Born: December 27, 1906; Pittsburgh, PA
Died: August 14, 1972; Beverly Hills, CA
Levant wore several hats -- most famously as a concert pianist from 1932 until 1958 -- in a bizarre career that began as a Broadway musician in the mid-1920s, segued to Hollywood in 1929, and ended in self-deprecating, chain-smoking eccentricity on radio and TV.
The son of Ukrainian-Jewish blue-collar parents, he was precocious at an early age, although not a prodigy. After his father's death in 1922, his mother moved the family to NewRead more York, where Oscar continued his keyboard instruction with Zygmunt Stojowski, an esteemed countryman of Paderewski (for whom Levant played privately). Although Broadway, booze, drugs, and women preoccupied him, he managed to attend concerts and opera regularly. In 1928, Oscar moved to Hollywood, repeating a role in The Dance of Life that he had played on Broadway in the movie's source-work, Burlesque. A year later, Levant was composing film music when he met, and became a bosom friend of, George Gershwin, the most influential person in his life. Their shared ethnic background along with Levant's innate shyness bonded them: he never tried to upstage Gershwin, who expected to be the center of attention wherever he appeared and invariably performed.
In 1929 alone, Levant scored six films, but tapered off after 1930, when his concert career gathered momentum. He did, however, write a cameo opera in 1936 for Charlie Chan at the Opera, and the next year scored Nothing Sacred starring Carole Lombard. By then Levant had studied composition for a year with Joseph Schillinger at Gershwin's urging, and in 1935-1937 with Arnold Schoenberg. Oscar started composing seriously in 1932 with a Piano Sonatina that Copland invited him to premiere at Yaddo, then a Sinfonietta (1934), Nocturne for Orchestra (1936, "To Arnold Schoenberg"), and a two-movement String Quartet. In 1937, following Gershwin's shockingly premature death, Levant began Suite for Orchestra. The middle-movement, Dirge-Andante, he dedicated "In Memory of George Gershwin," and conducted the premiere himself in Pittsburgh at Fritz Reiner's invitation in 1939. On the same program Levant played the Gershwin Concerto in F, by then his signature work, along with Rhapsody in Blue and the Second Rhapsody. In 1939 he married actress June Gale, the mother of his three daughters, who survived him.
In 1940, Levant resumed his film career as Bing Crosby's sidekick in Rhythm on the River, and also debuted as a regular "panel expert" on the long-running radio show, Information Please. He composed Overture 1912 (alias Polka for Oscar Homolka) and Caprice for Orchestra, then in 1941 the Piano Concerto, his magnum opus and last major composition, combining Gershwinesque turns and Schoenbergian atonalism. In 1942, Levant became a leading Columbia Masterworks artist (recording with conductors Reiner, Ormandy, Mitropoulos, Morton Gould, and Kostelanetz) while he concertized widely as the highest-paid soloist of his day. That year he also published his first book, A Smattering of Ignorance.
In 1945, Levant returned to films, starting with Rhapsody in Blue, a Gershwin biopic in which he played himself. The last was Cobweb in 1955, an insane asylum melodrama wherein art imitated life. Already in the 1940s, Levant's chronic substance abuse accelerated to a point that the American Federation of Musicians temporarily banned him from union stages for canceling performances. On television talk shows in the 1950s and after, beginning with his own, he became so unpredictably slanderous that another ban was threatened. Nonetheless, between repeated hospitalizations, he appeared sporadically in concert as late as August 1958. In his last years he wrote two more books, The Memoirs of an Amnesiac and The Unimportance of Being Oscar. Read less