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After first entering the entertainment business as a comic writer and performer, writer-director-producer and occasional onscreen performer Barry Levinson developed into a courageous filmmaker who took creative risks while scoring big commercial hits in several different genres. Having formed a comedy duo with actor Craig T. Nelson, Levinson became an Emmy-winning writer for "The Carol Burnett Show" (CBS, 1967-1978) before graduating to independent filmmaking with the poignant semi-autobiographical "Diner" (1982). Though he steeped himself in over-sentimentality with "The Natural" (1984), Levinson nonetheless directed a lasting homage to the greatness of baseball. In the latter half of the decade, Levinson scored two huge hits: the manic comedy-drama "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987) and the Academy Award-winning drama, "Rain Man" (1988), both of which announced him as one of Hollywood's top directors. Meanwhile, he ventured into television by directing and producing episodes of "Homicide: Life on the Streets" (NBC, 1993-2000) while maintaining a steady, if unpredictable onscreen presence with "Bugsy" (1991), "Sleepers" (1996) and "Wag the Dog" (1997). Though he faltered in the next century with...
After first entering the entertainment business as a comic writer and performer, writer-director-producer and occasional onscreen performer Barry Levinson developed into a courageous filmmaker who took creative risks while scoring big commercial hits in several different genres. Having formed a comedy duo with actor Craig T. Nelson, Levinson became an Emmy-winning writer for "The Carol Burnett Show" (CBS, 1967-1978) before graduating to independent filmmaking with the poignant semi-autobiographical "Diner" (1982). Though he steeped himself in over-sentimentality with "The Natural" (1984), Levinson nonetheless directed a lasting homage to the greatness of baseball. In the latter half of the decade, Levinson scored two huge hits: the manic comedy-drama "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987) and the Academy Award-winning drama, "Rain Man" (1988), both of which announced him as one of Hollywood's top directors. Meanwhile, he ventured into television by directing and producing episodes of "Homicide: Life on the Streets" (NBC, 1993-2000) while maintaining a steady, if unpredictable onscreen presence with "Bugsy" (1991), "Sleepers" (1996) and "Wag the Dog" (1997). Though he faltered in the next century with "Bandits" (2001), "Envy" (2003) and "Man of the Year" (2006), the several misses of his career failed to diminish his overall bankability.
Born on April 6, 1942 in Baltimore, MD, Levinson was raised by his father, Irvin, a founding partner in Consumers Buying Association, a discount furniture and appliance company, and his mother, Vi. After graduating Forest Park High School, he attended the Community College of Baltimore before moving on to American University in Washington, D.C., where he studied broadcast journalism. While a student, Levinson worked at local television stations, doing everything from being floor manager to performing hand puppets on the morning children's programs. Once finished with school, he left the East Coast for the sunnier pastures of Los Angeles, where he began taking acting classes on the advice of his old roommate, George Jung, who later became a major cocaine dealer and was depicted decades later by Johnny Depp in "Blow" (2001). Levinson later claimed to not have known that Jung was a cocaine dealer until seeing the film. Meanwhile, he formed a comedy duo with fellow classmate, Craig T. Nelson, and began performing improvisational skits at local clubs.
Soon after joining forces with Nelson, Levinson and a third comedy partner, Rudy DeLuca, began writing for several shows, including "The Carol Burnett Show" (CBS, 1967-1978), "The Tim Conway Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1970) and "The John Byner Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1972). His work on "Carol Burnett" earned him back-to-back-to-back Emmy Awards - which he shared with the rest of the writing staff - for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy-Variety or Music Series from 1974-76. Also during this time, Levinson made his feature debut as a screenwriter with the bleak and forgettable drama, "Street Girls" (1974), before joining forces with comedy master Mel Brooks to write both "Silent Movie" (1976) and "High Anxiety" (1977), as well as providing a memorable turn as the maniacal bellhop in the latter. After penning Norman Jewison's satirical look at the American justice system, "... And Justice for All" (1979), and Richard Donner's tough character drama "Inside Moves" (1980), Levinson made an auspicious debut directing his script "Diner" (1982), a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale set in late 1950s Baltimore. Alternately poignant and hilarious, the film played a large part in promoting the careers of its young stars Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon and Ellen Barkin. Levinson demonstrated an understated, non-intrusive style and an ear for ensemble dialogue that would serve him well in subsequent features.
