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Sam Levene
Sam Levene.jpg
Levene in 1936
Scholem Lewin

(1905-08-28)August 28, 1905
DiedDecember 28, 1980(1980-12-28) (aged 75)
New York City, U.S.
Resting placeMount Carmel Cemetery, Glendale, Queens
Alma materAmerican Academy of Dramatic Arts
  • Actor
  • Director
Years active1927–1980
Spouse(s)Constance Kane
(m. 1953; div. 19??)

Sam Levene (born Scholem Lewin; August 28, 1905 – December 28, 1980) was an Russian-born American Broadway, film, radio and television actor and director. In a career spanning over five decades, he originated some of the most legendary comedic roles in American theatrical history, including Nathan Detroit, the craps-shooter extraordinaire, in the 1950 original Broadway production[1] of Guys and Dolls (1950), Max Kane, the hapless agent, in the original 1932 Broadway production of Dinner at Eight (1932); Patsy, a professional if not always successful gambler, in the longest running and original Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935); Gordon Miller, the shoestring producer, in the original Broadway production of Room Service (1937); Sidney Black, a theatrical producer, in Moss Hart's original Broadway production of Light Up the Sky (1948), Horace Vandergelder, the crotchety merchant of Yonkers, in the premier UK production of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker (1954), a play that became the basis for the musical Hello Dolly, Lou Winkler, a businessman in the original Broadway production of Fair Game (1957)[2] a comedy by Sam Locke that Larry Gelbart attributed[3] its 217-performance run mostly to the performance and drawing power of Sam Levene who starred in the comedy with Ellen McRae, a 25-year ingenue making her Broadway debut and who later changed her name to Ellen Burstyn; and Al Lewis, the retired vaudevillian, in the original Broadway production of The Sunshine Boys (1972), Neil Simon’s salute to vaudevillians opposite Jack Albertson as Willie Clark, a role Levene performed 466 times[4] on Broadway, first with Jack Albertson until October 28, 1974 and later opposite Jack Gilford, October 30, 1974 until February 10, 1975. In 1984, Levene was posthumously inducted in the American Theatre Hall of Fame and in 1998,[5] Sam Levene along with the original Broadway cast of the 1950 Guys and Dolls Decca cast album posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Considered one of the great veteran actors of the American stage, Levene effortlessly segued between starring roles in over 100 productions on stage, radio, television and film, appearing in a variety of roles, including policemen, servicemen, gamblers, gangsters, newspaper reporters, theatrical producer, actor's agent, dress manufacturer and even a psychiatrist. A consummate actor, Levene was equally adept in segueing from comedy to farce to drama to musical comedy to fictionalized biographical assignments, including infamous gangsters, including Larry Faye on The Untouchables starring Robert Stack and Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter, the Jewish Mafia leader, head of Murder, Inc., for David Susskind's CBS anthology, The Witness. Levene was the archetypal New Yorker on stage and screen who shined in creating rough character parts, often playing working class roles with names like Patsy, Dino and Hymie and appeared with a roster of stars and directors. Levene appeared in a staggering list of 39 Broadway productions, many of them bona-fide hits,[6] 33 of which were the original Broadway productions. Levene received greater recognition and critical praise for his comedic expertise and stage timing who routinely received critical acclaim, even when the show itself was not of top quality. Levene earned a niche in American theatrical history by perfecting a certain species of comic hero and for the majority of those appearances, Levene was a Broadway star who consistently received above-title billing. For his performance as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, Levene, Vivian Blaine and Robert Alda each received[7] above-the-title billing, which Levene continued to receive for each of his subsequent Broadway performances, even starring in Horowitz and Mrs. Washington, receiving above-title top billing in 1980,[8] the year he died, with Esther Rolle who received billing after Levene. Although Broadway revivals are generally billed alphabetically Levene received first place over-the-title billing[9] among the eight stars in the 1969 all-star Three Men on a Horse revival; followed by Jack Gilford, Dorothy Loudon, Hal Linden, Rosemary Printz, Butterfly McQueen, Leon Janney and Paul Ford whose eighth place billing was preceded with "and", and as a result, Ford's Playbill who's who biography was fourth. Levene's longevity was due in part to his ability to show the amiability and even sweetness beneath the rough hewn tough exteriors of his characters, however bad they may have seemed. Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor observe[10] "the theater has always embraced certain stars as one of their own, comedians who both ennoble and energize a live event with their presence", and include Levene on a list of Broadway stars along with Beatrice Lillie, Carol Channing, Robert Morse, Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane.

Early life

Levine was born in Russia, the youngest of five children by a dozen years.[11] He came to the United States when he was two years old. Levene grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Avenue D and 8th Street and attended Public School 64.[12] Levene, who should have been a 1923 graduate of Stuyvesant High School, dropped out and also failed to qualify for the school's dramatic society. Since Levene had been in the class of Broadway for over five decades, the illustrious dropout was given a special award, his Stuyvesant High School diploma,[13] in a 1976 ceremony held at the New York's Princeton Club.

Levene's father, Harry Levine, an orthodox Jewish cantor, never saw Levene perform and never was in a theatre,[14] but Levene's mother, Beth Weiner, saw every one of Levene's early performances.

