Sam Levene (born Scholem Lewin, August 28, 1905 – December 28, 1980) was an American Broadway and film actor who in a career spanning more than five decades created some of the most legendary comedic roles in American theatrical history, including Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls (1950), Max Kane in Dinner at Eight (1932), Patsy in Three Men on a Horse (1935), Gordon Miller in Room Service (1937), Sidney Black in Light Up the Sky (1948), Horace Vandergelder in The Matchmaker (1954), and Al Lewis in The Sunshine Boys (1972). Sam Levene made his Broadway stage debut in 1927 with a five-line part in Wall Street, which lasted three weeks at the Hudson Theatre, and nine years later was lured to Hollywood where he made his motion picture debut as Patsy in the Warner Bros. film Three Men on a Horse (1936), for which he was paid $1,000 a week, recreating his original Broadway performance from Three Men on a Horse (1935), a role he reprised twice on radio, the USO Tour, television, the Broadway musical Let It Ride (1961), several touring productions and an all-star 1969 Broadway revival directed by co-author George Abbott. Levene also established himself as one of the great noir stalwarts with a long list of film noir credits, a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas.
Levene in The Killers (1946)
August 28, 1905
|Died||December 28, 1980 (aged 75)|
|Resting place||Mount Carmel Cemetery, Glendale, Queens|
|Spouse(s)||Constance Kane (1953-?) (divorced) (1 child)|
|Children||Joseph K. Levene|
Born in Russia, Levene 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, attended Public School 64 and graduated Stuyvesant High School in 1923. Aspiring to become a physician, Levene's medical career was sidelined "when he caught the virus of the theatre."
In 1923 Levene was working as a cutter for his older brother Joe, the proprietor of a Madison Avenue dressmaking company, aspiring to become a salesman. Joe agreed to consider Sam for the job if Sam "got more poise" so Sam decided to take night lessons at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, taking diction classes to remove traces of his Yiddish accent. Charles Jehlinger, Director of the American Academy encouraged him to become an actor and provided Levene with a scholarship so he could attend as a day student.
The son of a cantor, Harry Levine, and Beth Weiner, Sam Levene was stubbornly proud of his Jewish heritage and refused all requests by directors and producers who tried to persuade the actor to anglicize his last name, something that occurred frequently early in Levene's career. To join Actor's Equity in 1927, Levene was forced to change the spelling of his last name from "Levine" because another actor at the time was using the name "Sam Levine" so Sam decided to spell "Levene" phonetically. The legendary stage and film actor recognized the name "Sam Levene puts a kind of stamp on the kind of roles that producers think the actor can play".
Levene made his Broadway debut in 1927 with a five-line part in Wall Street at the Hudson Theatre and subsequently appeared in a successive series of flops, including one partially financed with a $500 investment from his brother Joe. In 1932, Levene landed the role of Max Kane in the original Broadway production of Dinner at Eight, and seven years after making his Broadway debut was recognized as a Broadway star when Levene created the role of Patsy in the original Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935).
Effortlessly segueing in a variety of roles, including policemen, gamblers, gangsters, agents and even a psychiatrist, Levene was equally adept in segueing from comedy to farce and drama. 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. For 54 years Levene was a consistent presence on Broadway and for the majority of the time, Levene was a Broadway star, even starring in Horowitz and Mrs. Washington in 1980, the year he passed away, with Esther Rolle.
Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor observe "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.
Levene appeared in over 50 theatrical productions in the United States and abroad, including 37 Broadway productions, 33 of which were the original Broadway productions, and a ten-month USO tour. Levene also appeared in two major UK productions; in 1953, the first UK production of Guys and Dolls which he performed for 553 performances. In 1954, 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, and subsequently performed the role 274 times at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London's West End, directed by the play's legendary author, Thornton Wilder.
Levene's Broadway performances include creating legendary starring roles in the original Broadway productions of Dinner at Eight (1932), Room Service (1937), Three Men on a Horse (1935), Margin For Error (1939), Light Up the Sky (1948), Guys and Dolls (1950), Fair Game (1957), 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, and Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (1972).
