Oscar Levant (1906-1972)

Oscar Levant
Oscar Levant
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Oscar Levant was one of the most unusual and colorful characters of Hollywood's Golden Age. Immensely gifted, he became successful as a movie star in between being successful at many other things including composing classical music, playing the piano, conducting, writing, acting and hosting chat shows. In addition he was famous for his razor sharp witticisms and put downs.

At one time Levant was one of the most popular and highest-paid concert artists in America. In 1945 his recording of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" became number one on Billboard's classical chart and remained a bestseller for a decade. He composed both classical and popular music. Many major symphony orchestras have performed his works such as "Sinfonietta", and "Nocturne for Orchestra" and his song "Blame It On My Youth" is a popular jazz standard.recorded by many artists including Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole.

In his acting career Levant appeared on the Broadway stage and in 13 movies including 'Humoresque' in 1947, 'The Barkleys of Broadway' in 1949 and the Oscar winning classic musical 'An American in Paris' in 1951. He also wrote the screenplay for 'Orient Express' in 1934 and wrote many songs for dozens of films. There is no doubt about his multi-faceted genius but by the time of his death he was known mainly as a deeply troubled man with many neuroses and insecurities.


He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 27, 1906, into an Orthodox Jewish family. His parents had both immigrated from Russia, and his father, Max, owned a jewelry shop in Pittsburgh. He had three older brothers, all of whom were musical and young Oscar began taking piano lessons firstly from his older brother Benjamin. His brother, Harry, went on to become a professional violinist.

Early Musical Education

At a very young age Oscar showed that he had extraordinary natural musical talent and from the age of eight he was giving public solo recitals of Liszt, Chopin and Beethoven. In 1919 he began attending the Fifth Avenue High School and his musical education continued with visits with his teacher to the concerts of Paderewski and Stokowski. He also joined the the school orchestra which featured him as a soloist, aged just twelve, performing a piece by Mendelssohn.

When his father died in 1921, Oscar left High School and was sent to study classical piano in New York with the aim of becoming a concert pianist. Still only fifteen, he took lessons from Polish pianist and composer Zygmunt Stojowski, working in the evenings playing popular music in hotels. He developed a love for and empathy with popular music which would continue throughout his life.

Levant continued with his first love, classical music, but was continually distracted to the glamour of Broadway and of the social life of the city. In 1924, aged 18, he appeared in a movie for the first time, 'Ben Bernie and All the Lads', made in New York City on an experimental sound film system. The following year he played with Bernie on his first recording, "Yes Sir That’s My Baby" and in 1926 he toured London playing piano in cabaret with the band of saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft.

George Gershwin

Levant became a close friend of George Gershwin and was the first pianist after Gershwin to record "Rhapsody in Blue" . He is believed to have recorded it in 15 minutes with no rehearsal, and it became a nationwide hit.

In 1927 Levant changed career direction and appeared on stage in the Broadway play 'Burlesque' with up and coming star, Barbara Stanwyck. The play was a hit and Levant appeared in 327 performances. He then reprised his role in the movie adaptation, 'Dance of Life' in 1929.


In 1928, Levant first travelled to Hollywood where, with the advent of sound, music was in big demand. Over the next three decades he would compose for over 20 Hollywood films and act as a featured player in 13 more, often playing a composer or pianist. Between 1929 and 1939 he worked as a songwriter and rehearsal pianist for RKO studios. He memorably composed a series of operatic sequences, "Carnival", which was used in the movie 'Charlie Chan at the Opera' in 1936.

As an actor, Levant had important supporting roles in musicals such as 'The Barkleys of Broadway' in 1949, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and 'An American in Paris' in 1951, co-starring Gene Kelly. In addition he appeared in 'Humoresque' in 1947, with Joan Crawford and in 1945 he played himself in 'Rhapsody in Blue', a fictional biography of his friend, George Gershwin. In 1953 he joined Fred Astaire again in the comedy musical 'The Band Wagon'.

Popular S0ng Writer

In 1927 Levant published his first song "Keep Sweeping the Cobwebs Off the Moon" which became a hit. He became a prolific songwriter, publishing 80 songs over the rest of his career, including "If You Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain)" in 1928, "Lady, Play Your Mandolin" in 1930, the standard "Blame It On My Youth" in 1934 and "Wacky Dust" in 1938.

Classical Musician

It is interesting to speculate as to the heights which Levant might have reached if he had concentrated his talents in the direction of classical music only, instead of diffusing it with his interest in popular music, movies, radio and the nightlife of America.