Broadway debut

Levene made his Broadway stage debut[15] earning $60 week with his first Actor's Equity contract on April 20, 1927, a five line role as District Attorney William Thompson in the original Broadway melodrama Wall Street, at the Hudson Theatre,[16] a play that only ran for three weeks.[17]

Broadway presence

Window card poster 1972 original Broadway production Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys starring Jack Albertson and Sam Levene
Window card poster 1972 original Broadway production Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys starring Jack Albertson and Sam Levene

In 1980, Levene's last and thirty-ninth Broadway credit was his starring role as Daniel Horowitz in the 1980 comedy Horowitz and Mrs. Washington directed by Joshua Logan which closed after a run of only 10 previews and six performances at the John Golden Theatre.[18] Although the Henry Denker comedy was panned, Levene's star power and comedic performance enabled a five-month tour of Horowitz and Mrs. Washington which went on Christmas hiatus on Saturday December 13, 1980, which turned out to be Levene's final stage performance in Canada,[19] just two weeks prior to his December 28, 1980 passing.

Levene's Broadway career began with five years of steady employment in nondescript roles in ten Broadway plays, including a successive series of flops. One titled Solitaire (1929),[20] was a Broadway play about a Coney Island midget that only ran four performances[21] at the now demolished Waldorf Theatre, partially financed with $500 last minute investment from Levene's older brother Joe.

Emanuel Azenberg and Eugene Wolsk worked with Levene twice in two Broadway productions and two national tours; the first time as company managers when Levene replaced Alan King in the starring role of Dr. Jack Kingsley in the original Broadway production of The Impossible Years (1966) which Levene performed 322 times on Broadway and later headlined and starred in the national tour. Six years later, Azenberrg and Wolsk were lead producers when Levene was cast as Al Lewis opposite Jack Albertson as Willie Clark to co-star in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (1972); after performing the role of Al Lewis 466 times in the original Broadway production, Levene and Albertson headlined the subsequent national tour. In his December 21, 1972 review of the original Broadway production of The Sunshine Boys in The New York Times, theatre critic Clive Barnes wrote[22] "Jack Albertson as the heart stricken comic never puts a line wrong. He is always pathetic but never enough to make you cry. Lovely. His acerbic partner, Sam Levene, is as tough as vintage chewing gum, and yet with a sort of credible lovability."

Theatrical career

Levene appeared in over 50 theatrical stage productions in the United States and abroad. A master of farce and comedy, Levene was equally effective in drama as well. Levene's Broadway credits include performances in 39 Broadway productions, 33 of which were performances Levene created in the original Broadway productions, and a 10-month USO tour. For 54 years Sam Levene was a Broadway audience favorite playing cops, con men, theatrical types, businessmen, gamblers, hassled husbands and even doctors.[23]

Over his 54-year Broadway career, Levene performed in 39 Broadway productions at 29 different Broadway Theaters, and at some Theaters, several times. Levene performed over 1,600 times at the now demolished Playhouse Theater in four original Broadway productions, three of which Levene had starring roles after first appearing in Street Scene (1929), Three Men on a Horse (1935), Make a Million (1958) and The Impossible Years (1966). In a 1976 interview[24] with Tom McMorrow for The Daily News,

Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide and Sam Levene as Nathan Detroit in the original 1950 Broadway production of Guys and Dolls
Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide and Sam Levene as Nathan Detroit in the original 1950 Broadway production of Guys and Dolls

Levene's Broadway credits include star turns creating sharply etched comedic and dramatic performances in 33 original Broadway productions, many considered among 20th century American theatrical history including: Max Gordon, a theatrical agent with a dud client in Dinner at Eight (1932), Gordon Miller, the hilarious shoestring producer, in the smash hit farce Room Service (1937) directed by George Abbott, Patsy, the lovable gambler, in Three Men on a Horse (1935), Officer Finkelstein, a Jewish cop guarding the Nazi consul,[25] played by Otto Preminger, in Claire Booth Luce's Margin for Error (1939), Sidney Black, a loud-mouth Broadway producer of a flop, a role playwright Moss Hart told Levene was largely a self-portrait of the author, in Light Up the Sky (1948), Nathan Detroit, a role written and crafted specifically for Levene by Abe Burrows in Guys and Dolls (1950), Fair Game[26] (1957), a comedy which starred Levene at the Longacre Theatre,[27] Dr. Aldo Meyer, a kind-hearted Jewish doctor in the original Broadway production of The Devil's Advocate (1961), written, produced and directed by Dore Schary, based on the novel by Morris West, for which Levene was nominated for the 1961 Tony Award for Best Actor in a play,[28] and Al Lewis, a retired vaudevillian Levene created in the original 1972 Broadway production of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (1972); Levene and Albertson reprised their star performances in the 1974 first national tour. Levene succeeded Albertson in the role of Willie Clark when he left the 1974 national tour, performing the role opposite Ned Glass as Al Lewis, who was replaced by Jack Somack.

Playbill cover of Sam Levene as Dr. Jack Kingsley in the original Broadway production of The Impossible Years, a role he performed 322 times.
Playbill cover of Sam Levene as Dr. Jack Kingsley in the original Broadway production of The Impossible Years, a role he performed 322 times.

Levene's Broadway credits include starring roles in three Broadway revivals, portraying businessmen Boss Mangan in George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House (1959) directed by Harold Clurman, recreating his original Broadway performance as Patsy, the racetrack gambler originated three decades earlier, in the acclaimed all-star Broadway revival of the smash hit farce Three Men on a Horse (1969) and performing the role of veteran theatre producer Oscar Wolfe in the all-star 1975-19976 Broadway revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family (1975) directed by Ellis Rabb; the production was filmed for the series Great Performances on November 9, 1977;[29] this version was released on DVD.

