Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Oscar Levant: A Fine Blend Of Genius And Insanity

Indeed there will never be another entertainer quite like Oscar Levant (1906-1972).  He was a classically trained concert pianist, composer, author, actor, dancer, and comedy genius. The one thread moving throughout his working life was mental illness, a condition that eventually became the core of his stage persona. It was an odd therapeutic for Levant and it brought laughter to millions. Today he's likely unknown to more than a generation of Americans but that doesn't mean he's ready for history's dustbin. Quite the contrary. There must be something important about Oscar Levant if Hollywood director Ben Stiller may be developing a film based on the entertainer's life.

Although Levant's presence on the entertainment spectrum is broad, his greatest impact was as a concert pianist, comedian, and author. He was trained in classical music in Pittsburgh and New York and divided his musical time between Hollywood and Broadway as a young performer and composer. He became a close friend and associate of George Gershwin and his extended family of stars and admirers. With Gershwin's early death in 1937, Levant would become known as the finest interpreter of his work for almost two decades until the end of his own career as a concert performer. Levant's Hollywood association not only led to his role as a composer but also as an actor. Although his filmography is short it contains a host of memorable, mostly comedic scenes involving song, dance and wit. Here are two clips of Levant at his best:

From the 1951 film, An American in Paris,

Next there is Levant, the radio and television personality. From the 1930's into the 1950's he was featured regularly on several radio programs and made frequent guest appearances on others. His knowledge of Hollywood personalities combined with his musical talent, quick wit and self-deprecating  posture made him a hit from coast to coast. That status also made for an easy transition to television. 

Finally, there is Levant, the writer. He produced three memoirs, two of them best-sellers. His Memoirs of An Amnesiac (1965) is a recollection of his often weird and tattered life as well as a tour de force of wit and wisdom aimed at Hollywood's famous and infamous personalities beginning in the 1930s. His The Unimportance of Being Oscar appeared in 1968. Although both books are a bit dated, readers with some knowledge of popular culture and politics from the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930's to the entertainment world of the 1960's would certainly find both books entertaining reads.

After hosting his own syndicated television program from Los Angeles in 1958-59 he made several noteworthy appearances on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar where he openly discussed his mental health issues. By the early '60's his mental and physical condition deteriorated significantly, his drug dependency increased, and he withdrew from public life. Here is one of his last television appearances:

There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line.
                                                                                   Oscar Levant, 1959

Happy birthday, Oscar!


ClassicalNet biography, Oscar Levant
wikipedia.org, Oscar Levant

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