Sam Levene

Sam Levene (born Scholem Lewin, August 28, 1905 – December 28, 1980) was a Broadway, film, radio and television actor who in a career spanning more than five decades created some of the most legendary comedic roles in American theatrical history, including Nathan Detroit, the craps-shooter extraordinaire, in the 1950 original Broadway production[1] of Guys and Dolls (1950), Max Kane, the hapless agent, in the original 1932 Broadway production of Dinner at Eight (1932); Patsy, a professional if not always successful gambler, in the 1935 original and longest running Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935); Gordon Miller, the shoestring producer, in the original 1937 Broadway production of Room Service (1937); Sidney Black, a theatrical producer, in Moss Hart's original Broadway production of Light Up the Sky (1948), Horace Vandergelder, the crotchety merchant of Yonkers, in the 1954 premier UK production of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker (1954), a play that became the basis for the musical Hello Dolly, Lou Winkler, a businessman in the original Broadway production of Fair Game (1957)[2] a comedy by Sam Locke that Larry Gelbart attributed[3] its 217 performance run mostly to the performance and star drawing power of Sam Levene who appeared in the comedy with Ellen McRae in her Broadway debut and would later change her name to Ellen Burstyn; and Al Lewis, the retired vaudevillian, in the original 1972 Broadway production of The Sunshine Boys (1972), Neil Simon’s beloved salute to vaudevillians opposite Jack Albertson as Willie Clark, a role Levene performed 466 times[4] on Broadway, first with Jack Albertson until October 28, 1974 and later opposite Jack Gilford, October 30, 1974 until February 10, 1974. In 1984, Levene was posthumously inducted in the American Theatre Hall of Fame and in 1998[5], Sam Levene along with the original Broadway cast of the 1950 Guys and Dolls Decca cast album posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Sam Levene
Sam Levene (1936)
Scholem Lewin

(1905-08-28)August 28, 1905
DiedDecember 28, 1980(1980-12-28) (aged 75)
Resting placeMount Carmel Cemetery, Glendale, Queens
Alma materAmerican Academy of Dramatic Arts
Years active1927–1980
Spouse(s)Constance Kane
(m. 1953; div. 19??)

Levene effortlessly segued between starring roles in over 100 productions on stage, radio, television and film, appearing in a variety of roles, including policemen, servicemen, gamblers, gangsters, newspaper reporters, theatrical producer, actor's agent, dress manufacturer and even a psychiatrist was equally adept in segueing from comedy to farce and drama. Levene was the archetypal New Yorker on stage and screen who shined in creating rough character parts, often playing working class roles with names like Patsy, Dino and Hymie and appeared with a legendary roster of stars and directors. For 54 years Levene was a consistent presence on Broadway; in 1927 Levene made his Broadway debut in the melodrama Wall Street with a five line part and in 1980, his last Broadway appearance, a starring role in a comedy directed by Joshua Logan. Levene appeared in a staggering list of 39 Broadway productions[6], 33 of which were the original Broadway productions. Levene was a consummate actor known for his comedic expertise who routinely received critical acclaim, even when the productions were not of top quality. Levene earned a niche in American theatrical history by perfecting a certain species of comic hero and for the majority of those appearances, Levene was a Broadway star, even starring in Horowitz and Mrs. Washington in 1980, the year he passed away, with Esther Rolle. Levene's longevity was due in part to his ability to show the amiability and even sweetness beneath the rough hewn tough exteriors of his characters, however bad they may have seemed. Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor observe[7] "the theater has always embraced certain stars as one of their own, comedians who both ennoble and energize a live event with their presence", and include Levene on a list of Broadway stars along with Beatrice Lillie, Carol Channing, Robert Morse, Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane.

Early life

Born in Ekaterinaslav, Russia, Levene came to the United States when he was two years old. Levene grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Avenue D and 8th Street and attended Public School 64. Levene who should have been a 1923 graduate of Stuyvesant High School dropped out and also failed to qualify for the school's dramatic society. Since Levene had been in the class of Broadway for over five decades, the illustrious dropout was given a special award, his high school diploma[8], in a 1976 ceremony held at the New York's Princeton Club. Aspiring to become a physician, Levene's medical career was sidelined "when he caught the virus of the theatre."

In 1923 Levene was working as a cutter for his older brother Joe, proprietor of a Madison avenue dressmaking business, aspiring to become the best dress salesman in the garment industry. Joe agreed to consider Sam for the job if Sam "got more poise" so Sam decided to take diction lessons at night at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, taking diction lessons to remove traces of his Yiddish accent. Charles Jehlinger, Director of the American Academy encouraged Levene to become an actor and provided him with a full scholarship so he could attend as a day student. Levene's speech improved perceptibly; by the time he graduated in 1927, he lost his desire for the garment industry and from then on, his only product was "Sam Levene".

Levene's father, Harry Levine, an orthodox Jewish cantor never saw Levene act and never went to a theatre[9], but Levene's mother, Beth Weiner, saw every one of Levene's performances. Sam Levene was stubbornly proud of his Jewish heritage and refused all requests by directors and producers who tried to persuade the actor to anglicize his last name, something that occurred frequently early in Levene's career. Originally known as Sammy Levine early in his career, Levene changed the "i" to an "e" in his surname to avoid confusion at Actor's Equity, the theatrical union, with another actor at the time using the name "Sam Levine" so Sam decided to spell "Levene" phonetically.