Window card poster 1st UK production of Guys and Dolls starring Vivian Blaine and Sam Levene which ran for 555 performances at London's Coliseum
Window card poster 1st UK production of Guys and Dolls starring Vivian Blaine and Sam Levene which ran for 555 performances at London's Coliseum

Levene starred in two major UK productions; in 1953, he recreated his original Broadway performance as Nathan Detroit in the first UK production of Guys and Dolls which opened at The Coliseum a few days before the 1953 Coronation which had an run of 553 performances.[30] In 1954, Sam Levene originated the role of Horace Vandergelder in the world premiere production of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker (1954), initially at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.[31]

Not known as a singer, Levene originated the "craps-shooter extraordinaire" Nathan Detroit in the American musical Guys and Dolls on the Great White Way in the original 1950 Broadway production directed by the inimitable George S. Kaufman. Levene has been synonymous with the role of Nathan Detroit for seven decades; Guys and Dolls book co-author Abe Burrows specifically crafted the role of Nathan Detroit around and for Levene who signed for the project long before Burrows ever wrote a single word of dialogue, a similar break Burrows said he had when he wrote Cactus Flower for Lauren Bacall. In Honest, Abe: Is There Really No Business Like Show Business?, Burrows recalled: "I had the sound of their voices in my head. I knew the rhythm of their speech and it helped make the dialogue sharper and more real." Burrows had the advantage of writing dialogue built around Sam Levene[32]'s New York Jewish cadences. The creative talent of Guys and Dolls agreed Levene was perfect for the role of Nathan Detroit (Damon Runyon had been one of Levene's fans). Frank Loesser agreed it was easier adjusting the music to Levene's limitations than substituting a better singer who couldn't act. Levene is the reason the lead role of Nathan Detroit has one major song, the duet "Sue Me".[33]

Hundreds[34] of productions of Guys and Dolls are staged annually and Sam Levene's comedic performance as Nathan Detroit still makes headlines, largely because it became the gold standard classic. Frank Rich, Chief Theatre Critic, The New York Times, like most critics, lauded the 1992 Guys and Dolls revival directed by Jerry Zaks stating:[35] "this is an enchanting rebirth of the show that defines Broadway dazzle". However, regarding Nathan Lane's performance as Nathan Detroit, Frank Rich observed[36] "the supremely gifted actor Nathan Lane does not remotely echo the first Nathan Detroit, Sam Levene, for whose New York Jewish cadences the role was written. Mr. Lane is more like a young Jackie Gleason and usually funny in his own right, though expressions like 'all right, already' and 'so nu?' do not fall trippingly from his tongue." Los Angeles Times Critic Emeritus Sylvie Drake reviewed the 1993 Guys and Dolls touring production also directed by Jerry Zaks at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre had a similar observation, comparing David Garrison's portrayal of Nathan Detroit to Sam Levene's original 1950 Broadway performance, writing: "The wiry Garrison's Detroit physically harks back more to the 1950 original played by Sam Levene, than to Nathan Lane, who played the role on Broadway last year. But unlike Levene, Garrison doesn't come across down, dirty or gritty. Knowing this actor's talent, one finds his amiable New York gangster surprisingly bloodless and almost genteel."[37]

Vivian Blaine and Sam Levene meet Queen Elizabeth after Royal Command Variety Performance of Guys and Dolls November 2, 1953
Vivian Blaine and Sam Levene meet Queen Elizabeth after Royal Command Variety Performance of Guys and Dolls November 2, 1953

Levene performed the role of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls over 1,600 times, initially 41 times in the 1950 pre-Broadway Philadelphia tryout where each performance was different, two years performing his classic role in the original Broadway production, a week's stint at London's Bristol Hippodrome before co-starring with Vivian Blaine for a year in the first UK production, six months performing the role twice daily in a one and half hour version of the Broadway hit at the Royal Nevada's Theatre-in-the Desert,[38] the first Las Vegas production and the 15th anniversary six week production, three weeks in Mineola, New York and three weeks in Paramus New Jersey in 1965. In a 1974 interview with The New York Times, "Levene said he played the part of Nathan Detroit so long that some Broadway wag once suggested he was born born playing the Damon Runyon character".

Levene reprised his performance as Nathan Detroit on the Decca's original cast recording of the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls according to Variety, original cast album sales totaled 250,000 as of September 1, 1954. Guys and Dolls composer and lyricist Frank Loesser specifically wrote "Sue Me" in one octave for Levene and structured the song so he and Vivian Blaine never sang their show-stopping duet number together; the son of a cantor, Levene was fluent in Yiddish: "Alright, already, I'm just a no-goodnick; alright, already, it's true, so nu? So sue me." Frank Loesser felt[39] "Nathan Detroit should be played as a brassy Broadway tough guy who sang with more grits than gravy." Levene sang "Sue Me" with "such a wonderful Runyonesque flavor that his singing had been easy to forgive, in fact it had been quite charming in its ineptitude."

Alan Alda, son of Guys and Dolls co-star Robert Alda, recalls watching Levene perform Nathan Detroit while standing in the wings. In Never Have Your Dog Stuffed; And Other Things I’ve Learned, Alan Alda recalls[40] "Watching Sam Levene was thrilling. He could ride a moment as if a wild animal. New meanings occurred to him on the spot. Not only did he play the same lines differently every night, but the laughs rolled in from the audience in different places. How did he do it? This kind of spontaneity and this utter commitment to the moment became what I wanted to have. As good as my father was, what I was seeing as they played together a few feet away was the difference between burlesque and theatre, between performing and acting. I chose acting. I wanted to be Sam."

For three decades Levene reprised his role as Patsy from Three Men on a Horse (1935) numerous times on stage, film, TV and radio; the first time when he made his motion picture debut in Three Men on a Horse (1936) directed and produced by Mervyn LeRoy; three times on radio, two USO tours playing 200 shows to 120,000 servicemen, the first legitimate U.S. theatrical production mounted overseas. Due to security, the USO cast was reduced from 12 to 7 without losing a minute of running dialogue. According to a May 26, 1945 Billboard interview, Levene said,[41] "the G.I.s' gratefulness is absolutely embarrassing. They express it not only by applause but by meeting you personally and giving you objects which they have fought and bled for. They lose sight of the fact that they are the ones fighting the war."

