Oscar Levant

Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906  August 14, 1972) was an American concert pianist, composer, music conductor, bestselling author, radio game show panelist and personality, television talk show host, 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.

Oscar Levant
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)

Early life

Levant was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, in 1906, to Orthodox Jewish parents 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.[2]

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 1923, aged 17, he appeared with Ben Bernie in a short film, Ben Bernie and All the Lads, made in New York City in the DeForest 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).[3] 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.

The year 1938 saw 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.[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]

From the 1930s 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),[7] starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, An American in Paris (1951),[8] starring Gene Kelly, and The Band Wagon (1953), starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.

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

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.[9]

Between 1958 and 1960, Levant hosted a television talk show on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, The Oscar Levant Show,[10] 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. Full recordings of only two shows are known to exist,[11] 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.[12]

Personal life

Levant was briefly married to actress Barbara Woodell; they divorced in 1932.[13] 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 his death in 1972, and had three children: Marcia, Lorna, and Amanda.[13]

Levant was open about his neuroses and hypochondria. The 1920s and 1930s wit Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, once said of him: "There isn't anything the matter with Levant that a few miracles wouldn't cure."[14] 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."[15] In later life Levant became addicted to prescription drugs, was frequently committed to mental hospitals by his wife, and increasingly withdrew from the limelight.

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).[16]


A lifelong heavy smoker, Levant died 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. He is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. In citing an old joke, comics tell an apocryphal story about Levant: that his epitaph reads, "I told them I was ill."[17]



More examples of his repartée:

  • "I used to call Audrey Hepburn a walking X-ray."
  • "A few years ago someone suggested that I read Spinoza. The first chapter in this particular volume was about superstitions and rituals. Here was my faith! Spinoza said rituals are all based on fear. My faith destroyed, I put down the book."
  • "When Frank Sinatra, Jr. was kidnapped, I said, 'It must have been done by music critics.'"
  • "Not long ago, a well-known Hollywood savings-and-loan millionaire intruded on a conversation at my table at a restaurant. Worse still, he implied that he and I were equals. 'Compared to you, I'm a Habsburg,' I told him. But it didn't offend him. He thought Habsburg was a rival local banker."
  • "What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left."
  • "I only make jokes when I am feeling insecure."
  • "So little time and so little to do..."
  • "I'm a concert pianist, that's a pretentious way of saying I'm unemployed at the moment." (From An American in Paris)
  • "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin." (Levant was in the cast of Day's first film, Romance on the High Seas (1948), in which she played a brassy showgirl very different from the virginal ingenue character that later brought her stardom.)
  • "I have one thing to say about psychoanalysis: fuck Dr Freud."
  • "The only difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats allow the poor to be corrupt, too."
  • "Everyone in Hollywood is gay, except Gabby Hayes — and that's because he is a transvestite."
  • "It's not a pretty face, I grant you but underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character." (From An American in Paris)
  • When asked by Jack Paar what he does for exercise, he replied, "I stumble, then fall into a coma."
  • "Leonard Bernstein is revealing musical secrets that have been common knowledge for centuries."
  • Asked by Jack Paar to describe his reaction to Milton Berle converting from Judaism to become a Christian Scientist- "Our loss is their loss."
  • Overheard at a dinner party: "The best kind of guests are the ones that know when to leave!"
  • "Strip away the false tinsel from Hollywood, and you find the real tinsel inside."
  • "It's not what you are, it's what you don't become that hurts."


  • Oscar's wife June became inured to his medical emergencies. When he called her to say he was in the hospital again, she replied, "Gesundheit!"




  1. 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. Kashner, Sam (1994). A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant. New York: Villard/Random House. pp. 4–5. ISBN 1-879505-39-8.
  3. Oscar Levant, The Unimportance of Being Oscar, Pocket Books 1969 (reprint of G.P. Putnam 1968), p. 113. ISBN 0-671-77104-3.
  4. "Classical Net - Composers - Levant". Classical Net.
  5. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Retrieved November 13, 2014 via Books.google.com.
  6. "Oscar Levant". En.wikiquote.org. Retrieved December 30, 2017 via Wikiquote.
  7. "The Barkleys of Broadway". IMDb.com. September 1, 1949. Retrieved December 30, 2017 via www.imdb.com.
  8. "An American in Paris". IMDb.com. November 11, 1951. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  9. "Show Overview: Who Said That?". tv.com. Retrieved June 12, 2011.
  10. Ethan Thompson (2011). "5". Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture. New York: Routledge. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  11. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on July 8, 2012. Retrieved December 28, 2009.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  12. "Oscar Levant | Hollywood Walk of Fame". Walkoffame.com.
  13. "The Palm Beach Post - Google News Archive Search". News.google.com. Archived from the original on April 11, 2013. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  14. Teichman, Howard, Smark Aleck, the Wit World and Life of Alexander Woollcott (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1976), p. 170
  15. The Author of Love. Books.google.com. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  16. Colapinto, John (April 3, 2012). "A Star is Born, Lost, and Found". The New Yorker. New York City. Retrieved December 12, 2015.
  17. "Oscar Levant". Answers.com. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
  18. "The Memoirs of an Amnesiac". Classicalmpr.org. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  19. Levant, Oscar. "Quotations at wikiquotes". En.wikiquote.org. Retrieved December 30, 2017.
  20. Burlesque at the Internet Broadway Database
  21. Ripples at the Internet Broadway Database
  22. Sweet and Low at the Internet Broadway Database
  23. The Fabulous Invalid at the Internet Broadway Database
  24. The American Way at the Internet Broadway Database
  25. The American Way at the Internet Broadway Database


  • Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, A Talent For Genius: the Life and Times of Oscar Levant (Villard/Random House, 1994; Silman-James Press, 1998) ISBN 1-879505-39-8
  • Dr. Charles Barber. "The Concert Music of Oscar Levant". Department of Music, Stanford University, 1998–2000
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