Broadway debut

Levene made his Broadway stage debut[10] earning $60 week under his first Actor's Equity contract on April 20, 1927 with a five-line part as an assistant district attorney in the original Broadway melodrama, Wall Street, at the Hudson Theatre. Although Levene's first Broadway show lasted three weeks[11], his Broadway career ran 54 years; he appeared in 38 Broadway shows, most of them original Broadway productions. Levene's 54 year Broadway career began with five years of steady employment with nondescript roles in ten Broadway plays, including a successive series of flops; one titled Solitaire (1929)[12], was a Broadway play about a Coney Island midget that ran four performances[13] at the now demolished Waldorf Theatre, partially financed with a $500 last minute investment from Levene's brother Joe. In 1932, Levene's career struggle ended when he landed the comedic role of Max Kane, the actor's agent, in a bona-fide hit, the original Broadway production of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's Dinner at Eight, which had a 232 performance run. Seven years after making his Broadway debut, Levene was recognized as a Broadway star when he originated the role of Patsy in his 15th Broadway play, the leader of the bar room turf in the original Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935) directed by co-author George Abbott which had a long-run of 835 performances, which temporarily held a long-run record for a non-musical Broadway play. Levene repeated his Broadway success of Three Men on a Horse when he starred as Gordon Miller, the shoestring producer, in the Broadway farce, Room Service (1937), also directed by the legendary George Abbott, which had a 500 performance long-run on Broadway.

Stage career

Levene appeared in over 50 theatrical stage productions in the United States and abroad, including 39 Broadway productions, 33 of which were performances Levene created in the original Broadway productions, and a ten-month USO tour. Levene's Broadway credits include lauded legendary star turns creating sharply etched comedic and dramatic performances in original Broadway productions now considered a part of 20th century american theatrical history including: Max Gordon in Dinner at Eight (1932), Gordon Miller, the hilarious shoestring producer, in the smash hit farce Room Service (1937) directed by George Abbott, Patsy, the lovable gambler, in Three Men on a Horse (1935), Officer Finkelstein, a Jewish cop guarding the Nazi consul[14], played by Otto Preminger, in Margin for Error (1939), Sidney Black, the Broadway producer, a role playwright Moss Hart told Levene was largely a self-portrait of the author, in Light Up the Sky (1948), Nathan Detroit, a role written and crafted specifically for Levene by Abe Burrows in Guys and Dolls (1950), Fair Game''[15] (1957), Dr. Aldo Meyer in the original Broadway production of The Devil's Advocate (1961), written, produced and directed by Dore Schary, based on the novel by Morris West, for which Levene was nominated for the 1961 Tony Award for Best Actor in a play, and Al Lewis, the retired vaudevillian Levene created and performed with Jack Albertson as Willie Clark in the original 1972 Broadway production of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (1972); Levene and Albertson reprised their star performances in the 1974 first national tour. Levene succeeded Albertson in the role of Willie Clark when he left the 1974 National tour, performing the role opposite Ned Glass as Al Lewis, who was subsequently replaced by Jack Somack.

Sam Levene starred in three Broadway revivals, portraying Boss Mangan in George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House (1959) directed by Harold Clurman, recreated his original Broadway performance as Patsy in the all-star Broadway revival of Three Men On A Horse (1969) and performed the role of Oscar Wolfe in the all-star 1975-76 Broadway revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family (1975) directed by Ellis Rabb; the production was filmed for the PBS series Great Performances on November 9, 1977;[16] this version was released on DVD. Levene succeeded comedian Alan King in the starring role of Dr. Jack Kingsley in The Impossible Years (1965), which Levene directed and starred in the 1967 National tour. Levene starred in numerous touring stage productions including Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; Sidney Black in several productions of Light Up The Sky; Patsy in Three Men on a Horse which Levene directed; Michael Freeman in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?; Jerry Kingsley in Middle Of The Night; Walter Hollander in the first National tour of Don't Drink the Water, which Levene directed and co-starred with several leading ladies including, Vivian Blaine, Selma Diamond, Marjorie Lord and directed a second touring production co-starring Phil Foster and Vivian Blaine; a 1975 tour of Sabrina Fair which included performances at The National Theatre, Washington, DC; on 10/2/75 President Gerald R. Ford and Mrs. Ford invited Levene and co-stars Arlene Francis and Maureen O'Sullivan to a White House State Dinner in honor of the Emperor and Empress of Japan.

Levene starred in two major UK productions; in 1953, he recreated his legendary performance as Nathan Detroit in the first UK production of Guys and Dolls which opened at the Coliseum a few days before the 1953 Coronation which had an extraordinary run of 553 performances. In 1954, Sam Levene originated the role of Horace Vandergelder in the world premiere production of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker (1954), initially[17] at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, and performed the role 274 times opposite Ruth Gordon as Dolly Levi at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London's West End, directed by Tyrone Guthrie.

Levene has been synonymous with the role of Nathan Detroit for seven decades; Guys and Dolls book writer Abe Burrows specifically crafted the role of Nathan Detroit around and for Levene who signed for the project long before Burrows ever wrote a single word of dialogue, a similar break Burrows said he had when he wrote Cactus Flower for Lauren Bacall. In “Honest, Abe: Is There Really No Business Like Show Business?”, Burrows recalls "I had the sound of their voices in my head. I knew the rhythm of their speech and it helped make the dialogue sharper and more real." Burrows had the advantage of writing dialogue built around Sam Levene[18]'s New York Jewish cadences. The creative talent of Guys and Dolls agreed Levene was perfect for the role of Nathan Detroit (Damon Runyon had one of Levene’s fans). Frank Loesser agreed it was easier adjusting the music to Levene's limitations than substituting a better singer who couldn’t act. Levene is the reason the lead role of Nathan Detroit has only one song, the duet “Sue Me”.[19] Laurence Olivier said[20] that Sam Levene's performance as Nathan Detroit was the greatest stage performance he'd ever seen. Not known as a singer, Levene originated the "craps-shooter extraordinaire" Nathan Detroit in the seminal American musical Guys and Dolls on the Great White Way in the original 1950 production directed by the inimitable George S. Kaufman, which ran for 1,200 performances. Thousands of productions of Guys and Dolls are mounted annually and Sam Levene's legendary comedic performance as Nathan Detroit still makes headlines.

