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Joseph E. Levine

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Joseph E. Levine
Joseph Edward Levine

(1905-09-09)September 9, 1905
DiedJuly 31, 1987(1987-07-31) (aged 81)
Occupation(s)Producer, film distributor
Years active1937–1987
Known forEmbassy Pictures
Rosalie Harriet Harrison
(m. 1938)

Joseph Edward Levine (September 9, 1905 – July 31, 1987) was an American film distributor, financier, and producer. At the time of his death, it was said he was involved in one or another capacity with 497 films. Levine was responsible for the U.S. releases of Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, Attila and Hercules, which helped revolutionize U.S. film marketing, and was founder and president of Embassy Pictures. [1]

Levine's biggest hit was director Mike Nichols' 1967 The Graduate, a blockbuster hit that was considered, then and now, a watershed film that inaugurated the New Hollywood and made Dustin Hoffman a superstar. At the time of its release, The Graduate became one of the Top Ten All-Time Box Office hits. With the great success of the film, Levine sold his company to the conglomerate Avco, though he continued on as the CEO of the renamed Avco-Embassy film production division.

Other films he produced and/or financed by Levine included Two Women, Contempt, The 10th Victim, Marriage Italian Style, The Lion in Winter, The Producers, Carnal Knowledge and The Night Porter. After leaving Avco-Embassy, he became an independent again, producing A Bridge Too Far.

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Early life

Levine was born in a slum in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 9, 1905. The youngest of six children of a Russian-Jewish[2] immigrant tailor, Joe did whatever work he could to help support his mother, a widow who had remarried only to have her second husband abandon her. This led Joe (in his later years) to tell an interviewer that he had known (in his words) "not one happy day" growing up. At 14 years of age he was hired for full-time work in a dress factory and left school, never to re-enroll.

In the 1920s, in partnership with two of his older brothers, Joe opened a basement dress shop, whose stock the Levine brothers obtained on consignment. He had multiple other jobs and operated the Cafe Wonderbar in Boston's Back Bay during this period and during the early and mid-1930s.[3]

Marriage and distribution career

In 1937, Levine encountered Rosalie Harrison, then a singer with Rudy Vallee's band, and left the restaurant business for her; within a week of their engagement, at Harrison's insistence, Levine sold the Cafe Wonderbar. They married the following year and moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where Joe bought, and commenced to run, a movie theater. Eventually, he became a successful, if small-time, distributor and exhibitor throughout New England, buying "decrepit" Westerns at low rates for his theaters, which eventually totalled seven, including three drive-ins.[4]

One of Levine's most unusual successes was Body Beautiful, a sex-hygiene film which he saw drawing a line of prospective ticket-buyers who were braving a snowstorm to that end. He later remembered buying it to show in his theaters because "it made me sick." He was also a representative for Burstyn-Mayer distributing Italian films such as Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisà (1946), and Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948).[4]

The Second World War led Levine to run an almost jingoistic promotion of the film Ravaged Earth, which had been shot in China. Renting the Shubert Theater in his native Boston, he spent large sums of his own money on advertisements for the film that he wrote himself; these reflected the anti-Japanese sentiments of the times and used language that would later be considered offensive. Nan Robertson's obituary of Levine quotes one of the slogans as reading: "Jap Rats Stop at Nothing – See This. It Will Make You Fighting Mad."

During the 1950s, he became an area sub-distributor for newly-formed American International Pictures.[4] In 1956, he bought the Australian film Walk Into Paradise, its low box-office revenues led him to change the title to Walk Into Hell, which gave it box-office success.[5] Levine discovered that double features with the same cast members or similar titles brought in higher box-office revenues; this led him to present two films together because they had similar titles.