Playbill cover 1935 original Broadway production Three Men on a Horse at The Playhouse Theater starring Teddy Hart, Shirley Booth and Sam Levene
Playbill cover 1935 original Broadway production Three Men on a Horse at The Playhouse Theater starring Teddy Hart, Shirley Booth and Sam Levene

Levene as Patsy and Shirley Booth as Mabel reprised their original Broadway roles in two ABC radio versions produced by the Theatre Guild on the Air, the first adapted by playwright Arthur Miller aired January 6, 1946;[42] the second aired June 1, 1947 with David Wayne as Erwin. Three decades after creating the role of Patsy in the Broadway production of Three Men On A Horse, Levene reprised the role of Patsy on Broadway in Let It Ride (1961), a Broadway musical which had an abbreviated run of 69 performances at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Let It Ride (1961) boasted a score by the songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, best known for creating three Oscar-winning songs, Buttons and Bows, Mona Lisa and Que Sera, Sera and two other movie songs that were smash hits, Silver Bells and Tammy; on television, the team wrote the Bonanza and Mister Ed theme songs.[43] Levene performed the Let It Ride title song on the Let It Ride float in the 1961 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Levene performed the role of Patsy one last time in the 1969 all-star Broadway revival of Three Men On A Horse directed by George Abbott, the original Broadway director and co-author which was preceded by a national tour Levene directed, starring Levene as Patsy and Bert Parks as Erwin. In a 1969 review of the all star Broadway revival of Three Men on a Horse, New York Times theatre critic Clive Barnes wrote[44] "Sam Levene originated the role of Patsy in 1935--by now it’s his. Still looking like a man whose eyes have been allocated the wrong size eyelids, still mugging, double taking, offering his celebrated impersonation of an actor impersonating a character that would based himself on Damon Runyon, Mr. Levene is great. No one in the world plays Mr. Levene as he does, And what’s more, no one ever will".

After making his Broadway debut 43 years earlier, Levene made his Off-Broadway debut, starring in Irv Bauer's A Dream Out of Time at the Promenade Theatre, Levene's only Off-Broadway appearance.[45] In 1976, Levene was cast as Tubal, Shylock's business partner, in the Broadway production of The Merchant based on an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice but withdrew from the Philadelphia tryout after Zero Mostel, the play's star and Levene's lifelong dear friend[46] died after first collapsing in his dressing room; Levene observed[47] "I was too close to Zero and a play we both loved, to do it without him." When John Dexter, the director, asked Levene if he would continue in the show, Levene told Dexter "we just had one death, we don't need two". Understudy Joseph Leon replaced Zero Mostel for the Broadway production of The Merchant which closed November 19, 1977 after five performances. Levene's final Broadway credit was performing the starring role of Samuel Horowitz in the Broadway comedy Horowitz and Mrs. Washington (1980) co-starring Esther Rolle, directed by Joshua Logan. In 1980, Levene starred in a summer stock and national tour of Horowitz and Mrs. Washington co-starring Claudia McNeil.

Film career

Nine years after making his Broadway debut, Levene was lured and moved to Hollywood in 1936 when he made his motion picture debut as Patsy in the Warner Bros. film Three Men on a Horse (1936) directed and produced by Mervyn LeRoy. Levene earned $1,000[48] a week to recreate on film his comedic Broadway role as Patsy he had played for seventy weeks in the original Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935).

Sam Levene as Police Lt. Abrams, William Powell as Nick, Myrna Loy as Nora, lobby card for MGM's After the Thin Man (1936)
Sam Levene as Police Lt. Abrams, William Powell as Nick, Myrna Loy as Nora, lobby card for MGM's After the Thin Man (1936)
Sam Levene as Police Lt. Abrams, (far right), William Powell as Nick, (center) lobby card for MGM's Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
Sam Levene as Police Lt. Abrams, (far right), William Powell as Nick, (center) lobby card for MGM's Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)

Levene had 50 film credits. Levene worked with every major Hollywood studio over his five-decade Hollywood career; 14 of Levene's films were at MGM, which include two appearances as Police Lieutenant Abrams in the Thin Man series: After the Thin Man (1936) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), plus Yellow Jack (1938), The Shopworn Angel (1938), Married Bachelor (1941), Sunday Punch (1942), Grand Central Murder (1942), Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), I Dood It (1943), Shoe Shine Boy (1943 short), Dial 1119 1950, The Opposite Sex (1956), Designing Woman (1957) and The Champ (1979). Levene appeared in five RKO films, including The Mad Miss Manton (1938); Sing Your Worries Away (1942); The Big Street (1942) and A Likely Story (1947) and Crossfire, the first B picture to receive a best picture nomination. Levene appeared in six Universal Pictures films: Destination Unknown (1942), Gung Ho! (1943), The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), Kathy O'.