Levene performed the role of Nathan Detroit over 1,600 times, 41 times in the 1950 pre-Broadway Philadelphia tryout where each performance was different, two years performing the role in the original Broadway production, a week's stint at London's Bristol Hippodrome before performing the role for one year in the first UK production, six months performing the role twice daily in the first Las Vegas production and a 15th anniversary six week revival, three weeks in Mineola, New York and three weeks in Paramus New Jersey in 1965. In a 1974 interview with The New York Times, "Levene said he played the part of Nathan Detroit so long that some Broadway wag once suggested he was born born playing the Damon Runyon character".

Levene reprised his legendary performance on the Decca original cast recording of the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls according to Variety magazine, original cast album sales totaled 250,000 as of 9/1/54. Guys and Dolls composer and lyricist Frank Loesser specifically wrote “Sue Me” in one octave for Levene and structured the song so he and Vivian Blaine never sang their show-stopping duet number together; the son of a cantor, Levene was fluent in Yiddish: "Alright, already, I’m just a no-goodnick; alright, already, it’s true, so nu? So sue me." Frank Loesser felt[21] "Nathan Detroit should be played as a brassy Broadway tough guy who sang with more grits than gravy." Levene sang "Sue Me" with "such a wonderful Runyonesque flavor that his singing had been easy to forgive, in fact it had been quite charming in its ineptitude."

Alan Alda, son of Guys and Dolls co-star Robert Alda, recalls watching Levene perform Nathan Detroit while standing in the wings. In “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed; And Other Things I’ve Learned”, Alan Alda recalls[22] "Watching Sam Levene was thrilling. He could ride a moment as if a wild animal. New meanings occurred to him on the spot. Not only did he play the same lines differently every night, but the laughs rolled in from the audience in different places. How did he do it? This kind of spontaneity and this utter commitment to the moment became what I wanted to have. As good as my father was, what I was seeing as they played together a few feet away was the difference between burlesque and theatre, between performing and acting. I chose acting. I wanted to be Sam."

In 1953 Levene reprised the role of Nathan Detroit in the first UK production of Guys and Dolls at London's Coliseum, performing the legendary role for 555 performances, including a Royal Command Variety Performance for Queen Elizabeth on November 9, 1953. Sam Levene performed the role of Nathan Detroit twice daily in a reduced version of Guys and Dolls when the first Las Vegas production opened a six-month run at the Royal Nevada, September 7, 1955, the first time a Broadway musical was performed on the strip. In 1965, Sam Levene and Vivian Blaine, recreated their original Broadway roles as Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide in the 15th anniversary revival of Guys and Dolls at the Mineola Theatre, Mineola, New York and Paramus Playhouse, New Jersey.

For three decades Levene reprised his role as Patsy from Three Men on a Horse (1935) numerous times on stage, film, tv and radio; the first time when he made his motion picture debut in Three Men on a Horse (1936) directed and produced by Mervyn LeRoy; three times on radio, two USO tours playing 200 shows to 120,000 servicemen, the first legitimate U.S. theatrical production mounted overseas. Due to security, the USO cast was reduced from 12 to 7 without losing a minute of running dialogue. According to a May 26, 1945 Billboard interview, Levene said[23], "the G.I.s' gratefulness is absolutely embarrassing. They express it not only by applause but by meeting you personally and giving you objects which they have fought and bled for. They lose sight of the fact that they are the ones fighting the war."

Levene as Patsy and Shirley Booth as Mabel reprised their original Broadway roles in two ABC radio versions produced by the Theatre Guild on the Air, the first adapted by playwright Arthur Miller aired January 6, 1946; the second aired June 1, 1947 with David Wayne as Erwin. Three decades after creating the role of Patsy in the Broadway production of Three Men On A Horse, Levene reprised the role of Patsy on Broadway in Let It Ride (1961), a Broadway musical which had an abbreviated run of 69 performances at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Levene performed the title song from Let It Ride on the Let It Ride float in the 1961 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Levene performed the role of Patsy one last time in the 1969 all-star Broadway revival of Three Men On A Horse directed by George Abbott, the original Broadway director and co-author which was preceded by a national tour Levene directed, starring Levene as Patsy and Bert Parks as Erwin.

43 years after making his Broadway debut, Levene made his Off-Broadway debut, starring in Irv Bauer's A Dream Out Of Time at the Promenade Theatre, Levene's only Off-Broadway appearance. In 1976, Levene was cast as Tubal, Shylock's business partner, in the Broadway production of The Merchant based on an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice but withdrew from the Philadelphia tryout after Zero Mostel, the play's star and Levene's lifelong dear friend[24] died after first collapsing in his dressing room. When John Dexter, the director, asked Levene if he would continue in the show, Levene told Dexter "we just had one death, we don't need two". Understudy Joseph Leon replaced Zero Mostel for the Broadway production of The Merchant which closed November 19, 1977 after five performances. Levene's final Broadway role was the star role of Samuel Horowitz in the Broadway comedy Horowitz and Mrs. Washington (1980) co-starring Esther Rolle, directed by Joshua Logan. In 1980, Levene starred in a summer stock and National tour of Horowitz and Mrs. Washington co-starring Claudia McNeil.

