Saturday, September 22, 2012

Oscar Levant: The Lost Interview

An interview with Oscar Levant

(from Pulse Magazine, April 7, 1960)

Hello, Oscar. Nice to meet you. You know, I almost said “Hell, Oscar.”

(laughs) It would have been more appropriate. Come right in to my den of thieves.


I steal material all the time, everybody thinks it’s mine. It’s all in the delivery.

You mean a “special delivery”.

Aha, a smart-ass kid! We oughta get along just great.

 OK, Oscar Levant, let me get right down to it. What is it that drives you?

Drives me? I have a chauffeur, but it’s a “he”, not an “it”.

You know what I mean.

Drives me, it’s probably just the will to get up in the morning.

Is that hard for you?

Don’t pry.

OK, I won’t. Sorry. I want to know what. . . I hate to say “inspires” you.

Thank you.

Let me rephrase the question. Did you choose music, or did it choose you?

Do you need to ask?

Would you have done anything else?

I probably would have done practically anything else. The rule in our house was absolute perfection. One wrong note was a source of shame. It drove me absolutely crazy. See, now you have your answer!

As to why you went crazy?

I might have been crazy from the beginning.

So in what way did you depart from absolute perfection?

In just about every way. I hated my teachers. I hated my father. I hated my piano.

I have to tell you a story. Nobody in our family had any talent whatsoever on the keyboard, even though a few of them are professional musicians. When my brother was practicing, he kept trying to leave the room but my mother would stick her head in and say, “You have to practice for half an hour!” At one point he slammed the lid down and opened the front door and yelled at the top of his voice, “I HATE THE PIANO!”                  

(Laughs with a wicked expression)

I love piano stories. I hated the piano too. Or I hated what it did to me.

Did you never feel you’d mastered it?

No performance is ever as perfect as the one that exists in your mind.

That’s profound.

No it isn’t, I forgot my Demerol this morning.

Oh, so that’s supposed to be funny?

It gets big laughs.

So when did you decide to. . .

To be a sellout? That’s what they say about Levant. That he’s a sellout, that he sold out to Hollywood and cheap fame as a movie sidekick who plays cornball classical music between production numbers.

Are you?

A sellout?  Oh sure. But I make a lot better money. And it’s a way to stay out of the concert hall. It’s the ninth circle of Hell up there. (lights another cigarette)

But you’re so good. I mean, you’re –

Let’s get on with the Gershwin stuff, shall we? I know it’s coming.

OK, the Gershwin stuff. May I ask what he was really like?

Nothing like that limp-wristed Robert Alda who played him in the film. Had to dub all his playing for him.

Oh, THAT film! The one where you played yourself. What was it like to play yourself?

Let’s not get obscene here.

I don’t mean play “with” yourself.  I mean – portray yourself in the film.

I’d say it was a snap, but I don’t think I ever really figured out my character.

But you kept the coffee-and-cigarettes mode.

Sweetheart, that’s the only mode I have.

Is it your “shtik”?

Jesus, where do you get these words? What makes you think I’m Jewish?

It was the way you hugged Steve Allen on his show.

I hugged him “Jewish”?

I had to translate it.

(Laughs again) So did these guys send over somebody they think can stay ahead of me, or what?

No one can stay ahead of you.

Better for them. Listen, if I hugged Steve Allen any way at all they’d say I was a faggot. I was friends with Gershwin, and he was supposed to be a faggot, so that made ME a faggot by association.

I get the feeling you’re not a faggot.

Not lately. I think I’ve forgotten how, due to lack of practice. I have a lovely wife,  I mean it sincerely, June, she’s just terrific, we busted up last week. No, seriously, I don’t think I’d be alive without her and I don’t know how she puts up with me.

She loves you.

Loves me, as in popular song? Or loves me, as in, she loves him one minute and hates him the next? That would be my wife.

Do you ever stop joking? Do you ever get truly, deeply serious about things?

You mean, do I ever explore the darkest recesses of my tortured psyche?

Something like that.

Yeah, all the time.

At the piano?

Why would I damage my piano like that?

At the psychiatrist’s office? I saw him on your TV show the other day. That’s an innovative idea, to invite your analyst to come on your show.

He’s the only one I could get on such short notice. Adlai Stevenson bailed out on me at the last minute.

What do you say to your psychiatrist?

HELP!. . .  HELP!

Does he help?

I’m not sure there is such a thing as help, I mean on this plane of existence. I think you are who you are. It might be worse if I didn’t go.

Do you run in little circles inside your head?

What sort of question is that?

Just curious.

If you mean, am I a manic-depressive, of course. That’s the only diagnosis they could come up with that was frightening enough.

What are the highs like?

I don’t even know I’m on a high until I come down and realize that I’ve been babbling and swinging from chandeliers for weeks. Usually turns out I’ve offended a lot of people.

It sure smells like cigarettes in here.

The place is one big ashtray.

Are you hooked?

(Gazes at interviewer, lights another cigarette)

Would you play something for me right now?

I thought you’d never ask.

The Humoresque?

Which one?

Dvorak. Am I pronouncing that right?

No. Do you know there are words to that piece?

I didn’t! Why don’t you sing them?

Right now?

Right now.

(He sits at the piano, fidgeting and taking 2 or 3 minutes to get settled.)

Like a bike but so much cuter

Is my tiny two-wheeled scooter,

And I ride it ‘round and ‘round each day.

Though it has no engine on it,

Once I place my feet upon it

Merrily I’m on my way.

When I grow older

I may be bolder

And I’ll think of aeroplanes

And auto-mo-biles. . .

But right now when I’m outside

I’m satisfied to guide and ride

My tiny little scooter

With two wheels!

Oh, that’s lovely!

So are you, sweetheart. Come back any time. (Coughs, drapes arms around interviewer in Jewish embrace)