Levene worked with Barbara Stanwyck in two films, in 1938, Sam Levene co-starred as Lieutenant Brent who "steals a few scenes with his great delivery of lines",[49] in The Mad Miss Manton (1938), a screwball comedy that starred Henry Fonda; 31 year old Stanwyck earned $60,000 for the film; 33 year old Fonda earned $25,000 and 35 year old Sam Levene earned $1,500 a week.[50] The following year Levene appeared as Siggie in film version of Golden Boy, replacing John Garfield who performed the role in the original Broadway production of the Clifford Odets play about the brutality of prizefighting; critics praised the performances of William Holden's at times perfect interpretation of fighter Joe Bonaparte, but it was 27-year-old Lee J. Cobb as the senior Bonaparte and Sam Levene as Holden's taxi driver brother-in-law who walked away with the picture and the reviews.[50] Other Hollywood actors Levene worked with include Anthony Quinn: A Dream of Kings (1969); four films with Burt Lancaster: The Killers (1946), Brute Force, (1947), Three Sailors and a Girl (1953), Sweet Smell of Success (1957); Humphrey Bogart: Action in the North Atlantic (1943); two films with Henry Fonda: The Big Street (1942), The Mad Miss Manton (1938); Robert Ryan: Crossfire; Vincente Minnelli: Sing Your Worries Away (1942); two films with Myrna Loy & William Powell as Police Lt. Abrams: ‘’After the Thin Man’’ (1936), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941); Gregory Peck: Designing Woman (1957); two films with Red Skelton: Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), I Dood It (1943); Al Pacino: ...And Justice for All (1979); his final film role.

Film noir

Levene established himself as one of the great film noir stalwarts. Levene is one of several film noir veterans who are graduates of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, including Lauren Bacall, Hume Cronyn, Kirk Douglas, Nina Foch, Agnes Moorehead, Thelma Ritter and Edward G. Robinson. Levene's best known film noir credits include his performance as Samuels, the murdered GI, in Crossfire (1947) and as Lieutenant Lubinsky in The Killers (1946).[51] The Killers features the movie debut of Burt Lancaster, who just a year prior was professionally credited as Burton Lancaster when Levene helped the former circus acrobat land a part in the original Broadway production of A Sound of Hunting starring Sam Levene. In The Killers, Sam Levene plays Police Lt. Sam Lubinsky, a childhood friend of the Swede, a role played by Lancaster; Levene's co-starring role was fortuitous as he was credited in making Lancaster feel at ease in his motion picture debut. It was lucky he was on the set with Burt Lancaster maintained actor Jeff Corey because Burt didn't feel too comfortable in his first film. Sam would frequently get on his ass. C'mon, c'mon. Do the goddamn thing. You pick up the piece of jewelry. Can't you do that and say the line? Lancaster was never offended. He appreciated, because he loved Sam; everyone did.[52] When several Hollywood studios initially wanted to sign Lancaster, Levene, who was Lancaster's co-star in the 1946 Broadway melodrama A Sound of Hunting, agreed to represent him; eventually the two actors became lifelong friends. Together Lancaster and Levene fielded offers from David O. Selznick, 20th Century-Fox and Hal B. Wallis, who had a deal at Paramount Pictures, ultimately introducing Lancaster to Harold Hecht, who became Lancaster's long-time agent and Hollywood film production partner. Burt Lancaster and Sam Levene also worked together in two other film noirs, the 1947 Brute Force, directed by Jules Dassin, Lancaster's second film, which appears on several film noir lists[53][54] and the acclaimed film noir Sweet Smell of Success[55][56] included on AFI's Catalogue of Feature Films.

Other Sam Levene noir credits include: Dave Woods, as a newspaper reporter, who gives a performance not to be missed who steals the show as a dirt digging journalist who is ultimately fighting for righteousness,[57] writing hard-hitting articles attacking the police[58] in Elia Kazan's crime film noir Boomerang,[59][60] Dr. John Faron, a psychiatrist in Dial 1119,[61] Capt. Tonetti in the 1950 Guilty Bystander[62][63] and Howard Rysdale in the 1957 Slaughter on Tenth Avenue[64] (1957). Alan K. Rode observed[65] "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue was bolstered by a terrific ensemble cast headed by Richard Egan, Jan Sterling, Julie Adams, Walter Matthau, Dan Duryea, Charles McGraw and Sam Levene, who performs yeoman work as a realpolitik Manhattan district attorney, forced to temper the hard-charging idealism of assistant Egan who inevitably triumphs in the end".


For most of his early film and Broadway stage career, Sam Levene straddled an active schedule with starring roles in a range of productions on all radio networks, including comedic performances and skits along with dramatic and comedy roles in abridged versions of important theatrical stage productions and adaptations on leading series, often reprising roles he had previously played on the Broadway stage and on film. Levene co-starred with Orson Welles in two important adaptations of stage productions for Welles' The Campbell Playhouse, first as Lefty[66] in Burlesque, February 17, 1939 and five weeks later, March 24, 1939, as Owen O'Malley, the John Barrymore part, in Twentieth Century.[67] Levene starred in nine Theatre Guild on the Air productions; two radio versions of Three Men on a Horsethe first adapted by Arthur Miller[68] aired January 6, 1946; the second June 1, 1947 with David Wayne joining the cast as Erwin. A third Three Men on a Horse production sponsored by Lady Esther for the Screen Guild Players aired February 28, 1944[69] with Levene as Patsy and Charlie Ruggles as Erwin. Other Theatre Guild on the Air radio appearances include performing the role of "Banjo" with Fred Allen as Sheridan Whiteside in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner. Levene recreated his original Broadway performance as Sidney Black, the loud-mouth producer, in Moss Hart's Light Up the Sky opposite Joan Bennett and Thelma Ritter for the Theatre Guild on the Air, April 16, 1951, a role he performed in a live performance on Ford Theatre on CBS TV.[70]

Levene reprised his film role as Dave Woods, the reporter in Elia Kazan's Boomerang for Theatre Guild on the Air; and appeared as Moody, the fight manager, in Golden Boy by Clifford Odets opposite long-time friend and co-star June Havoc and Dana Andrews whom Levene had just worked with filming Boomerang. For Suspense Radio on CBS, Levene reprised his film role as Samuels, the murdered Jewish soldier, in Crossfire, April 10, 1948. Levene and Havoc worked with each many times in radio, film, theatre and television. In 1942, Havoc and Levene co-starred in the RKO film Sing Your Worries Away. In 1957, Havoc and Levene guest-starred on The Mother Bit in Season 9 of TV's Studio One series; in 1959 Levene and Havoc were guest stars in The Larry Fay Story for Season 2[71] of The Untouchables; in a dramatic role, Sam Levene was nightclub owner and mob boss Larry Fay, accused of price fixing milk and June Havoc was Sally Kansas, Fay's lover, who also appeared as a lounge singer in one of Fay's nite clubs.

