Thursday, August 15, 2002
Oscar Levant: Early-Night Talk Show Host
By ROGER M. GRACE
Yesterday marked 30 years since Oscar Levant died. Levant was an internationally known figure—but here in L.A., he’s probably best remembered as the spontaneous, if not erratic, host of local talk shows.
It was a coup for KCOP, Channel 13, to sign Levant in 1958 to appear on a twice-a-week live program, interviewing and pontificating in the early evenings. Levant had been at one time the highest paid concert pianist in the nation. He was a composer; author of an autobiography, “A Smattering of Ignorance” (1940); and an actor high in the credits in movies such as “An American in Paris” (in which he played every instrument in the orchestra in a fantasy sequence) and “Band Wagon.” In radio days, he was a regular panelist on “Information Please,” and accompanied Al Jolson on the piano and engaged in repartee with him on the “Kraft Music Hall.”
And he was a wit extraordinaire, coming up with such one-liners as “Every time I look at you I get a fierce desire to be lonesome” and “What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left.” A genius he was—and humility was not among his virtues. He once remarked, “I am no more humble than my talents require.”
When he began his career as a local TV host, Levant, a hypochondriac, would blink incessantly and regularly clutch his heart. (It had been four years since his heart attack.) After several weeks, these nervous habits ceased, and he was later to joke about them.
But his habit of smoking, constantly, persisted. And as one watched him constantly bring the cigarette between his second and third fingers to his lips, it was evident he did not favor shirts with French cuffs. Or, it appeared, any cuffs at all. Could it be that my perception was correct that under that ill-fitting suit coat was a short sleeved shirt?
Levant was able to lure to KCOP guests no other local talk show host could hope to attract. He knew many of them personally. His interviewees included U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, writers Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Ben Hecht, entertainers Fred Astaire, Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr., and baseball manager Leo Durocher.
Oscar Levant is seen with wife June Levant, a former actress, who assisted him on his local television show. Levant was known for his irreverance, sponaneity, and wit, as well as his hypochondia.
I recently talked with Lloyd Thaxton, then a free-lance announcer who did some of the live commercials on the show (and was later a network quiz show host). He remembered the night Astaire was there. Here was a world renowned performer, a show business legend who had been on the stage and in movies. Yet, Thaxton told me, Astaire was “kind of nervous about being on television.” He explained: “Fred Astaire had never done television before.”
Astaire, he recounted, sat on a stool during the interview and clung to that stool. Even when Levant went to the piano to plunk out some tunes, and Astaire did some footwork, “he never got off the stool to tap [dance],” Thaxton brought to mind.
Thaxton also recalled the night Oscar Levant went off the deep end, on the air. He was at the piano, playing. His wife and regular on the show, June Levant, was on the dais. He asked her to read aloud some of the letters from readers, as she frequently did. June Levant complied; Oscar Levant visibly was “getting steamed” as he heard a succession of commendations to his wife for the job she had done filling in for him during a week he was off sick. “You could just see him tensing up,” Thaxton said.
Levant had enough. As Thaxton remembers it, Levant blurted out to his wife: “You and [station manager] Al Flannagan can take this show and shove it up your a— .” He stalked off the stage.
Though the words being shouted were indecipherable, viewers could hear “Al and Oscar arguing outside the door,” Thaxton said. For about two minutes, he related, the camera was on a motionless set. Levant then reemerged, and commenced “really, really fierce playing,” which gradually became moderated,” Thaxton continued. Just before the show went off the air, he recalled, Levant walked over to his wife, “kisses June on the cheek, and says ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
Levant made an on-air prediction once. After telling viewers not to buy Philco television sets—the product of his sponsor—he forecast that he’d be fired. He was.
He also predicted he would land a job on KHJ-TV, Channel 9, remarking that they’d take anyone. His show switched to Channel 9 in late 1958, airing Tuesdays and Fridays from 7:30-9:30 p.m.; soon after, the Tuesday telecasts ceased.
In 1960, Levant launched a one-hour weekly syndicated talk show, aired on KCOP on Mondays at 9 p.m. It was short lived.
Levant wrote two more books, “Memoirs of an Amnesiac” (1965) and the “Unimportance of Being Oscar” (1968). He died of a heart attack on Aug. 14, 1972, at the age of 66.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company
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