Oscar Levant

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Oscar Levant
Oscar Levant in Rhapsody in Blue trailer.jpg
from the trailer for
Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
Born(1906-12-27)December 27, 1906
DiedAugust 14, 1972(1972-08-14) (aged 65)
Years active1923–1965
Spouse(s)Barbara Woodell (1932–1932; divorced)
June Gale (1939–1972, his death; 3 children)

Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906 – August 14, 1972) was an American concert pianist, composer, music conductor, author, radio game show panelist, television talk show host, comedian and actor. Though awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for recordings featuring his piano performances, he was as famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and later in movies and television, as for his music.

Early life[edit]

Levant was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, in 1906, to Orthodox Jewish parents who had immigrated from Russia.[1] His father, Max, was a watchmaker who wanted his four sons to become either dentists or doctors. His mother Annie was a highly religious woman whose father was a Rabbi who presided over his daughter's wedding to Max Levant.[1]: 4-5 

Oscar Levant moved to New York in 1922, following the death of his father. He began studying under Zygmunt Stojowski, a well-established piano pedagogue. In 1925, aged 18, he appeared with Ben Bernie in a short film, Ben Bernie and All the Lads, made in New York City in the De Forest 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 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).[2] 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 composing a new orchestral work, a sinfonietta.

In 1938, Levant make his debut as a music conductor on Broadway, filling in for his brother Harry in sixty-five performances of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s The Fabulous Invalid. In 1939, he was again working on Broadway as composer and conductor of The American Way, another Kaufman and Hart production.[3] He was a talented pianist who recorded works by Gershwin, for which he was well known, and numerous classical composers, and for a portion of the 1940s, he was the highest paid concert pianist in the United States.[4]

At this time, Levant was becoming 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, and he impressed audiences with his depth of knowledge and facility 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."[5] Examples include "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin," "I think a lot of Bernstein—but not as much as he does," and (after Marilyn converted to Judaism when she married playwright Arthur Miller), "Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her.” [6][7][8]

From the 1920s through the mid-1950s, Levant appeared in a number of feature films, often playing a pianist or composer. He had major supporting roles in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; An American in Paris (1951), starring Gene Kelly; and The Band Wagon (1953), starring Astaire and Cyd Charisse.[9]

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

In the early 1950s, Levant was an occasional panelist on the NBC game show Who Said That?, in which celebrities would try to determine the speaker of quotations taken from recent news reports.[10]

From 1958 to 1960, Levant hosted a talk show on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, The Oscar Levant Show,[11] which was later syndicated. It featured his piano playing along with monologues and interviews with guests such as Fred Astaire and Linus Pauling. Full recordings of only two shows are known to have survived,[12] one with Astaire, who paid to have a kinescope recording of the broadcast made so that he could assess his performance.

In 1960, Levant was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in recognition of his recording career.[13]

Personal life[edit]

Levant was married to and divorced from actress Barbara Woodell in 1932.[14] In 1939, Levant married his second wife, singer and actress June Gale (née Doris Gilmartin), one of the Gale Sisters. They were married for 33 years, until he died in 1972; the couple had three daughters: Marcia, Lorna, and Amanda.[14]

Levant talked openly on television about his neuroses and hypochondria. Evidently, he talked openly about them many years before his first television appearance. Writer and humorist Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table who died in 1943, said of him: "There isn't anything the matter with Levant that a few miracles wouldn't cure."[15] Despite his afflictions, Levant was considered a multifaceted genius by some. He himself wisecracked "There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line."[16] In later life Levant became addicted to prescription drugs, was frequently committed to mental hospitals by his wife, and increasingly withdrew from the limelight.[citation needed]

He was the inspiration for the neurotic, womanizing pianist Henry Orient in Nora Johnson's novel and subsequent Hollywood film The World of Henry Orient (1964).[17]


Crypt of Oscar Levant at Westwood Memorial Park

A lifelong heavy smoker and longtime pharmaceutical drug user, Levant died in his house in Beverly Hills, California, of a heart attack in 1972 at age 65. His death was discovered by his wife June when she called him from their bedroom to meet for an interview with Candice Bergen, a photojournalist at the time. According to Bergen's memoir titled Knock Wood, she had visited the same Beverly Hills house on the previous day; Knock Wood includes one of her photographs from that occasion.[18] In the book Bergen reveals that Levant asked her to return the next day to take more photographs, and she agreed.[18] While she was driving with her camera in her car on the following day, she did not know he had died.[18]

Levant is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. In citing an old joke, some comedians have told an apocryphal story about Levant: that his epitaph reads, "I told them I was ill."[citation needed] His gravestone is actually a small plaque on a columbarium with his name, exact dates of birth / death and nothing else.



Another example of his repartée:

  • "It's not what you are, it's what you don't become that hurts."[19][20]




  1. ^ a b Kashner, Sam (1994). A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant. New York: Villard/Random House. p. 3. ISBN 1-879505-39-8.
  2. ^ Levant, Oscar The Unimportance of Being Oscar, Pocket Books 1969 (reprint of G.P. Putnam 1968), p. 113. ISBN 0-671-77104-3.
  3. ^ "Classical Net - Composers - Levant". Classical Net.
  4. ^ Horowitz, Joseph (August 10, 2019). "'Completely Unmasked at All Times': On the Complete Piano Recordings of Oscar Levant". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved June 26, 2021.
  5. ^ Dunning, John (May 7, 1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. ISBN 9780199840458. Retrieved November 13, 2014 – via Books.google.com.
  6. ^ Giardina, Anthony. "The Lives They Lived". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved June 26, 2021.
  7. ^ Reich, Howard (January 21, 1990). "The Laughs Last". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved June 26, 2021.
  8. ^ Harding, Les (2012). They Knew Marilyn Monroe: Famous Persons in the Life of the Hollywood Icon. McFarland & Co. ISBN 0786466375.
  9. ^ "Oscar Levant". IMDb. Retrieved June 26, 2021.
  10. ^ "Show Overview: Who Said That?". tv.com. Retrieved June 25, 2021.
  11. ^ Ethan Thompson (2011). "5". Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781136839801. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on July 8, 2012. Retrieved December 28, 2009.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. ^ "Oscar Levant | Hollywood Walk of Fame". Walkoffame.com.
  14. ^ a b "The Palm Beach Post - Google News Archive Search". Archived from the original on April 11, 2013. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  15. ^ Teichman, Howard, Smark Aleck, the Wit World and Life of Alexander Woollcott (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1976), p. 170
  16. ^ Anderson, Joc (July 8, 2011). The Author of Love. ISBN 9781449708030. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  17. ^ Colapinto, John (April 3, 2012). "A Star is Born, Lost, and Found". The New Yorker. New York City. Retrieved December 12, 2015.
  18. ^ a b c Bergen, Candice (2014) [1984]. Knock Wood. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-476-77013-0.
  19. ^ "The Memoirs of an Amnesiac". Classicalmpr.org. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  20. ^ Levant, Oscar. "Quotations at wikiquotes". En.wikiquote.org. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  21. ^ Burlesque at the Internet Broadway Database
  22. ^ Ripples at the Internet Broadway Database
  23. ^ Sweet and Low at the Internet Broadway Database
  24. ^ The Fabulous Invalid at the Internet Broadway Database
  25. ^ The American Way at the Internet Broadway Database


External links[edit]