Over five decades Al Hirschfeld, considered the greatest caricaturist of the 20th century, created nine caricatures[25] capturing seven original Broadway performances created by Levene, the first in 1935, the last 1975. The most iconic Hirschfeld caricature of Levene captures his legendary performance as Nathan Detroit[26] wearing his iconic pinstripe suit designed by Alvin Colt in the original 1950 Broadway production of Guys and Dolls published in The New York Times 11/19/50. In 2000, the iconic Guys and Dolls caricature included in The Museum of The City of New York exhibition "Guys and Dolls: The Fabled Musical of Broadway".[27] In 2015 the caricature was exhibited in "The Hirschfeld Century" at The New York Historical Society. The first time Hirschfeld captured Levene was his Broadway performance as Patsy along with Shirley Booth as Mabel in the 1935 original Broadway production[28] of Three Men on a Horse; a second caricature of Levene and Booth featuring the Broadway casts from Tobacco Road and The Children's Hour published in the Herald Tribune 6/7/36 celebrates Broadway long-runs[29]. Hirschfeld created two caricatures of Levene's critically acclaimed performance as Max Gordon, the shoestring producer, in the original 1937 Broadway production of Room Service, published in the Herald Tribune and Brooklyn Eagle. Hirschfeld captured Levene's poignant performance as Al Lewis giving Willie Clark "the finger"[30] in the original Broadway production of The Sunshine Boys published in The New York Times, 12/13/72. Hirschfeld also captured Levene's legendary original Broadway performances in Margin For Error and Light Up The Sky. Other notable caricaturists who memorialized Levene's legendary stage performances include Sam Norkin and Al Frueh. Al Frueh, who created caricatures of Broadway shows, mostly for The New Yorker for three decades until 1962, captured six[31] of Levene's original Broadway performances, including Busch from the original Broadway production of Yellow Jack (1934), Patsy from the original Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935), Sidney Black from the original Broadway production of Light Up The Sky, Nathan Detroit from the 1950 original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls; Boss Mangan in the 1959 all-star Broadway revival of Heartbreak House directed and co-starring Maurice Evans and Officer Finkelstein, the Jewish policeman, in the 1939 original Broadway production of Margin For Error.

Film career

Nine years after making his Broadway debut, Levene was lured and moved to Hollywood in 1936 when he made his motion picture debut as Patsy in the Warner Bros. film Three Men on a Horse (1936) directed and produced by Mervyn LeRoy. Levene earned $1,000[32] a week to recreate on film his comedic Broadway role as Patsy he had played for seventy weeks in the original Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935). Known as a dependable character actor, Levene appeared in 50 films and worked with all the major studios over a five-decade Hollywood career. 14 of Levene's films were shot at MGM, which include two appearances as Police Lieutenant Abrams in MGM's Thin Man series: After the Thin Man (1936) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), plus Yellow Jack (1938), The Shopworn Angel (1938), Married Bachelor (1941), Sunday Punch (1942), Grand Central Murder (1942), Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), I Dood It (1943), Shoe Shine Boy (1943 short), Dial 1119 1950, The Opposite Sex (1956), Designing Woman (1957) and The Champ (1979). Levene appeared in five RKO films, including The Mad Miss Manton (1938); Sing Your Worries Away (1942); The Big Street (1942) and A Likely Story (1947) and Crossfire, the first B picture to receive a best picture nomination. Levene appeared in six films at Universal Pictures: Destination Unknown (1942), Gung Ho! (1943), The Killers (1946), ‘’Brute Force’’ (1947), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), Kathy O'.

Levene established himself as one of the great film noir stalwarts with a long list of film noir credits in notable noir films, a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas. Levene's film noir credits includes his riveting performance as Samuels, the murdered GI, in Crossfire (1947), considered one of RKO’s if not perhaps of any studio’s best film noirs and as Lieutenant Lubinsky in The Killers, considered[33] the Citizen Kane of noir. Levene's film noir credits include: William Holden's taxi-driving brother-in-law "Siggie" in Golden Boy (1939), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), a Doolittle Flyer and Japanese POW in The Purple Heart (1944), a police lieutenant in The Killers (1946), Brute Force, (1947), Crossfire (1947), Boomerang (1947), Killer McCoy (1947), Dial 1119 (1950), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957).

Levene was the only member of the original 1934 Broadway production of the play Yellow Jack to appear in the 1938 film of the same name. Sam Levene was cast as a police lieutenant in After the Thin Man (1936), The Mad Miss Manton (1938), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and The Killers (1946), which included the motion picture debut of Burt Lancaster, who just a year prior was professionally credited as Burton Lancaster when Levene helped the former circus acrobat land a part in the original Broadway production of A Sound of Hunting. In The Killers (1946), Sam Levene plays Police Lt. Sam Lubinsky, a childhood friend of the Swede, a role played by Lancaster; Levene's co-starring role as a childhood friend of Lancaster was fortuitous as he was credited in making Lancaster feel at ease in his motion picture debut.[34]

When several Hollywood studios initially wanted to sign Burt Lancaster, Levene, Lancaster's co-star in the 1946 Broadway melodrama A Sound of Hunting, agreed to represent him; eventually the two actors became lifelong friends. Together Lancaster and Levene fielded offers from David O. Selznick, 20th Century-Fox and Hal B. Wallis, who had a deal at Paramount Pictures, ultimately introducing Lancaster to Harold Hecht, his long-time agent and Hollywood film production partner. Burt Lancaster remembered Levene and spoke at the West Coast memorial organized by the actor's son.