In the 1960s he built two cinemas on 57th Street in New York City – the Lincoln Art Theatre and the Festival Theatre.[4]

Producing career

Levine and Cathy Ryan, widow of Cornelius Ryan, announcing the production of A Bridge Too Far in 1975

Embassy Pictures is born

He entered film production in 1945, co-producing with Maxwell Finn the nostalgic feature film Gaslight Follies, a four-part compilation of silent film clips with such stars as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks; a roundup of newsreel highlights; a condensed version of the 1935 feature The Drunkard; and the 1915 Alan Hale romance East Lynne. With each section narrated by different commentators -- Ben Grauer, John B. Kennedy, and Milton Cross and Ethel Owen) -- the individual parts could also be shown separately as short subjects. Gaslight Follies was released through Levine's own company, Embassy Pictures.[4]

In 1956, Levine achieved great financial success distributing the Japanese film Godzilla to the American general public, acquiring the rights for $12,000. Spending $400,000 on marketing and promoting it under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the picture earned $1 million in theatrical rentals.[4] He then made a $100,000 deal to bring the 1954 French-Italian film Attila to the US in 1958 and spent $600,000 promoting it, which returned $2 million in rentals.[4] His breakthrough came the following year with Hercules, starring Steve Reeves and released by Warner Bros. Levine invested $120,000 on dubbing, sound effects, and new titles and spent $1.25 million on promoting the film. It was one of the highest-grossing films of the year, with rentals of $4.7 million.[4]

The promotion of Sophia Loren

Levine's Embassy Pictures began dealing in art films, often European ones, in the 1960s. During that decade, he reached the peak of his career and his prestige, which he was able to sustain into the 1970s.

In 1961, Levine bought North American distribution rights for Two Women after seeing no more than three minutes of its "rushes." He was not credited as the "executive producer" of Two Women, which was based on a novella written by Alberto Moravia, had been directed by Vittorio de Sica, and starred Sophia Loren and Eleanora Brown, who acted out the respective roles of a mother and her young daughter whom World War II had displaced from their home. One segment of it showed Moroccan soldiers raping the mother and the daughter.

Levine's promotional campaign focused on one still photograph, which showed Loren, as the mother, wearing a torn dress, kneeling in the dirt, and weeping with rage and grief. Predicting that she would win the Academy Award for her performance, Levine brought Loren to the United States for interviews, bought space for, and placed, large advertisements in newspapers, and saw to it that Two Women appeared in the cities of residence of Academy Award jury members.

Levine's efforts paid off when Loren became the first cast member of a foreign-language film to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. It came to be said of him that he "nursed" Two Women towards its ultimate popularity and success.

Paramount deal and the Promotion of Carroll Baker

In 1963, Levine was offered a $30 million deal with Paramount Pictures (making him a major shareholder) to produce films in the vein of his previous successes. Paramount would finance the films and Embassy would receive part of its profits.[6] Following the deal, Levine paid Harold Robbins $900,000 for the rights to three books which were filmed – The Carpetbaggers (1964), Where Love Has Gone (1964) and Nevada Smith (1966).

Carroll Baker, a contract player for Paramount Pictures, appeared as a hedonistic widow in The Carpetbaggers, which was a huge hit. Levine made her his personal protege, promoting her career, which led the talented actress to being denigrated as Levine's "blonde bomb sell"[7] (a play on "bombshell") as he attempted to reshape her image. Baker had shot a nude scene for The Carpetbaggers that was not in the US release, but which received wide-spread publicity.[8]

A 1964 New York Times article quote Baker defending her appearing in the nude. Speaking of her character, Baker said:

“She is alone in front of her dressing table. She has just stepped out of the bath and she is the kind of character to whom it would not occur to put on a robe. Doing the scene in the nude was my idea and I think it was a mistake not to show it.”

