Oscar Levant would have been 100 years old this past Wednesday. Born December 27, 1906, Levant was - as I wrote last year - an author, piano virtuoso, composer, movie actor, comedian, talk show host, wit, hypochondriac, and renaissance man. He died in 1972 too little remembered and appreciated.
What I wrote last year is worth repeating here.
Levant was unique in 20th century America - perhaps in all of American history - and he is too little remembered today.
For this writer, the strongest image of Levant comes from the movie An American in Paris, in which Levant co-starred with Gene Kelly, playing Kelly's neighbor and friend - a somewhat hard-luck musician. In one fantasy scene, Levant is shown performing George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F - as soloist, conductor, and all members of the orchestra. Levant was - in "real" life - a friend of Gershwin's and was said to have "owned" the Concerto in F during the 1940s and 1950s.
Levant was a very funny and versatile man who did not achieve as much as he might have because of mental and physical illness. What he did achieve, though, deserves to be remembered in this year leading to his centenary. One can be hopeful that there will be more widespread tributes over the next few years.
I would go further this year and say that Levant's sensibility foreshadowed that of recent comedy shows, such as Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. He deserves wider and greater appreciation.