Levene frequently appeared on Fred Allen's Texaco Star Theatre in a sketch comedy segment known as Allen's Alley. Sam Levene along with 12 major Hollywood and Broadway stars, including Helen Hayes, Fredric March and Ralph Bellamy created 13 episodes of Lest We Forget, a series of radio programs that directly addressed prejudice and discrimination. Created by the Institute for Democratic Education and Boston University Radio Institute, Sam Levene starred as a cab driver who becomes in a hero in Hey Cabbie,[72] an episode that unabashedly addresses anti-semitism. Produced by the American Heart Association in 1952, Levene starred in Too Careful,[73] one of eight radio plays presenting information and knowledge of the heart. Levene along with Edward G. Robinson and Frank Sinatra made a series of appearances in We Will Never Die, a memorial pageant dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust; performed around the country at major venues, including Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl, the elaborate production, also broadcast on radio, was co-authored by Ben Hecht and Kurt Weill and directed by Moss Hart. On a lighter note, Levene made a New Year's Eve appearance on The Big Show[74] with his Guys and Dolls co-star Vivian Blaine on December 31, 1950; Levene performed a skit with Tallulah Bankhead who had declined an invitation to appear on Ken Murray's show so that she could obtain theatre tickets to Guys and Dolls.

Jewish heritage

Crossfire (1947) Theatrical poster starring Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Paul Kelly, Sam Levene
Crossfire (1947) Theatrical poster starring Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, Paul Kelly, Sam Levene

Sam Levene was one of the few actors who had a Jewish name in the 1930s and 1940s; notably in The Purple Heart (1944) Levene played the role of Lt. Wayne Greenbaum, a level-headed, brave, New York-bred Jewish lawyer who is defender and spokesman for a group of eight aviators brought to trial when they are downed in Japanese-held territory; in Crossfire (1947), Levene was cast as Samuels, a Jewish civilian who was murdered at the start of the film; in a 1947 personal appearance, Levene said "Crossfire is a powerful denunciation of anti-Semitism and naturally I played the Jew and naturally I was killed." Cy Feuer, co-producer of the original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls (1950) said[75] in a New York Times interview "Sam Levene was the ultimate Jew," referring to the original Nathan Detroit. "It was perfect casting. He created the character by living." Unanimous raves greeted[76] Sam Levene for his portrayal of the skeptical but good-hearted Jewish doctor, Dr. Aldo Mayer, in the 1961 Broadway production of "The Devil's Advocate". In a review of "The Devil's Advocate" for the New York Herald Tribune, theatre critic Walter Kerr wrote "Mr. Levene is genial true. As a Jewish doctor who must forever feel himself an outsider in the Catholic Italian hills...Sam Levene is superb in a role of many colors and nothing is more helpful than the tension of his unyielding integrity. There is bite as well as bravura elsewhere." In a 1967 interview with theatre critic William Glover of the Associated Press, Sam Levene said "the Jews I’ve played sometimes may have been similar but they were never schmaltzy; regarding the roles I’ve done, I’ve tried very carefully to define humor even if there was none.”

Levene lost the role of Nathan Detroit to Frank Sinatra in the film version. "You can't have a Jew playing a Jew, it wouldn't work on screen", producer Samuel Goldwyn argued, explaining[77] he wanted Sinatra rather than Levene – who had originated the role – to play the part of Nathan Detroit in the film version even though film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz wanted Levene, the original Broadway star. Mankiewicz said[78] "if there could be one person in the world more miscast as Nathan Detroit than Frank Sinatra that would be Laurence Olivier and I am one of his greatest fans; the role had been written for Sam Levene who was divine in it".

Fordham University Professor of Music Larry Stempel, author of Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, said[79] if given a choice, he would cast Levene, who created the role on Broadway, as the ideal Nathan Detroit instead of Nathan Lane, who played the part in the Broadway revival, or Frank Sinatra, who played the part on film, stating "Musically, he may have been tone-deaf, but he inhabited Frank Loesser’s world as a character more than a caricature".