Levine cast Baker in the potboiler Sylvia, in which she had a nude scene. He then cast her in the role of Hollywood's original blonde bombshell Jean Harlow in the biopic Harlow (1965). Sylvia received poor reviews and did nothing at the box office while Harlow, also a critical failure and facing a rival Harlow movie starring Carol Lynley, flopped despite significant pre-publicity.[9] The Harlow publicity campaign even had Baker featured in an advertisement for Foster Grant sunglasses in LIFE Magazine with stills from the movie.[10]

Relations between Baker and Levine had broke down. In a 1965 interview, Baker sardonically commented: "I'll say this about Joe Levine: I admire his taste in leading ladies", which led the press to suspect a rift between the actress and producer.[11]

Baker sued Levine in 1966 over her contract with Paramount Pictures,[12] and was ultimately fired by Paramount and had her paychecks from Harlow frozen amid the contentious legal dispute. Baker went hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt, though eventually she awarded $1 million in compensation).[9]

In an interview with Rex Reed in his book People Are Crazy Here (1974), Baker revealed that she had felt pressure in both her working relationship with Levine, and her domestic life with her husband, who she said wanted to maintain an expensive lifestyle:

"We'd been very poor when we started out at the Actors Studio in New York. I was under contract to Joe Levine, who was going around giving me diamonds and behaving like he owned me. I never slept with him or anything, but everyone thought I was his mistress."

Baker relocated to Italy in 1966 amid a legal dispute over her contract with Paramount in a bid to end Levine's oversight of her career. She told Reed that Her dispute with Paramount and Levine effectively resulted in her being blacklisted by Hollywood.

In the Levine produced film The Oscar, one of the characters, a blonde movie star played by Jean Hagen as a harpy, is named Cheryl Barker, a dig at Baker.[7]

Later deals and sale of Embassy

Levine got to know Mike Nichols who was one of the most in-demand directors on Broadway and signed him to make The Graduate (1967) before he made his feature film debut with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).[4] It was the highest-grossing film of the year. Levine also hired first-time director Mel Brooks to make The Producers (1967).[4] Levine later said "I have a knack for betting on unknown directors and actors and getting my money's worth".[1] The same year, Levine sold Embassy to Avco for $40 million but stayed on as chief executive officer.[4] He later called the sale a "horrible mistake which made me rich".[13]

The Lion in Winter (1968), Levine's favorite of his films, won an Academy Award for Katharine Hepburn.[4][1] After the sale, his films did not perform well except for Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge (1971) and A Touch of Class (1973), his last hit.[4] He resigned from Avco Embassy in 1974 and formed Joseph E. Levine Presents and spent 2½ years making A Bridge Too Far (1977) with his son Richard. His last film was Tattoo (1981).[4]


In April 1964, David Susskind, Daniel Melnick, and Levine took over as producers for the Broadway musical Kelly. Levine financed $250,000 of the $400,000 budget, with the balance coming from Columbia Records and six other investors. The producers also acquired the motion picture rights.[14]

Directed and choreographed by Herbert Ross, the musical began previews at the Broadhurst Theatre on February 1, 1965, and opened (and closed) on February 6 after seven previews and one performance,[15] becoming one of the biggest flops in Broadway history.[4]

Industry representatives quoted in The New York Times stated they "could not recall any other Broadway musical representing such a comparable expenditure that became a casualty so quickly." Costs had ballooned to $650,000, with the biggest loser being Levine, followed by Melnick and Susskind, who had invested a total of $150,000. There had been increasing arguments between the producers and writers, with Susskind complaining that the authors were unwilling to make changes per the recommendations of the investors. Charlap and Lawrence were so upset with changes that they filed suit in New York Supreme Court seeking an injunction to prevent the play from opening. While the judge urged that the parties pursue arbitration, lawyers representing Charlap and Lawrence were threatening to sue for damages that had been caused through "unauthorized changes, omissions and additions" made to the musical.[16]


Levine became famous in the industry for his massive advertising campaigns, starting with Hercules in 1959. Levine had hired Terry Turner, who had been a former RKO Pictures exploitation expert of the late 1920s and 1930s, where he had exploited King Kong amongst other films.[17] Levine's and Turner's exploitation campaigns were designed to appeal both to the general public and to the film industry and exhibitors.[17] The Adventurers (1970) had a special "airborne world premiere", as the in-flight movie of a TWA Boeing 747 Superjet making its premiere voyage, flying from New York to Los Angeles, with the film's stars and members of the press aboard. It marked the first time that a movie and a plane premiered in the same event.[18][19]


In 1964, Levine received the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in recognition of his lifetime achievement in motion pictures.


