Oscar Levant: Hollywood's First Celebrity Meltdown A century ago this week, pianist, actor, writer and wit Oscar Levant was born. We remember the man some have called America's first publicly dysfunctional celebrity.
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Oscar Levant: Hollywood's First Celebrity Meltdown

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Oscar Levant: Hollywood's First Celebrity Meltdown

Oscar Levant: Hollywood's First Celebrity Meltdown

Oscar Levant: Hollywood's First Celebrity Meltdown

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6669958/6669959" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A century ago this week, pianist, actor, writer and wit Oscar Levant was born. We remember the man some have called America's first publicly dysfunctional celebrity.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Given the number of self-destructing celebrities in the news this year, we thought we'd take a moment to remember the man some have called America's first publicly dysfunctional celebrity.

Oscar Levant was born 100 years ago this week and over the course of his life made a distinct mark in show business. He wrote popular songs, such as "Blame it on My Youth." He was a gifted concert pianist, a film and stage actor, a best-selling author, a radio and television personality, and one of the country's most acerbic wits.

But Oscar Levant considered himself a failure. He was an insecure, tortured soul who battled a 10-year addiction to painkillers and was shuttled in and out of mental institutions before his death in 1972.

(Soundbite of "Rhapsody in Blue")

SEABROOK: Levant first heard the music of George Gershwin at the age of 12 and fell in love with it. He also used to say it established two characteristics he nurtured all his life: jealousy and revenge. Eventually, he and Gershwin became good friends, and Levant gained renown as an interpreter of Gershwin's music. It also made him one of the highest-paid artists in America. But he never thought he was really good enough.

He had roles in 13 films, the most famous of which was "An American in Paris," where he played Gene Kelly's sidekick. As a raconteur and wit, he became a radio and television personality, zinging some of America's best-loved celebrities with classic one-liners. I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin. Elizabeth Taylor should divorce and settle down.

But his self doubts still nagged at him. In 1950, he had a heart attack and became addicted to Demerol. Episodes of depression began to rule his life, and his career faded.

Then in 1958, Jack Parr brought him onto "The Tonight Show." Levant talked openly and hilariously about his depression, his addiction, his shock treatments - the whole range of his neuroses.

That may be commonplace today, but in the late '50s, it was a new phenomenon, edgy, and audiences were both shocked and titillated. Here's a clip from one of those appearances.

(Soundbite of "The Tonight Show")

Mr. JACK PARR (Host): You're going to be all right. Listen, you're going to be swell. We just keep moving around. What do you do for exercise?

Mr. OSCAR LEVANT: I stumble and then I fall into a coma.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. LEVANT: I really am suffering from amnesia, because I took shock treatments, and it reminds me I was - I came back from the hospital, and I was watching a television - an old picture with Ralph Richardson in where he's suffering from amnesia. And my wife came in, my wonderful wife, she really is, and said what are you watching? I said there's a movie with Ralph Richardson in it about amnesia. He's suffering from amnesia. I want to see how it turns out. She said but you saw it last week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVANT: So consequently, I've been devoting my time to writing a book called "Memoirs of a Man Suffering from Amnesia," and I don't have a page filled.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVANT: There was one patient who was euphoric, and we were having lunch at an awful place, and he said what do you want, lemon juice or orange juice? He said what's the difference?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVANT: You know, when you're suffering from deep depression, you cannot make a decision. I first had deep apathy, then relapsed into deep depression. Gee, how I long for those deep apathy days.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Oscar Levant. He was born 100 years ago this week.

(Soundbite of "Rhapsody in Blue")

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