Wicked Wit: Marilyn and Oscar Levant

The late American musician and raconteur, Oscar Levant, is the subject of a new play (starring Sean Hayes of Will & Grace fame), and he also makes a cameo appearance in TV’s The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel (played by Leonid Citer), as Sam Kashner reports for Air Mail.

“Doug Wright’s play, Good Night, Oscar, takes place during the legendary night in November 1958 when Levant emerged from years of breakdowns, concert cancellations, and psychiatric hospitalisations to appear on The Jack Paar Show. It made television history.

Many who were on the receiving end of Oscar’s withering wit wore his jibes and insults like a badge of honour … But by the time of his appearance on Paar’s show, Oscar was well on his way to becoming a Hollywood recluse almost as celebrated as Howard Hughes. Paar, a friend of Oscar’s, often closed his shows by saying, ‘Good night, Oscar Levant, wherever you are.’ He hoped to lure the pianist out of self-imposed exile. He also knew he would make great television.

Paar’s hunch was right. Oscar’s appearance created an extraordinary half-hour of television. Seated next to Paar and furiously puffing on a cigarette, Oscar lacked the groomed, unctuous aura of sincerity that marked the usual television guest … And when the subject of Joe DiMaggio’s recent divorce from Marilyn Monroe came up, Oscar commiserated with DiMaggio: ‘No man can excel at two national pastimes.’

Oscar would have another crack at television with his own very local and bare-bones program, The Oscar Levant Show, which aired from 1958 to 1960. In a tiny studio at KCOP, in Los Angeles, it was co-hosted by Oscar’s wife, June, who sat beatifically beside him at a desk whenever he wasn’t at the piano. Paraded before a minuscule audience were guests Levant knew and admired, a jumble sale of eccentrically matched talent and genius … Occasionally, Oscar would get thrown off the air, once for insulting his sponsor, another time for commenting on Marilyn Monroe’s marriage by a rabbi to Arthur Miller: ‘Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her.’

‘I didn’t mean that way,’ he later protested. But it was too little, too late … But here’s the kicker—for much of the show’s tenure, Oscar was confined to the psychiatric ward of Mount Sinai in Los Angeles. As airtime approached, Levant’s young producer, Al Burton, would check Oscar out of the psych ward and drive him to the studio for 90 minutes of live TV, then sign him back into the hospital. It was reality television at its most real.”