Oscar Levant was a brilliant, eccentric pianist and composer who was equally famed for his acid wit and hypochondria. "There is a thin line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line," he once said.
Levant was considered the foremost interpreter of the music of George Gershwin, who was also a friend. For many years, Levant was the soloist at annual Gershwin concerts. He always played "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Piano Concerto in F."
He appeared in a number of films, including "Rhythm on the River" (1940) with Bing Crosby, and in "Rhapsody in Blue" (1945), based on the life of George Gershwin. He played himself in the film and critics said he stole the show.
He wrote a number of serious compositions and a several popular songs including, "Lady, Play Your Mandolin."
Levant was also one of the most famous people to host a Southern California talk show in an era of free-wheeling live broadcasts. A pill-popping actor, concert pianist, composer and wit, he was given a talk show by courageous KCOP-TV Channel 13 in 1958.
Summing up his mental state, the chain-smoking Levant once said on the air: "I've been in four hospitals in the last six years. I've had insulin shock therapy, electroshock therapy and psychotherapy. One of these days, I'm going to do this show in white tie and straitjacket."
Levant enjoyed throwing barbs at other celebrities, even hosts. " 'The Jerry Lewis Show,' " he said, "has all the suspense of a Hitchcock thriller — the suspense of wondering when the first laugh will come."
Levant's co-host was his actress wife, June. Once, newspaper columnist Roger Grace recalled, Levant asked her to read letters from her fans on the air. As the praise poured out, the insecure Levant stormed off the stage, yelling at her on the way.
He also clashed with his sponsor, Philco, a television manufacturer. When Philco dropped him, Levant exhorted his audience, "None of you buy Philco products until it returns to my show!" according to his co-biographers, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger.
Levant predicted that he would be fired but said he could always find work with either KHJ-TV Channel 9 or KTLA-TV Channel 5 because "they'll take anybody."
He was suspended and, sure enough, KHJ hired him. There, his sponsor, Emerson Radios, asked Levant "if he would demonstrate one of their new, unbreakable bedside radios by dropping it lightly on the desk," his biographers wrote.
Instead, Levant hurled it to the floor, breaking it into pieces.
Mused Levant: "Why should everything be unbreakable anyway?"