Levene starred in several Broadway revivals, portraying Boss Mangan in George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House (1959) directed by Harold Clurman, recreating his original Broadway performance as Patsy in the Broadway revival of Three Men On A Horse (1969) and Oscar Wolfe in the all-star revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family (1975) directed by Ellis Raab; the production was filmed for the PBS series Great Performances on November 9, 1977,; this version was released on DVD. Levene replaced comedian Alan King in the starring role of Dr. Jack Kingsley in The Impossible Years (1965), which Levene performed and directed for over a year in the 1967 U.S. national tour. Levene starred in numerous touring stage productions including Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; Sidney Black in Light Up The Sky; Patsy in Three Men on a Horse which Levene directed; Michael Freeman in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?; Jerry Kingsley in Middle Of The Night; Walter Hollander in Don't Drink the Water, a touring production he directed and co-starred with several leading lady co-stars including, Vivian Blaine, Selma Diamond, Marjorie Lord.
Levene recreated the role of Patsy in the 1936 film of the same name; a ten-month 1944 USO tour of Three Men on a Horse which played 200 shows to 120,000 servicemen, the first legitimate theatrical production mounted overseas. Due to security, the cast was reduced from 12 to 7 without losing a minute of running dialogue. According to a May 26, 1945 Billboard interview, Levene said, "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." 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 Arthur Miller aired January 6, 1946; the second aired June 1, 1947 with David Wayne joining the cast as Erwin. Several decades later, Levene recreated the role of Patsy on Broadway in a musical version titled Let It Ride (1961) before playing the role one final time in a 1969 all-star Broadway revival of the play directed by George Abbott, the original Broadway director and co-author.
Guys and Dolls book writer Abe Burrows specifically crafted the role of Nathan Detroit around Levene, who signed for the project long before Burrows 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 recalls "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." For seven decades Levene was synonymous with Nathan Detroit. Guys and Dolls, the landmark musical, is still popular as thousands of productions are mounted annually and Levene's legendary performance as Nathan Detroit always made headlines.
Not known as a singer, Levene originated the "craps-shooter extraordinaire" Nathan Detroit in the seminal American musical Guys and Dolls on the Great White Way in the original 1950 production, which ran for 1,200 performances and reprised his legendary role on the Decca original cast recording of the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. 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 duet show-stopping 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 "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."
Directed by the inimitable George S. Kaufman, Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) on November 24, 1950. Running alongside such Broadway hits as South Pacific, Top Banana, The King and I and Call Me Madam, the original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls received ecstatic critical acclaim and was one of Broadway's hottest tickets, generating a $12 million box office gross during its original Broadway run.
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: "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."
In 1953 Levene reprised the role of Nathan Detroit in the first UK production of Guys and Dolls at London's Coliseum, performing the legendary character for 555 performances, including a Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth. Sam Levene performed the role of Nathan Detroit twice daily in a reduced version of Guys and Dolls when the first Las Vegas production opened for a six month run at the Royal Nevada, September 7, 1955, the first time a Broadway musical was performed on the strip. In 1965, Sam Levene and Vivian Blaine, recreated their original Broadway roles in the 15th anniversary revival of Guys and Dolls at New York's Mineola Theatre.
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 he wanted Frank Sinatra rather than Levene — who had originated the role — to play the part of Nathan Detroit in thefilm version even though film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz wanted Levene, the original Broadway star. Joseph L. Mankiewicz said "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 Professor of Music Larry Stempel, author of Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, said 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. Listen to Sam Levene sing 'All right, already, I’m just a no-goodnick . . .' on the original Guys & Dolls cast recording of 'Sue Me'". In 1998, the 1950 Guys and Dolls Decca original cast album along with the original Broadway cast, including Robert Alda, Vivian Blaine, Levene, Isabel Bigley and Pat Rooney, Sr. were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Although Levene has two songs on the original Guys and Dolls cast album, his two tracks as Nathan Detroit are heard on over 30 albums and compilations.
In 1936 Levene moved to Hollywood and made his film debut, recreating his original Broadway role as Patsy he had played for seventy weeks in the original Broadway production of Three Men on a Horse (1935) in the film Three Men on a Horse (1936) directed and produced by Mervyn LeRoy. Levene appeared in 50 films during his five-decade Hollywood career, establishing himself as one the great film noir stalwarts. Levene's film noir credits include: William Holden's taxi-driving brother-in-law "Siggie" in Golden Boy (1939), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), a Doolittle Flyer and Japanese POW in The Purple Heart (1944), a Lieutenant in The Killers (1946), Brute Force, (1947), Crossfire (1947), Boomerang (1947), Killer McCoy (1947), Dial 1119 (1950), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957). His final film role was in the courtroom drama ...And Justice for All (1979).
