listing

father:
Max Levant. Watch repairer.
mother:
Anne Radin.
brother:
Harry Levant.
brother:
Howard Levant.
brother:
Benjamin Levant.
daughter:
Marcia Ann Levant. Born 1940; married journalist Jerry Talmer.
daughter:
Lorna Levant. Born 1941.
daughter:
Amanda Levant. Born 1942; married Casey Carmel.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"A Smattering of Ignorance"
"The Unimportance of Being Oscar"
"Memoirs of an Amnesiac"
"A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant"
VIEW COMPLETE BIBLIOGRAPHY

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