Turning away from Baltimore for his next project, Levinson directed "The Natural" (1984), a rousing and nostalgic look at America's Pastime, adapted from Bernard Malamud's 1952 novel. Starring Robert Redford as baseball pro Roy Hobbs, "The Natural" received mixed reviews, with some critics finding the film inconsistent and overly sentimental, but nearly all praised the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel - which featured an iconic shot of Redford's character hitting a homerun that shatters the stadium lights - and the score by Randy Newman. Despite criticisms at the time of release, Levinson's film stood the test of time and remained one of the most beloved sports films ever made. After helming "Young Sherlock Holmes" (1985), a mildly charming Steven Spielberg-produced project that was long on special effects, but short on inspiration, Levinson returned to his native city to make the second film that - along with "Diner" - would comprise his Baltimore Trilogy. Set in 1963 Baltimore, "Tin Man" (1987) followed the misadventures of rival aluminum-siding salesmen, and proved to be a rich character study that maintained a fine balance between humor and melancholy, while featuring brilliantly funny dialogue traded between the two protagonists, played by Richard Dreyfuss and Danny De Vito.
Also that year, Levinson had his first bona fide commercial hit with "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987), a wildly funny military comedy that was touched by moments of poignant tragedy. Starring a side-splitting Robin Williams in top improvisational form, the movie depicted real-life radio disc jockey Adrian Cronaeur, who rankled his military superiors by delivering searing comic monologues and playing modern rock 'n' roll to appreciative troops fighting in Vietnam. Both a critical and box office hit, "Good Morning, Vietnam" earned Williams a well-deserved Oscar nomination and Levinson his first taste of real mainstream success. Levinson's next feature was "Rain Man" (1988), a finely handled study of the relationship between an autistic 'idiot savant' (Dustin Hoffman) and his opportunistic car-salesman brother (Tom Cruise). A huge success at the box-office, the film not surprisingly won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Levinson), Best Actor (Hoffman) and Best Screenplay (Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow). While the central performances garnered most of the critical attention, Levinson's adept handling of the unorthodox subject matter with sensitivity and style was central to the film's success.
Levinson again returned to his Baltimore Trilogy and for the first time served as producer in addition to writing and directing "Avalon" (1990), an epic saga tracing the history of his own family from the point they first arrived in the United States. Critics reacted with measured praise to a work many felt was overlong and lacking in direction. The director followed with the lavish "Bugsy" (1991), a stylish Warren Beatty vehicle centered on gangster Bugsy Siegel and his efforts to establish gambling in Las Vegas. While it was critically well-received and earned 10 Oscar nominations - including Best Picture and Best Director - the film was only a minor financial success. He followed up with one of his worst movies, "Toys" (1992), a visually excessive and terribly unfunny cautionary fable starring Robin Williams as an eccentric and immature toy inventor who takes over his father's factory with his inept sister (Joan Cusack). Blasted by critics, "Toys" was a huge commercial flop. After helming another box office dud, "Jimmy Hollywood" (1994), Levinson made an effort to get his career back on track with the commercial, star-driven vehicle "Disclosure" (1994), starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. Levinson skillfully orchestrated a suspenseful examination of a new wrinkle on the potential for sexual harassment in the work place.
That same year, Levinson made a rare acting appearance in Robert Redford's "Quiz Show" (1994), playing original "Today" show host Dave Garroway in a brief scene with star Ralph Fiennes. On the small screen, he picked up a Best Director Emmy for the pilot episode of the weekly police detective series created by writer Paul Attanasio, "Homicide: Life in the Streets" (NBC, 1993-2000), which he produced and shot in his native Baltimore. While the series covered familiar police territory, what was noteworthy was the slightly disorienting, hand-held camerawork and story lines spanning several weeks of episodes. His next feature "Sleepers" (1996), which he produced, wrote and directed, received mixed notices for its portrayal of four grown-up kids (Jason Patric, Billy Crudup, Brad Pitt and Ron Eldard) from Hell's Kitchen in New York, who were raped and beaten as children by a reform school guard (Kevin Bacon) and his cohorts. Based on the controversial bestseller by Lorenzo Carcaterra, Levinson's film courted its own controversy for its perceived negative depiction of the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, he continued his association with screenwriter Attanasio, producing the successful "wise guys" tale "Donnie Brasco" (1997), which also reunited him with Al Pacino from " And Justice for All.
With the David Mamet-scripted "Wag the Dog" (1997), Levinson delivered a star-studded satire that blended the world of politics and television by means of a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) creating a war for an embattled president (Michael Belson) at the behest of his political advisors (Robert De Niro and Anne Heche). Taking his first plunge into science fiction, he directed Hoffman - his fourth go-round with Levinson - in the rather dull "Sphere" (1998), adapted by Attanasio from Michael Crichton's novel. Returning once more to the Baltimore of his youth, Levinson hit creative pay dirt with "Liberty Heights" (1999), a nostalgic coming-of-age tale set in the mid-20th century, which may have served as an unofficial fourth installment to his Baltimore Trilogy. Levinson took a side trip into documentary directing, helming "Original Diner Guys" (1999), which followed the lives and interrelationships of Levinson's friends that had inspired "Diner," and "The 20th Century: Yesterday's Tomorrows" (2000), a look at what Americans' vision of the future had been during that century. Meanwhile, he was uncharacteristically funny with "An Everlasting Piece" (2000), an alleged comedy about wig salesmen in 1980s Belfast caught in the Protestant/Catholic conflict.