Over five decades Al Hirschfeld, considered the greatest caricaturist of the 20th century, created nine caricatures[80] capturing seven original Broadway performances created by Levene, the first in 1935, the last 1975. A Hirschfeld caricature of Levene captures his performance as Nathan Detroit[81] wearing his pinstripe suit designed by Alvin Colt in the original 1950 Broadway production of Guys and Dolls published in The New York Times 11/19/50. In 2000, the Guys and Dolls caricature included in The Museum of The City of New York exhibition "Guys and Dolls: The Fabled Musical of Broadway".[82] In 2015, the caricature was exhibited in "The Hirschfeld Century" at The New York Historical Society. The first time Hirschfeld captured Levene was his Broadway performance as Patsy along with Shirley Booth as Mabel in the 1935 original Broadway production[83] of Three Men on a Horse; a second caricature of Levene and Booth featuring the Broadway casts from Tobacco Road and The Children's Hour published in the Herald Tribune 6/7/36 celebrates Broadway long-runs.[84] Hirschfeld created two caricatures of Levene's critically acclaimed performance as Max Gordon, the shoestring producer, in the original 1937 Broadway production of Room Service, published in the Herald Tribune and Brooklyn Eagle. Hirschfeld captured Levene's poignant performance as Al Lewis giving Willie Clark "the finger"[85] in the original Broadway production of The Sunshine Boys published in The New York Times on December 13, 1972. Hirschfeld also captured Levene's original Broadway performances in Margin For Error and Light Up The Sky. Other notable caricaturists who memorialized Levene's stage performances include Sam Norkin, Al Frueh and William Auerbach-Levy. Al Frueh, who created caricatures of Broadway shows, mostly for The New Yorker for three decades until 1962, captured six[86] of Levene's original Broadway performances, including Busch from the original Broadway production of Yellow Jack (1934), Patsy from the original Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935), Sidney Black from the original Broadway production of Light Up The Sky, Nathan Detroit from the 1950 original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls; Boss Mangan in the 1959 all-star Broadway revival of Heartbreak House directed and co-starring Maurice Evans and Officer Finkelstein, the Jewish policeman, in the 1939 original Broadway production of Margin for Error. Over a period of four decades William Auerbach-Levy (1889-1964) created 15 caricatures celebrating ten Sam Levene original Broadway starring performances[87] including: Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls (1950), five caricatures; Patsy in Three Men on a Horse (1935), Officer Finkelstein in Margin for Error[88] (1939), Pvt. Dino Collucci in A Sound of Hunting (1945), Sidney Black in Light Up The Sky (1948), Lou Winkler in Fair Game (1957), Sid Gray in Make A Million (1958), Odilon in The Good Soup (1960), Patsy in Let It Ride (1961), Dr. Aldo Meyer in The Devil's Advocate (1961), Morris Seidman in Seidman and Son (1962).

Personal life

Levene married Constance Kane in 1953. The couple had one son together, Joseph K. Levene, before their divorce. On December 28, 1980, Levene died of an apparent heart attack in New York City.[89]


Nominated for the 1961 Tony Award for Best Actor in a play[90] for The Devil's Advocate, Levene never received a Tony Award; by the time the Tony Award's were established in 1947, Levene had already created roles in 19 original Broadway shows, none Tony eligible, including performances in the original Broadway productions of Dinner at Eight (1932), Three Men on a Horse (1935), Room Service (1937) and Margin for Error (1939). In 1960, Levene was awarded the Actors Fund Medal of Honor, at the time, the second actor awarded the honor.[91]

On April 9, 1984, Levene was posthumously[92] inducted in the American Theatre Hall of Fame;[93] his son, Joseph K. Levene, accepted the American Theatre Hall of Fame award from Dorothy Loudon who co-starred as Mabel with Levene in 1969 all-star revival of Three Men on a Horse.

In 1998, Sam Levene, Robert Alda, Vivian Blaine, Isabel Bigley and Pat Rooney, Sr. were posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for the 1950 Decca original cast album of Guys and Dolls.[94]

In a 1996 New York Magazine letter to the editor, Sam Levene's son Joseph K. Levene, thanked film critic David Denby stating[95] “my father, the late great Sam Levene, has received many kudos illuminating his career as an actor, none recalled the passion for the theater more clearly than David Denby's comment in his review of Everyone Says I Love You: Sam Levene playing Nathan Detroit in the original Guys and Dolls couldn't sing a note but his gruff toneless outbursts could break your heart. Levene was not cautious and that made all the difference. Joseph K. Levene said: "There were no Tony's in his career but thanks for the Denby".