He was certainly immensely gifted as both a performer and a composer. He played many times with top conductors. When he was just 24 in 1930 he played second keyboard with George Gershwin under conductor Arturo Toscanini in a two-piano version of the Second Rhapsody. Two years later, in Lewisohn Stadium, he played the Gershwin Concerto in F before an audience of 17,000.

After Gershwin's death in July, 1937, Levant was recognised as the natural interpreter and performer of Gershwin's music. In September, 1937, under conductor Charles Previn, he played the Concerto in F at the Gershwin memorial concert in the Hollywood Bowl before 22,000 people.

Levant wrote numerous well received, serious works including string quartets, a woodwind trio, a sonatina, a sinfonietta, a piano concerto and an orchestral nocturne.

By the early 1950's, at the height of his musical abilities, Levant was the highest paid concert performer in America.

Recording Artist

Levant made over 100 recordings on vinyl discs, with top conductors and orchestras such as Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Radio and Television

Levant reached the height of his popular fame through the radio show 'Information Please!' After being invited on the show as a guest in 1938, he was quickly hired as a regular, such was the enthusiastic audience response to his wit. Eventually over 12 million listeners were tuning in and Levant was a nationally famous figure. He remained on the show for six years.

For two years from 1947, Levant made regular appearances on the radio show 'Kraft Music Hall' which starred Al Jolson. He accompanied Jolson on the piano and joked and ad-libbed with him. The show was a great success.

From 1958 levant hosted his own popular local Los Angeles TV show called 'The Oscar Levant Show' (and which he, himself, called 'Disgrace the Nation'). It was a chat show with guests from the world of entertainment, politics and the arts. It was cancelled in 1960 because of Levant's tendency to indulge in controversial monologues and off-color personal remarks.

World-class Wit

Levant has left us with some priceless gems of wit. Here is a selection:

Levant said of George Gershwin: "Tell me, George. If you had to do it all over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?"
Of Joe DiMaggio’s divorce from Marilyn Monroe: "No man can excel at two national pastimes."
" They threw me out of the insane asylum because I was making everyone there depressed"
"Roses are red
Violets are blue
I am a schizophrenic
and so am I "
"It's not what you are - it's what you don't become that hurts."
"There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line."
“What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left”
Underneath this flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.
I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.
Behind the phony tinsel of Hollywood lies the real tinsel.
My psychiatrist once said to me, "Maybe life isn't for everyone".
[about his first meeting with Marilyn Monroe] I said something to her and Jean Peters questioned my grammar. That was one of the nadir points of my career, to have my grammar corrected in front of Marilyn Monroe.
"Someone once asked me where I lived and I said, 'On the periphery '."
While promoting his book on "The Merv Griffin" television show, the talk show host asked Oscar what he would do if he had his life to live over again. Oscar responded, "I'd talk my parents out of it."


He wrote three memoirs: "A Smattering of Ignorance" (1940), "Memoirs of an Amnesiac" (1965) which was on the New York Times bestseller list within four weeks of release, and "The Unimportance of Being Oscar" (1968), also a bestseller.


Levant was attracted by the louche side of American life. Whilst still at High School he was lured willingly to bookmakers, pool halls and whorehouses in the dark heart of Pittsburgh. He started his smoking habit at age 12 and increased to 4 packs a day as an adult.

As a young adult Levant's quick wit and sharp mind allowed him to gain entrance to the elite circle of the music, theater and literary scenes of New York and Hollywood. He became friends with all the right people such as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, the Gershwins,Harpo Marx and Walter Winchell, He became a popular figure at their social events.

Levant was married twice. His first marriage was in 1932 to actress Barbara Woodell. The marriage was not a success and the couple were divorced after 9 months. His second marriage was to another actress, June Gale and the marriage produced three girls. It was something of an emotional switchback for both parties, with quarrels, reconciliations and suicide attempts from both, making good copy for the Hollywood press, but the marriage lasted until Levant's death.

Levant had a heart attack in 1953, aged 47 and he soon began a life of mental and physical decline as he became addicted to the painkiller Demerol. He became more famous for his appearances on the Jack Paar Show discussing his addiction and nervous breakdowns, than for his music.

Oscar Levant died peacefully, in his sleep on August 14, 1972, from a heart attack. He was 65 years old.

Oscar Levant Academy Awards

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Oscar Levant Filmography

Ben Bernie and All the Lads (Phonofilm)
Night Parade (uncredited)
The Dance of Life
In Person
Charlie Chan at the Opera
Rhythm on the River
Kiss the Boys Goodbye