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“Heedlessly Controversial” — Remembering Oscar Levant

Reviewing Sony Classical’s invaluable new Oscar Levant tribute in the current “Los Angeles Review of Books,” I write: “That Levant was what he seemed was doubtless a key to his appeal. His authenticity has never appeared more exceptional: no present-day mainstream media personality – not even our President — is as heedlessly controversial as was Levant every time he opened his mouth.” 

I also remark that Levant – who as pianist, movie star, radio and TV personality embodied an American cultural moment one lifetime ago — inhabited “a public community of erudition that no longer exists.”

I begin:

Before “Here’s Johnny!”, late-night TV meant the Jack Paar Show. Paar was as emotionally unbuffered as Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien were caustically remote; simply but knowingly, he wore his heart on his sleeve — and never more than when his guest was Oscar Levant. Paar variously called Levant “a man for whom living is a sideline,” “my favorite far-outpatient,” and “one of America’s true geniuses.” He also quipped: “He’s as nervous as he is clever – for every pearl that comes out of his mouth, a pill goes in.” He enjoined his audience to bear in mind that “appearing here is good for Oscar; he looks forward to it; he enjoys an audience’s warmth again. Just coming here is therapy for him.”        

The object of these observations would sit slumped in a chair, his legs carelessly crossed to disclose a swath of flesh above the sock. He smoked and grimaced helplessly and continuously. His discourse consisted entirely of impromptu one-liners, delivered off-handedly with occasional eye contact. His thick features were battered and sleep-deprived. That he was self-evidently a wreck of a man equally excited Paar’s interest and compassion.      

Levant said: “You know, the only reason I’m appearing here is that there are no more beds in the mental institution.” And: “You have the most responsive audience since Adolf Hitler in the good old days.” Asked what he did for exercise, he replied: “I stumble and then I fall into a coma.” Informed that “we have a bunch of pills here you know . . . ,” he interrupted impatiently: “I took them, they’re nothing.” 


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