Oscar Levant, his Burden of Fulfillment, the Misery of Fame and the Fame of Misery, and "the Only Saint in Hollywood"
Jack Perkins narrates this account of the life and career of Oscar Levant, from this 1906 birth, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, through his accomplishments as a gifted pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor, on radio, screen and television, famous all along for his certain touch of that neurotic edge.
The fourth-born son of Annie and Max Levant, Oscar reportedly begins his life as a disappointment to a family which allegedly expects a daughter, and so he journeys through his formative years aspiring to compensate for their disappointment. But, in doing so, Oscar faces a series of disappointments all his own.
Music becomes his passion from a young age, specifically concert piano, as he hears conductor Ignacy Paderewski's performance. In 1918, a Vaudville act appears in Pittsburgh, featuring an impressive piano concerto by a young George Gershwin, whose work affects Oscar's future career objectives.
In 1921, at the age of fifteen, Oscar's mother takes him to New York City to study piano, but she leaves him there, as Annie returns alone to Pittsburgh, but losing Max the following year, which becomes a double tragedy for Oscar because now he won't be able to impress his father with his talent.
Oscar begins a series of odd jobs, such as delivering newspapers, to pay his way, to establish himself as a concert pianist. But when he reconnects with George Gershwin, to record instrumental performances, Gershwin remarks to Levant, "I like my own better."
Well, now, Oscar has all the more reason to prove his talents to someone...anyone...and so he composes the score for a Broadway play, "Ripples" (1930), which flops after a month's time, and so he never again composes for the stage.
In 1932, however, when Oscar performs at a large NYC arena, his abilities are finally well-received and applauded although by now Oscar develops an incredible degree of stage fright, which he addresses with a large amount of tobacco usage plus some forty to fifty cups of coffee per day. He is also said to have a fear of lemons, roses, coffee-cake and the number thirteen, which he never utters aloud.
In 1933, Oscar Levant heads to Hollywood, to compose for the silver screen, and to participate on the radio program "Information Please," which makes him an overnight sensation as audiences tune in to hear his wise-cracks and self-put-downs, which, in turn, boosts his concert attendance because audiences reportedly arrive in great numbers to hear the neurotic persona which they welcome on radio.
Soon, Oscar scores a major hit record with "Blame It on My Youth" (1934). And, in 1939, Oscar marries June, the youngest member of the Gale Sisters Quartet, who finally begins to provide stability to his life, as they welcome three daughters.
As Oscar Levant's fame continues to rise in concert and on radio, MGM Studios offers him film roles throughout the 1940's and into the 1950's, when he makes his mark on television with his self-admitted neurotic persona, fueled by his nervousness and prescription pharmaceuticals, as his fame makes him miserable, but his misery makes him famous.
Through it all, Oscar attempts to compensate for his lifetime of criticism, while June stands beside Oscar through many difficult trials, and is one day herself said to be "the Only Saint in Hollywood."
Interview Guests for this episode consist of Amanda Levant Carmel (Daughter), Joan Collins (Actress), Lauren Bacall (Actress/co-star: "The Cobweb"), Leslie Caron (Actress/co-star: "An American in Paris"), Betty Comden (Screenwriter: "The Band Wagon"), Kitty Carlisle Hart (Entertainer/friend), Edith Schick Engel (Assistant Producer: "Information Please" TV series), Nancy Schoenberger (Biographer: co-author, "A Talent For Genius: the Life and Times of Oscar Levant"), Sam Kashner (Biographer: co-author, "A Talent For Genius: the Life and Times of Oscar Levant"), Al Burton (Producer: "The Oscar Levant Show"), Arthur Marx (Son of Groucho/friend of Oscar Levant), Adolph Green (Screenwriter/songwriter), and Michael Feinstein (Pianist/singer), with Jack Perkins (Host and Narrator).
Still Photographs include Oscar Levant, Annie Levant (Mother), Max Levant (Father), Benjamin, Harry and Howard Levant (Brothers), George Gershwin, Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, Groucho Marx, Irving Berlin, Jane, Joan, Jean and June Gale, Judy Garland and Humphrey Bogart.
Archive film footage includes Oscar Levant, June Gale (Wife), Marcia, Lorna, and Amanda Levant (Daughters), Ignacy Paderewski, Robert Alda (as George Gershwin), John Garfield (as Paul Boray), Fred Astaire (as Josh Barkley), Ginger Rogers (as Dinah Barkley), Gene Kelly (as Jerry Mulligan), Georges Guétary (as Henri Baurel), Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joey Bishop, Jack Paar, plus various unidentified co-stars.
Oscar's song performances here include "Blame It on My Youth" (1934).
Film Clips include a screen glimpse of Oscar Levant through the years, in scenes from Ben Bernie and All the Lads (1923), Rhapsody in Blue (1945), Humoresque (1946), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), An American in Paris (1951), The Band Wagon (1953), and The Cobweb (1955).
Television Clips include "Information Please" (1939-42), "Music 55" (1955), "The Oscar Levant Show" (1958), "The Joey Bishop Show" (1964), "The Jack Paar Tonight Show" (1964), plus an archive interview with Oscar Levant (circa 1951).
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