Thursday, June 7, 2012

Icons from the Age of Anxiety: The Mordant Wit of Oscar Levant

Oscar Levant lensed by master photographer Richard Avedon.

There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.

Oscar Levant (1906-1972) American pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor. He was as famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio, and in movies and television, as for his music.

In 1928, Levant traveled to Hollywood. During his stay there, he met and befriended composer George Gershwin. From 1929-1948 Levant 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, now considered 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). His formal studies led to a request by Aaron Copland to play at the Yaddo Festival of Contemporary American Music that year. Successful, Levant began on a new orchestral work, a sinfonietta. He also married actress Barbara Woodell, but they soon divorced.

In 1939, Levant married for the second time, to singer and actress June Gale, one of the Gale Sisters. Oscar and June were married for 33 years, until his death in 1972.

For a 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 thirties and forties,

Between 1958-1960, 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, one with Astaire, who paid to have a kinescope recording of the broadcast made, so that he could assess his performance.

The TV 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." Levant later claimed that he "hadn't meant it that way".

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." On an appearance on the Tonight Show, from New York, Levant once quipped that his Jaguar ambulance was waiting outside for him.

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 in many areas.

Famous Quips:

Happiness isn't something you experience; it's something you remember.

I'm going to memorize your name and throw my head away.

So little time, and so little to do.

The only difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats allow the poor to be corrupt, too.

Underneath this flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.

A politician is a man who will double cross that bridge when he comes to it.

Behind the phony tinsel of Hollywood lies the real tinsel.

Every time I look at you I get a fierce desire to be lonesome.

I am no more humble than my talents require.

I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin.

I don't drink. I don't like it. It makes me feel good.

I envy people who drink -- at least they know what to blame everything on.

I have given up reading books. I find it takes my mind off myself.

There are two sides to every question: my side and the wrong side.

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


  1. Didn't Levant Once Say "I AM A PILL"? Between The Two Oscars, I would Choose Levant. (Not The One Obama Supports. They should Give Obama An "Oscar" For Lying About His "Levant".) No, Between Wilde and Levant, I'd Go With Oscar. I'm Sure He Would Agree With Me.

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