Complete filmography

Television appearances

Date Program Network Title Character
2 April 1949 John Chapman Video Show WPIX-TV John Chapman interviews Sam Levene, Moss Hart[96] Himself
14 June 1949 The Ford Theatre Hour CBS Light Up the Sky Sidney Black
19 December 1950 The Milton Berle Show TV Texaco Star Theatre, season 3 episode 14[97] Himself
27 January 1952 The U.S. Royal Showcase TV Vivian Blaine and Sam Levene
Season 1 Episode 3
24 July 1952 All Around the Town: Mike and Buff (Cobb) Wallace CBS Backstage at Guys and Dolls Himself
9 November 1952 Frontiers of Faith produced in cooperation with The Jewish Theological Seminary of America[98] NBC The World of Sholom Aleichem by Maurice Samuel adapted by Morton Wishengrad Sam Levene as Tevye, Aline MacMahon as Goldie, Joseph Wiseman as Reb Yosifel & Prefect
1 June 1953 The Passing Show; All Our Yesteryears BBC A Story of Five Coronation Years by Michael Mills & Angus MacPhail[99] Sam Levene as Nathan Detroit & Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide performing in Guys and Dolls
27 March 1954 Medallion Theatre (Chrysler Medallion Theater) CBS The Alibi Kid[100] Sam Levene and Ben Gazzara
26 May 1954 Douglas Fairbanks Presents Rheingold Theatre TV Johnny Blue[101]
Season 2 Episode 26
22 June 1954 The United States Steel Hour ABC Fearful Decision
Season 1 Episode 18
Reporter McArdle
25 August 1954 Excerpt[102] from The Matchmaker BBC The Matchmaker Horace Vandergelder
11 December 1955 The Colgate Comedy Hour TV Salute to George Abbott
Season 6 Episode 10
8 April 1957 Studio One (American TV series) CBS The Playwright and the Stars
Season 9 Episode 26
Ben Weber
10 June 1957 Studio One (American TV series) CBS The Mother Bit[103]
Season 9 Episode 35
Ben Selig
11 September 1957 Kraft Television Theatre NBC The Old Ticket
Season 10 Episode 51
Lou Winkler
26 December 1957 Tonight starring Jack Paar NBC
Season 1, Episode 108
9 March 1958 Omnibus (American TV program) NBC Mrs. McThing[104]
Season 6 Episode 25
25 November 1958 Tonight starring Jack Paar NBC
Season 2, Episode 61
14 December 1959 Play of the Week PBS The World of Sholom Aleichem
Season 1 Episode 10
21 August 1960 The Ed Sullivan Show CBS
Season 13 Episode 47
Dramatic Reading "The Yom Kippur Scandal"[105]
16 November 1960 The Aquanauts CBS Night Dive
Season 1 Episode 9
Lieutenant Maharis
17 November 1960 The Witness (TV series) CBS Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter
Season 1 Episode 7
Louis Buchalter
22 November 1960 The Wonderful World of Little Julius[106] CBS Pilot Agent
15 December 1960 The Untouchables (1959 TV series) ABC The Larry Fay Story
Season 2 Episode 9
Larry Fay
22 January 1961 The Ed Sullivan Show CBS Season 14 Episode 15 Dramatic Reading "How Tevya Became a Dairyman", a Sholom Aleichem story.[107]
18 June 1961 The Ed Sullivan Show CBS Season 14 Episode 36 13th Anniversary Celebration Himself
26 November 1961 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade NBC Let It Ride Float Patsy
14 January 1962 Directions TV Sam Levene interviews Dore Schary Himself
27 February 1962 The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson NBC Season 1, Episode 106 Himself
25 October 1962 The Joe Franklin Show WWOR-TV Interview Himself
5 November 1962-
November 9, 1962
Password (American game show) TV Joan Fontaine vs Sam Levene
5 episodes
22 December 1962 Jerry Lester WWOR-TV Interview Himself
14 April 1963 Jerry Lester WWOR-TV Interview Himself
28 April 1963 17th Tony Awards WWOR-TV Presenter Himself
5 January 1965 The Les Crane Show ABC Season 1 Episode 41 Himself
11 January 1965 The Les Crane Show ABC Season 1 Episode 45 Himself
18 January 1965 The Les Crane Show ABC Season 1 Episode 50 Himself
8 February 1965 The Les Crane Show ABC Season 1 Episode 65 Himself
1 November 1965 The Merv Griffin Show NBC Season 3, Episode 41 Himself
1 November 1965 Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre NBC A Small Rebellion Season 3 Episode 13 Noel Greb
30 October 1969 What's My Line? CBS Season 20 Episode 30 Himself
15 February 1970 The Ed Sullivan Show CBS Season 23 Episode 21 Dramatic Reading
26 December 1973 The Dick Cavett Show ABC Season 2 Episode 47 Himself
28 December 1973 What's My Line? CBS Season 5 Episode 180 Himself
9 November 1977 Great Performances PBS The Royal Family Oscar Wolfe

Radio appearances

Date Program Network Title Character
3 May 1934 The Rudy Vallee Variety Show (radio series) WEAF Excerpt[108] from Yellow Jack Busch
17 February 1939 Orson Welles The Campbell Playhouse (radio series) CBS Radio Burlesque
adapted from play by Arthur Hopkins & George Manker Watters
24 March 1939 Orson Welles The Campbell Playhouse (radio series) CBS Radio Twentieth Century
adapted by Charles Bruce Millholland
Owen O’Malley
25 February 1940 The Pursuit Of Happiness (radio series) Columbia Broadcasting Miriam Hopkins, Betty Hutton, Sam Levene guest star Himself
25 May 1940 Lincoln Highway NBC Radio Three Thousand Miles to Glory[109] Himself
9 April 1941 Texaco Star Theatre with Fred Allen CBS Radio Shortcut to a Nervous Breakdown Himself
21 July 1943 We Will Never Die NBC Radio Hollywood Bowl, Broadcast live Himself
21 November 1943 CBS Radio Algie and Gus
24 December 1943 Christmas Roundup CBS Radio Romance in the Roaring Forties
Sam Levene narrates Damon Runyon story
28 February 1944 The Screen Guild Theatre CBS Radio Three Men on a Horse Patsy
6 January 1946 Theatre Guild on the Air ABC Radio Three Men on a Horse Patsy
13 January 1946 Eternal Light NBC Radio "The Parable of Reb Yisroel" Himself
17 November 1946 Theatre Guild on the Air ABC Radio The Man Who Came to Dinner Banjo
24 November 1946 Theatre Guild on the Air ABC Radio Burlesque
adapted by Arthur Hopkins & George Manker Watters
6 December 1946 Lest We Forget These Great Americans Radio Hey Cabbie, Institute for Democratic Education syndication[110] Cabby
8 December 1946 Theatre Guild on the Air ABC Radio Golden Boy Moody
1 January 1947 Theatre Guild on the Air ABC Radio Three Men on a Horse Patsy
10 August 1947 Reunion Mutual Broadcasting System Tribute American Academy of Dramatic Arts Director Charles Jehlinger[111] Himself
10 April 1958 Suspense Radio CBS Radio Crossfire Samuels
27 March 1949 Theatre Guild on the Air ABC Radio June Moon[112] Maxie
25 September 1949 Theatre Guild on the Air ABC Radio The Gentle People[113] Jonah Goodman
17 December 1950 Theatre Guild on the Air ABC Radio Boomerang Dave Woods
31 December 1950 The Big Show (NBC Radio) NBC Radio Variety Show hosted by Tallulah Bankhead Himself
15 April 1951 Theatre Guild on the Air ABC Radio Light Up the Sky Sidney Black
1952 The Human Heart Radio Series Radio Too Careful starring Sam Levene[114] Himself
20 December 1957 The Barry Gray Show Radio Interview Himself
26 August 1960 Studs Terkel WFMT Radio Studs Terkel interviews Sam Levene & Monica May[115] Himself
1973 George Jessel WEVD-AM History of Show Business[116] Himself


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External links

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