Good overview of Oscar Levant, one of those minor performers of a Time Gone By who appealed to what the writer calls the “midcult” audience of the ‘40s and ‘50s, but who was capable of much more had manic-depression not wrecked his life.
A pianist who idolized his friend George Gershwin, Levant played second and third leads in movies and became a radio “personality” that boosted his concert career while freezing him in the public mind as a wisecracking cynic.
Later on, he became known less for his musicianship and more for his cutting wit, which he turned more and more on himself.
I remember reading a couple of his memoirs, which were straightforwardly written but not memorable. One detail stuck with me: Levant playing piano in New Orleans at a site below sea level. The humidity slowed the keys’ action so much they rose up slowly instead of snapping back.
Levant’s self-deprecating quotes in the article are chilling, particularly this one: “It’s not what you are, but what you don’t become that hurts.”
YouTube has lots of videos of Levant on panel and interview shows of the ‘50s. Here’s something a little quieter, that ends rather sadly: