Oscar Levant: Wikis

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Oscar Levant

from the trailer for
Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
Born December 27, 1906(1906-12-27)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died August 14, 1972 (aged 65)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.

Oscar Levant (27 December 1906 – 14 August 1972) was an American pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor. He was more famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and in movies and television, than for his music.

Contents

Life and career

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to an Orthodox Jewish family from Russia, Levant moved to New York with his mother, Annie, in 1922, following the death of his father, Max. He began studying under Zygmunt Stojowski, a well-established piano pedagogue. In 1924, aged 18, he appeared with Ben Bernie in a short film Ben Bernie and All the Lads made in New York City in the DeForest 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 to be 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).[1] 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 on a new orchestral work, a sinfonietta. He married actress Barbara Woodell; they divorced in 1932.

In 1939, Levant married for the second time, to singer and actress June Gale (née Gilmartin), part of the singing foursome The Gale Sisters (besides June, there were Jane, Joan, and Jean). They were married for almost 33 years, until his death, and had three children, Marcia, Lorna, and Amanda.

At this time, Levant was perhaps 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, though he impressed audiences with his wide depth of knowledge and quickness 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".

From 1947 to 1949, Levant regularly appeared on NBC radio's Kraft Music Hall, starring Al Jolson. He not only accompanied Jolson on the piano and played classical and popular solos, but often joked and ad-libbed with Jolson and his guests. This includes 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).

Levant in An American in Paris (1951)

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. A full recording of only two shows is known to exist,[2] one with Astaire, who paid to have a kinescope recording of the broadcast made, so that he could assess his performance. This is likely the only Astaire performance to have imperfections, as it was live, and Levant would repeatedly change the tempo of his accompaniment to Astaire's singing during the bridges between verses, which appeared to get him quite off balance at first. He did not dance, as the studio space was extremely small.

The show was highly controversial, eventually being taken from the air after a comment about Marilyn Monroe's conversion to Judaism: "Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her". He later stated that he "hadn't meant it that way". Several months later, the show began to be broadcast in a slightly revised format—it was taped in order to provide a buffer for Levant's antics. This, however, failed to prevent Levant from making comments about Mae West's sex life that caused the show to be canceled for good. Levant was also a frequent guest on Jack Paar's talk show, prompting Paar in later years to sign off by saying, "Good night, Oscar Levant, wherever you are."

The 1920s and 1930s wit Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, once said of him: "There's absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can't fix."[citation needed]

Open about his neuroses and hypochondria, Levant, in later life became addicted to prescription drugs and was frequently committed to mental hospitals by his wife. Despite his afflictions, Levant was considered a genius by some, in many areas. (He himself wisecracked "There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.")

Levant drew increasingly away from the limelight in his later years. Upon his death in Beverly Hills, California of a heart attack at the age of 65, he was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. In their routines, some comics have claimed, apocryphally, and citing an old joke, that hypochondriac Levant's epitaph was inscribed, "I told them I was ill."

Filmography

Broadway

Memoirs

Quotations

More examples of his repartée:

  • "Roses are red, violets are blue, I am schizophrenic, and so am I."
  • "I used to call Audrey Hepburn a walking X-ray."
  • "A few years ago someone suggested that I read Spinoza. The first chapter in this particular volume was about superstitions and rituals. Here was my faith! Spinoza said rituals are all based on fear. My faith destroyed, I put down the book."
  • "When Frank Sinatra, Jr. was kidnapped, I said, 'It must have been done by music critics.'"
  • "Not long ago, a well-known Hollywood savings-and-loan millionaire intruded on a conversation at my table at a restaurant. Worst still, he implied that he and I were equals. 'Compared to you, I'm a Habsburg,' I told him. But it didn't offend him. He thought Habsburg was a rival local banker."
  • "What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left."
  • "I only make jokes when I am feeling insecure."
  • "So little time and so little to do..."
  • "I'm a concert pianist, that's a pretentious way of saying I'm unemployed at the moment." (From An American in Paris)
  • "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin." (Levant was in the cast of Day's first film, Romance on the High Seas (1948), in which she played a brassy showgirl very different from the virginal ingenue character that later brought her stardom.)
  • "I have one thing to say about psychoanalysis: fuck Dr Freud."
  • "The only difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats allow the poor to be corrupt, too."
  • "Everyone in Hollywood is gay, except Gabby Hayes — and that's because he is a transvestite."
  • "It's not a pretty face, I grant you but underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character." (From An American in Paris)
  • When asked by Jack Paar what he does for exercise, he replied, "I stumble, then fall into a coma."
  • "Leonard Bernstein is revealing musical secrets that have been common knowledge for centuries."
  • Asked by Jack Paar to describe his reaction to Milton Berle converting to become a Christian Scientist- "Our loss is their loss."
  • Overheard at a dinner party: "The best kind of guests are the ones that know when to leave!"
  • "Strip away the false tinsel from Hollywood, and you find the real tinsel inside."
  • "It's not what you are, it's what you don't become that hurts."