Levene film career includes a who’s who of Hollywood actors and directors, including Anthony Quinn: A Dream of Kings (1969); four films with Burt Lancaster: The Killers (1946), Brute Force, (1947), Three Sailors and a Girl (1953), Sweet Smell of Success (1957); Humphrey Bogart: Action in the North Atlantic (1943); two films with Henry Fonda: The Big Street (1942), The Mad Miss Manton (1938); Robert Ryan: Crossfire; Vincente Minnelli: Sing Your Worries Away (1942); two films with Myrna Loy & William Powell as Police Lt. Abrams: ‘’After the Thin Man’’ (1936), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941); Gregory Peck: Designing Woman (1957); two films with Red Skelton: Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), I Dood It (1943); Al Pacino: …And Justice for All (1979); his final film role.


For most of his early film and Broadway stage career, Sam Levene straddled an active schedule with starring roles in a range of productions on all radio networks, including comedic performances and skits along with dramatic and comedy roles in important plays and adaptations on leading series. Levene co-starred with Orson Welles in two productions of Orson Welles' The Campbell Playhouse (radio series), first as Lefty in Burlesque, 2/17/39 and five weeks later, 3/34/39 as Owen O'Malley in Twentieth Century (play). Levene starred in nine productions for Theatre Guild on the Air; two radio versions of Three Men On A Horse, the first adapted by Arthur Miller[35] aired January 6, 1946; the second aired June 1, 1947 with David Wayne joining the cast as Erwin.

Levene reprised his film role as Dave Woods, the reporter in Elia Kazan's Boomerang for Theatre Guild on the Air; and appeared as Moody, the fight manager, in Golden Boy by Clifford Odets opposite long-time co-star June Havoc and Dana Andrews whom Levene had just worked with filming Boomerang. For Suspense radio, Levene reprised his film role as Samuels, the murdered Jewish soldier, in Crossfire, 4/10/48.

Other notable Theatre Guild on The Air appearances included performing the role of "Banjo" with Fred Allen as Sheridan Whiteside in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's The Man Who Came To Dinner and recreating his original Broadway performance as Sidney Black, the loud-mouth producer, in Moss Hart's Light Up The Sky opposite Joan Bennett and Thelma Ritter, 4/16/51[36]. Levene frequently appeared on Fred Allen's Texaco Star Theatre in a sketch comedy segment known as "Allen's Alley". Sam Levene along with twelve major Hollywood and Broadway stars, including Helen Hayes, Fredric March and Ralph Bellamy created 13 episodes of Lest We Forget, a series of radio programs that directly addressed prejudice and discrimination. Created by the Institute for Democratic Education and Boston University Radio Institute, Sam Levene starred as a cab driver who becomes in a hero in Hey Cabbie[37], an episode that unabashedly addresses anti-semitism. Produced by the American Heart Association in 1952, Levene starred in Too Careful[38], one of eight radio plays presenting information and knowledge of the heart. Levene along with Edward G. Robinson and Frank Sinatra made a series of radio appearances in We Will Never Die, a memorial program dedicated to the two million Jewish dead of Europe; performed around the country at major venues, including Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl, the elaborate production was co-authored by Ben Hecht and Kurt Weill and directed by Moss Hart. On a lighter note, Levene made a New Year's Eve appearance on The Big Show (NBC Radio), December 31, 1950 with Tallulah Bankhead and Jose Ferrer; Levene performed with Bankhead, satirizing the difficulty of purchasing theatre tickets to his then standing room only Broadway musical, Guys and Dolls.

Jewish heritage

The legendary stage and film actor recognized the name "Sam Levene puts a kind of stamp on the kind of roles that producers think the actor can play". In a 1967 interview with journalist Norton Mockridge for the The World-Telegram, Levene recalled when he was up for a role in The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944) starring Gary Cooper and produced and directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille; the actor auditioned for the role of Murdock, an Irishman. Levene recalled "ten or eleven or other actors auditioned too" and afterwards, DeMille called Levene and said "Of all the actors who auditioned, you're my first choice". Levene replied, "I thanked him and said 'Did I get the part?"

"No" said DeMille, who told Levene "I'm sorry but it would disturb me to have an actor named Sam Levene play the role of an Irishman". Levene asked DeMille: "Did you find anything Jewish in my audition?" to which DeMille replied "No, that's what disturbs me. You were a better Irishman than the Irishman. But I can't give you the part as I just can't see the film credits reading the part of the Irishman played by Sam Levene". Shortly thereafter Levene got another call from DeMille, who told the actor: "I just want you to know that I've let the actor go that I first picked for the role of the Irishman, Murdock, and if your name weren't Sam Levene, I'd have given you the role. Instead I am going to give it to Paul Kelly". Levene said, "you called to tell me that?" "Yes" said DeMille "I thought you'd like to know!," Levene reminisced saying "I lost the role twice!".