Levine was hospitalized on June 21, 1987, and died the following month on July 31 in Greenwich, Connecticut, at the age of 81. His known survivors, in addition to his widow Rosalie, included his son Richard, his daughter Tricia, and two grandchildren.[3][4]


Producer credits

Executive producer credits

Joseph E. Levine presents


"You can fool all of the people if the advertising is right."[3]

Popular culture


  1. ^ a b c "Independent movie producer Joseph E. Levine, 81, dies". The Washington Post. August 1, 1987. ProQuest 139100041.
  2. ^ Film Society of Lincoln Center (October 28, 2011). "Flaunting It: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's "Nice" Jewish (Bad) Boys | | Film Society of Lincoln Center". Retrieved August 18, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d Robertson, Nan (August 1, 1987). "Joseph E.Levine, A Towering Figure In Movie Making, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved June 25, 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q McCarthy, Todd (August 5, 1987). "Joseph E. Levine Dead At 81; Leading Indie Producer Of '60s". Variety. p. 4.
  5. ^ Scheuer, P. K. (July 27, 1959). "Meet Joe Levine, super(sales)man!". Los Angeles Times. ProQuest 167430798.
  6. ^ Dick, Bernard F. (2001). Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of Corporate Hollywood. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 80–81. ISBN 978-0-8131-2202-1.
  7. ^ a b McClelland, Douglas (1989). Eleanor Parker: Woman of a Thousand Faces. New York: Scarecrow Press. p. 110. ISBN 978-0-8108-2242-9.
  8. ^ "HOLLYWOOD CANDOR; Carroll Baker Defends Her Nudity in Films". The New York Times. June 14, 1964. Retrieved August 24, 2023.
  9. ^ a b Slifkin, Irv (May 3, 2015). "The Fabulous Baker: A Consideration of Carroll". MovieFanFare. Archived from the original on February 26, 2015. Retrieved February 26, 2015.
  10. ^ "Isn't that Carroll Baker Behind Those Foster Grants? (Advertisement)". LIFE. Vol. 58, no. 23. June 11, 1965. p. 104. Retrieved August 24, 2023.
  11. ^ Lyons, Leonard (August 14, 1965). "Carroll Baker-Levine Rift Is Indicated By Film Star". The Toledo Blade. p. 9 – via Google News. Open access icon
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (August 20, 1969). "Paranoia Movie Review". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved February 2, 2015.
  13. ^ Rosenthal, Donna (July 5, 1987). "SELF-MADE MOGUL HANGS ON: Joseph E. Levine, 82, Is Still Wheeling and Dealing". Los Angeles Times. p. K23.
  14. ^ Zolotow, Sam (April 17, 1964). "New Group Plans to Put On 'Kelly'; Levine, Susskind, Melnick Will Produce Musical". The New York Times. Retrieved June 14, 2020.
  15. ^ "Kelly". Internet Broadway Database.
  16. ^ Zolotow, Sam (February 9, 1965). "$650,000 'Kelly' Lasts One Night; Joseph E. Levine Principal Loser on Musical". The New York Times. Retrieved June 14, 2020.
  17. ^ a b "Joseph E. Levine : Showmanship, Reputation and Industrial Practice 1945–1977" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on February 24, 2012. Retrieved August 18, 2014.
  18. ^ Moore, Ethel Mae (March 14, 1970). "Comfort, Luxury on TWA's New 747". The Chicago Defender. p. 38.
  19. ^ "The Adventurers – History". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 10, 2019.
  20. ^ Fantastic Four. Volume 1, Issue 48.
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