References

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Bibliography

Notes

External links


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.

Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906August 14, 1972) was an American pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor. He was more famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and in movies and television, than for his music.

Contents

Sourced

  • It's not a pretty face, I grant you. But underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.
    • Describing himself, in lines he contributed to An American In Paris (1951), although officially credited to Alan Jay Lerner, as told in The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965); also quoted in The Dictionary of Biographical Quotation of British and American Subjects (1978) by Richard Kenin and Justin Wintle, p. 485
  • The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.
    • As quoted in The New Speaker's Treasury of Wit and Wisdom (1958) by Herbert Victor Prochnow, p. 322
  • I don't drink. I don't like it — It makes me feel good.
    • As quoted in TIME magazine (5 May 1958)
  • I'm a study of a man in chaos in search of frenzy.
    • As quoted in TIME (5 May 1958)
  • There is a thin line between genius and insanity.
    I have erased this line.
    • As quoted in Celebrity Register : An Irreverent Compendium of American Quotable Notables (1959) by Cleveland Amory
  • Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you will find the real tinsel underneath.
    • As quoted in Jewish Wit (1962) by Theodor Reik, p. 104, also in Inquisition in Eden (1965) and Whatever It Is, I’m Against It (1984) by Nat Shapiro
  • I once said cynically of a politician, "He'll double-cross that bridge when he comes to it."
    • The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965), p. 13; also quoted in The Quotable Politician (2003) by William B. Whitman, p. 31
  • An epigram is only a wisecrack that's played at Carnegie Hall.
    • As quoted in Coronet Magazine (September 1968)
  • Happiness isn't something you experience; it's something you remember.
    • As quoted in TIME (28 August 1972)
  • I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.
    • As quoted in The Wit and Wisdom of Hollywood (1972) by Max Wilk
  • I envy people who drink — at least they know what to blame everything on.
    • As quoted in The Portable Curmudgeon (1992) by Jon Winokur, p. 88
  • What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.
    • As quoted in On the 8th Day — God Laughed (1995) by Gene Perret, p. 95
  • The only difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats allow the poor to be corrupt, too.
    • As quoted in The Quotable Politician (2003) by William B. Whitman, p. 30
  • I am no more humble than my talents require.
    • As quoted in Memorable Quotations : Jewish Writers of the Past (2005) edited by Carol A. Dingle
  • I have given up reading books; I find it takes my mind off myself.
    • As quoted in Memorable Quotations : Jewish Writers of the Past (2005) edited by Carol A. Dingle
  • I was once thrown out of a mental hospital for depressing the other patients.
    • As quoted in Memorable Quotations : Jewish Writers of the Past (2005) edited by Carol A. Dingle
  • Once he makes up his mind, he's full of indecision.
    • On President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as quoted in The Nastiest Things Ever Said about Republicans (2006) by Martin Higgins, p. 83
  • Every time I look at you I get a fierce desire to be lonesome.
  • It isn't what you are, it's what you don't become that hurts.

Unsourced

  • I have no trouble with my enemies. But my god damn friends... they are the ones that keep me walking the floors at night.
  • I'm going to memorize your name and throw my head away.
  • Roses are red, violets are blue, I'm schizophrenic, and so am I.
  • So little time and so little to do.
  • There are two sides to every question: my side and the wrong side.

Quotations about Levant

  • It is not always possible to predict the response of a doting Jewish mother. Witness the occasion on which the late piano virtuoso Oscar Levant telephoned his mother with some important news. He had proposed to his beloved and been accepted. Replied Mother Levant: “Good, Oscar, I’m happy to hear it. But did you practice today?”
  • Pearl is a disease of oysters. Levant is a disease of Hollywood.

External links

Wikipedia
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