Levene was the only member of the original Broadway production of the play Yellow Jack to appear in the 1938 film of the same name. Sam Levene was cast as a police lieutenant in After the Thin Man(1936), The Mad Miss Manton (1938), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and The Killers (1946), which included the film 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.
When several Hollywood studios initially wanted to sign Burt Lancaster, Levene, Lancaster's co-star in the 1946 Broadway play 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, his long-time agent and Hollywood film production partner. In addition to the Broadway production of A Sound of Hunting, Levene appeared in four films with Burt Lancaster, including: The Killers (1946), Brute Force, (1947), Three Sailors and a Girl (1953) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Burt Lancaster remembered Levene by speaking at the West Coast memorial organized by the actor's son.
In a 1967 interview with journalist Norton Mockridge for the The World-Telegram, Levene recalled when he was up for a role in The Story Of Dr. Wassell (1944), a film produced and directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille; the actor auditioned for the role of Murdock, an Irishman. Levene recalled "ten or eleven or other actors auditioned too" and afterwards, DeMille called Levene and said "Of all the actors who auditioned, you're the best". Levene replied, "I thanked him and said 'Did I get the part?'"
"No" said DeMille, who told Levene "I'm sorry but it would disturb me to have an actor named Sam Levene play the role of an Irishman". Levene asked DeMille: "Did you find anything Jewish in my audition?" to which DeMille replied "No, that's what disturbs me. You were a better Irishman than the Irishman. But I can't give you the part". Shortly thereafter Levene got another call from DeMille, who told the actor: "I just want you to know that I've let the actor go that I first picked for the role of the Irishman, Murdock, and if your name weren't Sam Levene, I'd have given you the role. Instead I am going to give it to Paul Kelly". Levene said, "you called to tell me that?" "Yes" said DeMille "I thought you'd like to know!," Levene reminisced saying "I lost the role twice!"
Levene never received a Tony Award; by the time the Tony Award's were established in 1947, Levene had already created roles in 16 original Broadway shows, including legendary 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). 43 years after making his Broadway debut, 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.
In 1976, Levene was cast 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 friend died after first collapsing in his dressing room. 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 Mostel for the Broadway production of The Merchant which closed November 19, 1977 after a run of five performances
In 1960 Levene was awarded the prestigious Actors Fund Medal of Honor, at the time, the second actor awarded the honor; Levene's son Joseph K. Levene donated the medallion to the Sam Levene archives at MCNY, The Museum of the City of New York. In 1984, Levene was posthumously inducted in the Theatre Hall of Fame; his son, Joseph K. Levene, accepted the Theatre Hall of Fame award stating "if my dad were here today; he would want to know one thing: why did it take you guys such a long time to give me this award?"
- The Talk of Hollywood (1929) - Film Buyer (uncredited)
- Three Men on a Horse (1936) - Patsy
- After the Thin Man (1936) - Police Lt. Abrams
- Yellow Jack (1938) - Busch
- The Shopworn Angel (1938) - 'Leer'
- The Mad Miss Manton (1938) - Lieutenant Brent
- Golden Boy (1939) - Siggie
- Married Bachelor (1941) - Cookie Farrar
- Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) - Police Lt. Abrams
- Sing Your Worries Away (1942) - Smiley Clark
- Sunday Punch (1942) - Roscoe
- Grand Central Murder (1942) - Inspector Gunther
- The Big Street (1942) - Horsethief
- Destination Unknown (1942) - Victor