Sam Levene was one of the few actors who had a Jewish name in the 1930s and 1940s; notably in The Purple Heart (1944) Levene played the role of Lt. Wayne Greenbaum, a level headed, brave New York bred Jewish lawyer who is defender and spokesman for a group of eight aviators brought to trial when they are downed in Japanese held territory; in Crossfire (1947), Levene was cast as Samuels, a Jewish civilian who was murdered at the start of the film; in a 1947 personal appearance, Levene said Crossfire is a powerful denunciation of anti-Semitism and naturally I played the Jew and naturally I was killed." Cy Feuer, co-producer of the original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls (1950) said[39] in a New York Times interview "Sam Levene was the ultimate Jew," referring to the original Nathan Detroit. "It was perfect casting. He created the character by living." Unanimous raves greeted[40] Sam Levene for his portrayal of the skeptical but good-hearted Jewish doctor, Dr. Aldo Mayer, in the 1961 Broadway production of "The Devil's Advocate". In a review of "The Devil's Advocate" for the New York Herald Tribune, theatre critic Walter Kerr wrote "Mr. Levene is genial true. As a Jewish doctor who must forever feel himself an outsider in the Catholic Italian hills...Sam Levene is superb in a role of many colors and nothing is more helpful than the tension of his unyielding integrity. There is bite as well as bravura elsewhere." In a 1967 interview with theatre critic William Glover of the Associated Press, Sam Levene said "the Jews I’ve played sometimes may have been similar but they were never schmaltzy; regarding the roles I’ve done, I’ve tried very carefully to define humor even if there was none.”

Levene lost the role of Nathan Detroit to Frank Sinatra in the film version. "You can’t have a Jew playing a Jew, it wouldn’t work on screen", producer Samuel Goldwyn argued, explaining[41] he wanted Frank Sinatra rather than Levene — who had originated the role — to play the part of Nathan Detroit in the film version even though film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz wanted Levene, the original Broadway star. Joseph L. Mankiewicz said[42] "if there could be one person in the world more miscast as Nathan Detroit than Frank Sinatra that would be Laurence Olivier and I am one of his greatest fans; the role had been written for Sam Levene who was divine in it". Levene will break your heart when you listen to him sing 'All right, already, I’m just a no-goodnick . . .' on the original Guys and Dolls cast recording of 'Sue Me'".

Fordham Professor of Music Larry Stempel, author of Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, said[43] if given a choice, he would cast Levene, who created the role on Broadway, as the ideal Nathan Detroit instead of Nathan Lane, who played the part in the Broadway revival or Frank Sinatra, who played the part on film, stating "Musically, he may have been tone-deaf, but he inhabited Frank Loesser’s world as a character more than a caricature.

Personal life

Levene married Constance Kane in 1953. The couple had one son together, Joseph K. Levene,[44] before their divorce.

On December 28, 1980, Levene died of a heart attack in New York City.


In 1960, Levene was awarded the prestigious Actors Fund Medal of Honor, at the time, the second actor awarded the honor; Levene's son Joseph K. Levene donated the medallion to the Sam Levene archives at MCNY, The Museum of the City of New York.

On April 9, 1984, Levene was posthumously[45] inducted in the American Theatre Hall of Fame;[46] his son, Joseph K. Levene, accepted the American Theatre Hall of Fame award from Dorothy Loudon stating "if my dad were here today; he would want to know one thing: why did it take you guys such a long time to give me this award?"[47]

In 1998, the 1950 Guys and Dolls Decca original cast album and the original Broadway cast, Robert Alda, Vivian Blaine, Sam Levene, Isabel Bigley and Pat Rooney, Sr. were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Although Levene has two songs on the original Guys and Dolls cast album, his portrayal of Nathan Detroit in the landmark musical is so popular Levene's legendary performance appears on over 38 Guys and Dolls albums and compilations.

Levene never received a Tony Award; by the time the Tony Award's were established in 1947, Levene had already created roles in 16 original Broadway shows, including legendary performances in the original Broadway productions of Dinner at Eight (1932), Three Men on a Horse (1935), Room Service (1937) and Margin For Error (1939).

In a 1996 New York Magazine letter to the editor, Sam Levene's son Joseph K. Levene, thanked film critic David Denby stating[48] “my father, the late great Sam Levene, has received many kudos illuminating his career as an actor, none recalled the passion for the theater more clearly than David Denby's comment in his review of Everyone Says I Love You: Sam Levene playing Nathan Detroit in the original Guys and Dolls couldn’t sing a note but his gruff toneless outbursts could break your heart. Levene was not cautious and that made all the difference. Joseph K. Levene said: "There were no Tony's in his career but thanks for the Denby".

Complete filmography

Broadway performances

Wall Street (1927)

William Thompson, Asst. District Attorney
Originated role, original Broadway production, Broadway debut, 21 performances

April 20, 1927 - May 1927
Jarnegan (1928)

Guest at Leedman's Party
Originated role, original Broadway production, 136 performances

September 24, 1928 - January 1929
Tin Pan Alley (1928)

Telephone Troublehunter
Originated role, original Broadway production, 69 performances

November 1, 1928 - December 1928
Solitaire (1929)

The Gunman
Originated role, original Broadway production, 4 performances

March 9, 1929-March 13, 1929
Street Scene (1929)

Replacement original Broadway production, 601 performances

January 10, 1929 -

June 1930

Headquarters (1929)

Isadore Lipwitz
Originated role, original Broadway production, 15 performances

December 4, 1929 - December 1929
This Man's Town (1930)

Originated role, original Broadway production, 8 performances

March 10, 1930 -

March 1930

The Up and Up (1930)

Replacement, original Broadway production, 72 performances

September 8, 1930 - November 1930
Three Times the Hour (1931)

Originated role, original Broadway production, 23 performances

August 25, 1931 - September 1931
Wonder Boy (1931)

Originated role, original Broadway production, 44 performances

October 22, 1931 - November 1931
Dinner at Eight (1932)

Starring as Max Kane
Originated role, original Broadway production, 232 performances

