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December 27: “The Fine Line Between Genius and Insanity”

December 27, 2014
e094091e-5dd7-49e6-aad5-d330cf9f0e76Oscar Levant, a pianist and composer whose sharp, high-strung wit turned him into a radio and television star, was born in an Orthodox family in Pittsburgh on this date in 1906. Levant took himself to Hollywood in 1928, became friends with George Gershwin, and from 1929 to 1948 composed music for more than twenty movies. In 1932, he began composing classical music under the tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg and Aaron Copland, but show biz overtook him again as he became a regular panelist for more than a decade on Information Please, a radio program moderated by Clifton Fadiman. In the late 1940s, Levant was a regular on NBC radio’s Kraft Music Hall, which starred Al Jolson, with whom he had a famous rapport. At the same time, Levant suffered frequent nervous breakdowns and was hospitalized several times. “For every pearl that comes out of his mouth,” Jack Paar later said of him, “a pill goes in.” When Levant got his own show on Los Angeles television in 1958 — on which he played piano for guest performers and made funny commentary about celebrities and American culture — his risqué sense of humor brought him trouble. Ad libs about Marilyn Monroe’s conversion to Judaism (“Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her”), about Doris Day (“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin”), and about Mae West’s sex life got the show cancelled after three years. Levant died of a heart attack at 65. To see him with Fred Astaire on The Oscar Levant Show, look below. To see him on the Jack Paar Show, look below that. “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” —Oscar Levant