Levinson followed up with "Bandits" (2001), a somewhat amusing but uneven tale of two bank robbing buddies (Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis) who find themselves at odds over a bored housewife (Cate Blanchett) they have taken hostage. As a producer, Levinson had a hand in overseeing high-profile films he did not write or direct, including "The Perfect Storm" (2000) and "Analyze That" (2003), while continuing to stumble as a director with "Envy" (2004), a painfully unfunny comedy starring Ben Stiller as a man envious of his best friend's (Jack Black) success. After his television success with "Homicide," Levinson served as executive producer for several other small-screen efforts, including the acclaimed, hard-edged prison drama "Oz" (HBO, 1997-2003) with showrunner Tom Fontana, and the well-received Sidney Lumet-directed telepic, "Strip Search" (HBO, 2004), which explored the loss of civil liberties following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Levinson teamed with Fontana again on "The Jury" (Fox, 2004-05), a one-hour legal drama that focused on criminal cases from the perspective of a different New York jury every week. Poor ratings, however, prompted the fourth network to cancel after only 10 episodes.
Having already formed the Levinson/Fontana Company, the duo made another foray into television, producing "The Bedford Diaries" (The WB, 2005-06), a college drama about a diverse set of human behavior students at a small liberal arts college in Manhattan who speak openly about their sex lives - another unfortunately failed series for the once-successful team. Back in features, Levinson returned to the familiar territory of politics with his election satire, "Man of the Year" (2006), starring Robin Williams as a popular talk show host whose mock run for the presidency shocks everyone when he actually wins, thanks to a computer glitch. Despite an all-star cast that included Laura Linney, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum and Lewis Black, "Man of the Year" took a considerable drubbing from critics, many of whom were disappointed by the dearth of comedic punch and political bite. Meanwhile, Levinson got to work on his next film, "What Just Happened?" (2008), a Hollywood satire about a middle-aged movie producer (De Niro) who g s through two weeks of hell as he tries to get a movie made. After helming an episode of ESPN's acclaimed series "30 For 30" (2009), he directed "You Don't Know Jack" (HBO, 2010), the life story of Dr. Jack Kevorkian (Al Pacino), who helped more than 150 terminally ill patients die with dignity before being convicted of second-degree murder in Michigan. He received an Emmy Award nomination for his work helming the controversial biopic.
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CAST: (feature film)
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Not to be confused with an American producer Barry Levinson (born New York City, 1932; died in London, October 23, 1987), active mostly in Europe.
On Warren Beatty's comment that you don't finish a film, you abandon it: "At some point you have to hand it over. It's always tough. 'The Natural' is the only one that plays in my head, because I never really thought I finished it. We were so rushed to get the movie out. The sad thing is, it was supposed to be the first TriStar movie, and they were adamant, saying 'You've got to come out May 15,' or whatever the hell the date was. After we finally turned the thing over, they decided to make 'Where the Boys Are '84' the first TriStar movie. So it was locked and they threw another movie in front of it." --Barry Levinson in Premiere, January 1997.
"I'm closest to the Baltimore movies because thay are parts of my life and growing up. In many ways, they are the most painful ones to do because you put yourself on the line. Not just in terms of your work but you've invested something that's deeper in terms of your soul. Therefore you're more vulnerable. You get angry if you read something that can attack that. I've always remembered the comment in Variety about 'Avalon'--it said the movie has no reason to exist. I said to myself, 'There are 350 movies a year that get made and they don't say it about them. 'Avalon'? That's dealing with a number of issues about the flight to suburbia, the influence of television, the break-up of the family. It has no reason to exist?' I never got over that. It just completely drove me crazy." --Barry Levinson quoted in San Francisco Examiner, September 28, 1997.
As my past has infiltrated my movies through the years, I have been criticized for making some of my characters too Jewish and others not Jewish enough. When "Diner" came out, in 1982, someone complained: "I didn't know that some of the guys were Jewish until the end of the movie. It should be more clear." After "Avalon," in 1990, people asked, "Why didn't they celebrate Jewish holidays?" Or, more pointedly, "They didn't look Jewish enough." This is difficult to respond to, since my Uncle Ben looked like Harry James. In fact, he once told me that on a trip to New York, he'd gotten great seats in a nightclub because the maitre d' thought he WAS Harry James.
I had a great uncle who looked like Santa Claus -- a Santa who spoke only Yiddish." --From "Barry Levinson: Baltimore, My Baltimore" in The New York Times, November 14, 1999.
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