October 22, 1932 -

May 6, 1933

Yellow Jack (1934)

Originated role, original Broadway production, 79 performances
Recreated role in motion picture of same name

March 6, 1934 - May 1934
The Milky Way (1934)

Gabby Sloan
Replacement, original Broadway production, 63 performances

May 8, 1934 - July 1934
Spring Song (1934)

Originated role, original Broadway production, 40 performances

October 1, 1934 - November 1934
Geraniums in My Window (1934)

Originated role, original Broadway production

November 5, 1934 - November 17, 1934
Three Men on a Horse (1935)

Starring as Patsy
Originated role, original Broadway production, 835 performances
Recreated role in film of same name, motion picture debut
Recreated role of Patsy in 10 month 1944 USO tour, 3 radio productions, 1969 all-star Broadway revival & Broadway musical version

January 30, 1935 - January 9, 1937
Room Service (1937)

Starring as Gordon Miller
Originated role, original Broadway production, 500 performances

May 19, 1937 -

July 16, 1938

Margin for Error (1939)

Starring as Officer Finkelstein
Originated role, original Broadway production, 264 performances

November 3, 1939 -

June 15, 1940

A Sound of Hunting (1945)

Starring as Pvt. Dino Collucci
Originated role, original Broadway production, 23 performances

November 20, 1945 - December 8, 1945
Light Up the Sky (1948)

Starring as Sidney Black
Originated role, original Broadway production, 214 performances
Recreated role of Sidney Black on TV production, radio & first U.S. National tour, 1949; various tour revival productions, 1970, 1971, 1975 with Kitty Carlisle, Moss Hart's widow.

November 18, 1948 -

May 21, 1949

Guys and Dolls (1950)

Starring as Nathan Detroit
Originated role, original Broadway production, 1,200 performances
Sam Levene starred in first UK production at the Coliseum, 555 performances, and first Las Vegas production at the Royal Nevada, twice daily.

November 24, 1950 - November 28, 1953
The Hot Corner (1956)

Starring as Fred Stanley
Directed by Sam Levene
Originated role, original Broadway production, 5 performances

January 25–28, 1956
Fair Game (1957)

Starring as Lou Winkler
Originated role, original Broadway production, 217 performances

November 2, 1957 -

May 10, 1958

Make a Million (1958)

Starring as Sid Gray
Originated role, original Broadway production, 308 performances

October 23, 1958 -

July 18, 1959

Heartbreak House (1959)

Starring as Boss Mangan
Broadway revival, 112 performances

October 18, 1959 - January 23, 1960
The Good Soup (1960)

Starring as Odilon
Originated role, original Broadway production, 21 performances

March 2–19, 1960
The Devil's Advocate (1961)

Starring as Dr. Aldo Meyer
Levene received Tony nomination for Best Actor
Originated role, original Broadway production, 117 performances

March 9, 1961 -

June 17, 1961

Let It Ride (1961)

Starring as Patsy
Originated role, original Broadway production, 69 performances
Musical version based on Three Men on a Horse by John Cecil Holm and George Abbott

October 12, 1961 - December 9, 1961
Seidman and Son (1962)

Starring as Morris Seidman
Originated role, original Broadway production, 216 performances
Levene starred and directed first U.S. National tour.

October 15, 1962 -

April 20, 1963

Cafe Crown (1964)

Starring as Hymie
Originated role, original Broadway production, 33 performances

April 17–18, 1964
The Last Analysis (1964)

Starring as Philip Bummidge
Originated role, original Broadway production, 15 performances

October 1–24, 1964
The Impossible Years (1966)

Starring as Dr. Jack Kingsley
Replaced Alan King, original Broadway production, August 22, 1966,
322 performances
In 1967, Sam Levene starred and directed first U.S. National tour.

October 13, 1965 -

May 27, 1967

Nathan Weinstein, Mystic, Connecticut (1966)

Starring as Nathan Weinstein
Originated role, original Broadway production, 26 performances

February 25–26, 1966
Three Men on a Horse (1969)

Starring as Patsy
Recreated role of Patsy which Levene originated in 1935 Broadway production
Revival of Broadway production, 104 performances

October 16, 1969 - January 10, 1970
Paris Is Out! (1970)

Starring as Daniel Brand
Play co-produced by Donald Trump
Originated role, original Broadway production, 112 performances

February 2, 1970 -

April 18, 1970

The Sunshine Boys (1972)

Starring as Al Lewis
Originated role, original Broadway production, 540 performances
Sam Levene starred in first U.S. National tour, initially as Al Lewis & later as Willie Clark

December 20, 1972 -

April 21, 1974

Dreyfus in Rehearsal (1974)

Starring as Arnold
Originated role, original Broadway production, 15 performances

October 17–26, 1974
The Royal Family (1975)

Starring as Oscar Wolfe
Broadway revival, 233 performances
Levene starred in U.S. National tour.

December 30, 1975 -

July 18, 1976

Horowitz and Mrs. Washington (1980)

Starring as Samuel Horowitz
Originated role, original Broadway production, 16 performances
Levene starred in summer stock and first U.S. National tour.

