Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906 - August 14, 1972) was an American pianist, composer, author, comedian, and actor. He was famous for his music and his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and in movies and television.


Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, into a musical and Orthodox Jewish Russian family, Levant moved to New York with his mother, Annie, in 1922 after the death of his father, Max. He began studying under Zygmunt Stojowski, a well-established piano pedagogue. In 1923, Levant 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. In just twenty years, 1929-1948, he would go on to compose 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," now considered to be a popular music standard.

Around 1932 Levant began composing seriously. This 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 on a new orchestral work, Sinfonietta. He was also married to and divorced from actress Barbara Woodell in 1932.
In 1939, Levant married for the second time, to singer and actress June Gale (Gilmartin), part of the singing foursome The Gale Sisters (besides June, there were Jane, Joan, and Jean). They were married for almost 33 years, until his death, and had three children, Marcia, Lorna, and Amanda.

During the years of 1958-1960, Levant hosted a television talk show on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, The Oscar Levant Show, which later became syndicated. It featured his piano playing along with monologues and interviews with top-name guests such as Fred Astaire. The show was highly controversial, eventually being taken from the air after a comment about Marilyn Monroe's conversion to Judiasm: "Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her." He later stated that he "hadn't meant it that way." Several months later, the show began to be broadcast in a slightly revised format; now it was taped in order to provide a buffer for Levant's antics. This, however, failed to prevent Levant from making comments about Mae West's sex life that caused the show to be canceled for good.

Oscar Levant as a guest on Jack Paar's talk show.
Levant was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, an informal conclave of New York wits and writers; other members were Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Harpo Marx, and Alexander Woollcott. Much later Levant was also a frequent guest on Jack Paar's talk show. The 1920s and 1930s wit Alexander Woollcott, also a member of the Algonquin Round Table, once said about Levant:
"There's absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can't fix."
Open about his neuroses and a notorious hypochondriac, Levant was also in his later life addicted to prescription drugs and was frequently committed to mental hospitals by his wife, June Gale. Despite his afflictions, Levant was considered a genius by some, in many areas ("There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line."). His playing of the Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein piano concerti, as well as Gershwin, is a testimony to his talents.
Levant drew increasingly away from the limelight in his later years. Upon his death in Beverly Hills, California of a heart attack at the age of 65, he was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. In their routines other comics have claimed, apocryphally, and citing an old joke, that hypochondriac Levant's epitaph was inscribed, "I told them I was ill."
Oscar Levant by Richard Avedon

  • Ben Bernie and All the Lads (1923)
  • The Dance of Life (1929)
  • Night Parade (1929) (uncredited)
  • In Person (1935) (uncredited) (scenes deleted)
  • Rhythm on the River (1940)
  • Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1941)
  • Humoresque (1946)
  • Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
  • Romance on the High Seas (1948)
  • You Were Meant for Me (1948)
  • The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
  • Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant
    An American in Paris (1951) where he played a bohemian pianist.
  • O. Henry's Full House (1952)
  • The I Don't Care Girl (1953)
  • The Band Wagon (1953) where his songwriter character was based on the movie's own co-screenwriter — songwriter Adolph Green.
  • The Cobweb (1955)
  • The Oscar Levant Show (1958)
  • A Smattering of Ignorance, New York : Doubleday, 1940
  • Memoirs of an Amnesiac, New York : Putnam's, 1965
  • The Unimportance of Being Oscar, New York : Putnam's, 1968

Quotes: More examples of his controversial repartée:

"Roses are red, violets are blue, I am schizophrenic, and so am I."

"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. Worst 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."

"I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin."

"I have one thing to say about psychoanalysis: f... Dr Freud."

"Everyone in Hollywood is gay, except Gabby Hayes — and that's because he is a transvestite."

"Underneath this flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character."
When asked by Jack Parr 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."

Work on Broadway:

  • Burlesque (1927) - musical play - performer
  • Ripples (1930) - musical - co-composer
  • The Fabulous Invalid (1938) - musical play - conductor
  • The American Way (1939) - musical play - composer
External Links:

Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. 
A Talent For Genius: the Life and Times of Oscar Levant. 
Silman-James Press. 
ISBN 1-879505-39-8

Blame It On My Youth
~Music by: Oscar Levant
~Lyrics by: Edward Heyman

You were my adored one,
Then you became the bored one,
And I was like a toy that brought you joy one day,
A broken toy that you preferred to throw away.

If I expected love when first we kissed,
Blame it on my youth.
If only just for you I did exist,
Blame it on my youth.
I believed in everything,
Like a child of three.
You meant more than anything,
All the world to me.

If you were on my mind both night and day,
Blame it on my youth.
If I forgot to eat and sleep and pray,
Blame it on my youth.
And if I cried a little bit when first I learned the truth,
Don't blame it on my heart,
Blame it on my youth.

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Special Thanks To:
The Red Hot Jazz Archives,
The Big Band Database, Scott Yanow,

And all those who have provided content,
images and sound files for this site.

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