Oscar Levant


Pianist
Oscar Levant

About

Birth Place
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Born
December 27, 1906
Died
August 14, 1972
Cause of Death
Heart Attack

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 accura...

Photos & Videos

An American in Paris - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
The Band Wagon - Behind-the-Scenes Photos

Family & Companions

Barbara Smith
Wife
Dancer. Married 1932; divorced 1933; died January 16, 1997 at age 86.
June Gale
Wife
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.

Bibliography

"A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant"
Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (1994)
"A Smattering of Ignorance"
Oscar Levant
"The Unimportance of Being Oscar"
Oscar Levant
"Memoirs of an Amnesiac"
Oscar Levant

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)

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 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).

Life Events

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"

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

Photo Collections

An American in Paris - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Here are a number of photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of MGM's An American in Paris (1951), directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.
The Band Wagon - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of MGM's The Band Wagon (1953), directed by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, and Nanette Fabray.

Videos

Movie Clip

American in Paris, An (1951) - A Simple Girl Variations on Gershwin's "Embraceable You" support Henri (Georges Guetary) as he describes his girlfriend Lise (Leslie Caron) to Adam (Oscar Levant) in a fantasy musical sequence in An American In Paris, 1951.
O. Henry's Full House (1952) - The Ransom Of Red Chief Droll Alabamians Kathleen Freeman and Irving Bacon are little moved when their son (Lee Aaker) is kidnapped by bumbling Yankee interlopers Sam Brown (Fred Allen) and William Smith (Oscar Levant), who hope to turn a quick profit, Howard Hawks directing, in the literary anthology O. Henry’s Full House, 1952.
Cobweb, The (1955) - I Am Sometimes A Little Dictatorial Lively meeting of inmates at the pricey Midwestern psychiatric clinic, chaired by Holcomb (Edgar Stehli), bothered by Oscar Levant, Jan Arvan, Ruth Clifford and Jarma Lewis, Richard Widmark the doctor arriving, Lauren Bacall seems to be on staff, Susan Strasberg and John Kerr backing an initiative, early in Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb, 1955.
Band Wagon, The (1953) - That's Entertainment Bloviating director Cordova (Jack Buchanan) has just fallen from a platform while making his point, which he continues for Lester & Lily (Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray) and Tony (Fred Astaire), a now-famous tune by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, in Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon, 1953.
Barkleys Of Broadway, The (1949) - Two Broken Legs Bimbo understudy Shirlene (Gale Robbins) motivates Dinah (Ginger Rogers) in a rare straight tap number with husband Josh (Fred Astaire) to Harry Warren's "Bouncin' The Blues," with Clinton Sundberg and Oscar Levant, in The Barkleys Of Broadway, 1949.
Humoresque (1947) - All Kinds Of Animals Top-billed Joan Crawford in her first scene as New York socialite Helen Wright, intrigued by ambitious but caustic violinist Paul Boray (John Garfield), come to her party seeking patrons, Oscar Levant his partner, in Jean Negulesco's Humoresque, 1947.
Humoresque (1947) - Then You Think I'm Terrific? Fresh from failing with a radio orchestra, Paul Boray (John Garfield, with maestro Isaac Stern's fingering) in a famous montage by director Jean Negulesco, then counseled by pianist friend Sid (Oscar Levant), in Humoresque, 1947.
American In Paris, An (1951) - Adam's Fantasy Probably the only time the ubiquitous wit and piano virtuoso Oscar Levant (as "Adam") ever got five minutes alone on screen, in a fantasy of himself conducting and playing (his pal George) Gershwin's "Concerto in F," from An American In Paris, 1951.
Band Wagon, The (1953) - This Girl is A Monster! Unwilling co-stars, old-movie hoofer Tony (Fred Astaire) and ballerina Gaby (Cyd Charisse) have a rocky first meeting, each about to storm out when they learn that their nutty director Cordova (Jack Buchanan) has won over the financiers, in Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon, 1953.
Romance On The High Seas - I'm Deductible! Elvira (Janis Paige) and rich uncle (S.Z. Sakall) are scouting singer Georgia (Doris Day), introduced by her erstwhile boyfriend Oscar (Levant), with a tune by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, in Romance On The High Seas, 1948.

Trailer

Hosted Intro

Family

Max Levant
Father
Watch repairer.
Anne Radin
Mother
Harry Levant
Brother
Howard Levant
Brother
Benjamin Levant
Brother
Marcia Ann Levant
Daughter
Born 1940; married journalist Jerry Talmer.
Lorna Levant
Daughter
Born 1941.
Amanda Levant
Daughter
Born 1942; married Casey Carmel.

Companions

Barbara Smith
Wife
Dancer. Married 1932; divorced 1933; died January 16, 1997 at age 86.
June Gale
Wife
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.

Bibliography

"A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant"
Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (1994)
"A Smattering of Ignorance"
Oscar Levant
"The Unimportance of Being Oscar"
Oscar Levant
"Memoirs of an Amnesiac"
Oscar Levant

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)