April 2–6, 1980

Television appearances

6/14/1949The Ford Theatre HourTVLight Up the SkySidney Black
12/19/1950The Milton Berle ShowTVSeason 3 Episode 14Himself
1/27/1952The U.S. Royal ShowcaseTVVivian Blaine and Sam Levene
Season 1 Episode 3
3/27/1954Medallion Theatre (Chrysler Medallion Theater)CBSThe Alibi Kid
5/26/1954Douglas Fairbanks Presents Rheingold TheatreTVJohnny Blue
Season 2 Episode 26
6/22/1954The United States Steel HourAmerican Broadcasting CompanyFearful Decision
Season 1 Episode 18
Reporter McArdle
12/11/1955The Colgate Comedy HourTVSalute to George Abbott
Season 6 Episode 10
4/8/1957Studio One (American TV series)CBSThe Playwright and the Stars
Season 9 Episode 26
Ben Weber
6/10/1957Studio One (American TV series)CBSThe Mother Bit
Season 9 Episode 35
Ben Selig
9/11/1957Kraft Television TheatreNBC TelevisionThe Old Ticket
Season 10 Episode 51
Lou Winkler
12/26/1957Tonight starring Jack PaarNBC Television
Season 1, Episode 108
3/9/1958Omnibus (American TV program)NBC TelevisionMrs. McThing
Season 6 Episode 25
11/25/1958Tonight starring Jack PaarNBC Television
Season 2, Episode 61
12/14/1959Play of the WeekNET TelevisionThe World of Sholom Aleichem
Season 1 Episode 10
4/21/1960The Ed Sullivan ShowCBS
Season 13 Episode 47
Dramatic Reading
11/16/1960The AquanautsCBSNight Dive
Season 1 Episode 9
tenant Maharis
11/17/1960The Witness (TV series)CBSLouis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter
Season 1 Episode 7
Louis Buchalter
12/15/1960The Untouchables (1959 TV series)American Broadcasting CompanyThe Larry Fay Story
Season 2 Episode 9
Larry Fay
1/22/1961The Ed Sullivan ShowCBSSeason 14 Episode 15Dramatic Reading
1/14/1962DirectionsTVSam Levene interviews Dore ScharyHimself
2/27/1962The Tonight Show starring Johnny CarsonNBC TelevisionSeason 1, Episode 106Himself
10/25/1962The Joe Franklin ShowWWOR-TVInterviewHimself
11/5/1962-11/9/1962Password (game show)TVJoan Fontaine vs Sam Levene;
5 episodes
12/22/1962Jerry LesterWWOR-TVInterviewHimself
4/14/1963Jerry LesterWWOR-TVInterviewHimself
4/28/196317th Tony AwardsWWOR-TVPresenterHimself
1/5/1965The Les Crane ShowAmerican Broadcasting CompanySeason 1 Episode 41Himself
1/11/1965The Les Crane ShowAmerican Broadcasting CompanySeason 1 Episode 45Himself
1/18/1965The Les Crane ShowAmerican Broadcasting CompanySeason 1 Episode 50Himself
2/8/1965The Les Crane ShowAmerican Broadcasting CompanySeason 1 Episode 65Himself
11/1/1965The Merv Griffin ShowNBC TelevisionSeason 3, Episode 41Himself
11/1/1965Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler TheatreNBC TelevisionA Small Rebellion Season 3 Episode 13Noel Greb
10/30/1969What's My Line?CBSSeason 20 Episode 30Himself
2/15/1970The Ed Sullivan ShowCBSSeason 23 Episode 21Dramatic Reading
12/26/1973The Dick Cavett ShowAmerican Broadcasting CompanySeason 2 Episode 47Himself
12/28/1973What's My Line?CBSSeason 5 Episode 180Himself
11/9/1977Great PerformancesPBSThe Royal FamilyOscar Wolfe

Radio appearances

2/17/1939Orson Welles The Campbell Playhouse (radio series)CBS RadioBurlesque
adapted from play by Arthur Hopkins & George Manker Watters
3/24/1939Orson Welles The Campbell Playhouse (radio series)CBS RadioTwentieth Century (play)
adapted by Charles Bruce Millholland
Owen O’Malley
5/25/1940Lincoln HighwayNBC RadioThree Thousand Miles to Glory
4/9/1941Texaco Star Theatre with Fred AllenCBS RadioShortcut to a Nervous BreakdownHimself
7/21/1943We Will Never DieNBC RadioHollywood Bowl, Broadcast liveHimself
11/21/1943CBS RadioAlgie and Gus
12/24/1943Christmas RoundupCBS RadioRomance in the Roaring Forties
Sam Levene narrates story by Damon Runyon
2/28/1944The Screen Guild TheatreCBS RadioThree Men on a HorsePatsy
1/6/1946Theatre Guild on the AirABC RadioThree Men on a HorsePatsy
11/17/1946Theatre Guild on the AirABC RadioThe Man Who Came To DinnerBanjo
11/24/1946Theatre Guild on the AirABC RadioBurlesque
adapted from play by Arthur Hopkins & George Manker Watters
12/6/1946Lest We Forget These Great AmericansRadioHey Cabbie Institute for Democratic Education syndicationCabby
12/8/1946Theatre Guild on the AirABC RadioGolden BoyMoody
1/1/1947Theatre Guild on the AirABC RadioThree Men on a HorsePatsy
4/10/1948Suspense RadioCBS RadioCrossfireSamuels
3/27/1949Theatre Guild on the AirABC RadioJune MoonFred Stevens
9/25/1949Theatre Guild on the AirABC RadioThe Gentle People
12/17/1950Theatre Guild on the AirABC RadioBoomerangDave Woods
12/31/1950The Big Show (NBC Radio)NBC RadioVariety Show hosted by Tallulah BankheadHimself
4/15/1951Theatre Guild on the AirABC RadioLight Up the SkySidney Black
1952The Human Heart Radio SeriesRadioToo CarefulHimself
12/20/1957The Barry Gray ShowRadioInterviewHimself


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