- Action in the North Atlantic (1943)
- I Dood It (1943) - Ed Jackson
- Gung Ho! (1943) - Transport (Leo Andreof)
- Shoe Shine Boy (1943 short) - Lucky
- Whistling in Brooklyn (1943) - Creeper
- The Purple Heart (1944) - Lt. Wayne Greenbaum
- The Killers (1946) - Police Lt. Sam Lubinsky
- Boomerang (1947) - Dave Woods
- A Likely Story (1947) - Louie
- Brute Force (1947) - Louie Miller
- Crossfire (1947) - Samuels
- Killer McCoy (1947) - Happy
- The Babe Ruth Story (1948) - Phil Conrad
- Leather Gloves (1948) - Bernie
- Guilty Bystander (1950) - Capt. Tonetti
- With These Hands (1950) - Alexander Brody
- Dial 1119 (1950) - Dr. John D. Faron
- Three Sailors and a Girl (1953) - Joe Woods
- The Opposite Sex (1956) - Mike Pearl
- Designing Woman (1957) - Ned Hammerstein
- Sweet Smell of Success (1957) - Frank D' Angelo
- Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957) - Howard Rysdale
- A Farewell to Arms (1957) - Swiss Sergeant (uncredited)
- Kathy O' (1958) - Ben Melnick
- The World of Sholom Aleichem (1959 TV movie) - Mendele
- Act One (1963) - Richard Maxwell
- A Small Rebellion (1966 TV movie) - Noel Greb
- A Dream of Kings (1969) - Cicero
- Such Good Friends (1971) - Uncle Eddie
- The Money (1976) - Lou Maurice
- God Told Me To (1976) - Everett Lukas
- The Royal Family (1977 TV movie) - Oscar Wolfe
- The Champ (1979) - Uncle Eddie (uncredited)
- Last Embrace (1979) - Sam Urdell
- Us Two (1979)
- ...And Justice for All (1979) - Arnie
William Thompson, Asst. District Attorney
|April 20, 1927 - May 1927|
Guest at Leedman's Party
|September 24, 1928 - January 1929|
|Tin Pan Alley
|November 1, 1928 - December 1928|
|January 10, 1929 - June 1930|
|December 4, 1929 - December 1929|
|This Man's Town
|March 10, 1930 - March 1930|
|The Up and Up
|September 8, 1930 - November 1930|
|Three Times the Hour
|August 25, 1931 - September 1931|
|October 22, 1931 - November 1931|
|Dinner At Eight
Starring as Max Kane
|October 22, 1932 - May 6, 1933|
|March 6, 1934 - May 1934|
|The Milky Way
|May 8, 1934 - July 1934|
|October 1, 1934 - November 1934|
|Three Men on a Horse
Starring as Patsy
|January 30, 1935 - January 9, 1937|
Starring as Gordon Miller
|May 19, 1937 - July 16, 1938|
|Margin for Error
Starring as Officer Finkelstein
|November 3, 1939 - June 15, 1940|
|A Sound of Hunting
Starring as Pvt. Dino Collucci
|November 20, 1945 - December 08, 1945|
|Light Up the Sky
Starring as Sidney Black
|November 18, 1948 - May 21, 1949|
|Guys and Dolls
Starring as Nathan Detroit
|November 24, 1950 - November 28, 1953|
|The Hot Corner
Starring as Fred Stanley
|January 25-28, 1956|
Starring as Lou Winkler
|November 2, 1957 - May 10, 1958|
|Make a Million
Starring as Sid Gray
|October 23, 1958 - July 18, 1959|
Starring as Boss Mangan
|October 18, 1959 - January 23, 1960|
|The Good Soup
Starring as Odilon
|March 2-19, 1960|
|The Devil's Advocate
Starring as Dr. Aldo Meyer
|March 9, 1961 - Jun 17, 1961|
|Let It Ride
Starring as Patsy
|October 12, 1961 - December 9, 1961|
|Seidman and Son
Starring as Morris Seidman
|October 15, 1962 - April 20, 1963|
Starring as Hymie
|April 17-18, 1964|
|The Last Analysis
Starring as Philip Bummidge
|October 1-24, 1964|
|The Impossible Years
Starring as Dr. Jack Kingsley
|October 13, 1965 - May 27, 1967|
|Nathan Weinstein, Mystic, Connecticut
Starring as Nathan Weinstein
|February 25-26, 1966|
|Three Men on a Horse
Starring as Patsy
|October 16, 1969 - January 10, 1970|
|Paris Is Out!
Starring as Daniel Brand in Broadway play co-produced by Donald Trump
|February 2, 1970 - April 18, 1970|
|The Sunshine Boys
Starring as Al Lewis
|December 20, 1972 - Apr 21, 1974|
|Dreyfus in Rehearsal
Starring as Arnold
|October 17-26, 1974|
|The Royal Family
Starring as Oscar Wolfe
|December 30, 1975 - July 18, 1976|
|Horowitz and Mrs. Washington
Starring as Samuel Horowitz
|April 2-6, 1980|
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (June 2016)
- "Television This Week: Of Special Interest". The New York Times. November 6, 1977. Retrieved 2016-09-23.