I became a Sam Levene fan backwards. You see, the first film in which I saw Sam onscreen (if I may so address him without seeming too bold) was in one of his last movies, Jonathan Demme’s 1979 Hitchcockian thriller Last Embrace For me, Sam Levene stole the show as Sam Urdell, the crotchety but likable head of a secret Jewish society who helps troubled secret agent hero Roy Scheider before he becomes the next victim!. Here’s my one of my favorite lines:
“This was the prime whorehouse of the East Side. A moment of reverence, please: fifty years ago, this was the very place I lost my cherry.”
|Lawman Sam as New York's Finest, Lt. Mike Brent, |
in The Mad Miss Manton (1938)
|Stranger on a train? Nope, it's good-guy Sam Levene in Last Embrace (1979)|
|Sam in slow-burn mode as Lt. Abrams in After the Thin Man (1936)|
Sam made his Broadway debut in 1927 with five lines in the play Wall Street. From there, Sam carved out a long, great career spanning 50 years on Broadway, film, and TV. He came to Hollywood in 1936 to reprise his stage role as a gambler in the comedy Three Men on a Horse, alongside other beloved Team Bartilucci character actors Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, and Joan Blondell.
|One of Sam's most poignant performances: the ill-fated Samuels|
in the searing drama Crossfire (1947)
In 1950, Sam created the role of Nathan Detroit in the original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls. Granted, to paraphrase Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), Sam was working under a slight disadvantage: he had no singing talent! Nevertheless, Sam’s solo number, “Sue Me,” which had been deliberately written in only one octave for Sam’s benefit, turned out to be one of the show's big hits! When he had to sing in an ensemble number, such as “The Oldest Established,” he mimed the words. Of course, when the 1955 film version was cast, movie stars took over: Frank Sinatra as Sky Masterson. Many critics noted that Sinatra wouldn’t use the character's ethnic New York accent when he sang. Moreover, many felt Sam should have been allowed to reprise his “Jewish Wry” approach to the role, openly wishing that Levene were cast as Nathan Detroit instead (me too!)
|Guys and Dolls and Let It Ride were among|
Sam's many Broadway triumphs!
Fun Facts: In 1950, Sam starred in the film With These Hands (1950) about the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union. At the opening of the film, David Dubinsky, the President of the ILGWU, told him "I know you," and Sam said, "Yes, I'm in the film with Arlene Francis." Dubinsky replied, "No, you were a cutter, just like me."
|Smoke 'em if you got 'em! Red Skelton matches wits with Sam |
as henchman Creeper in Whistling in Brooklyn (1943)!
In David Denby’s New York Magazine review of Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (1996), he mentioned Sam Levene playing Nathan Detroit in the original Guys & Dolls. Denby stated: “Levene couldn’t sing a note, but his gruff, toneless outbursts could break your heart.” Levene was not cautious, and that made all the difference.”
Sam died of a heart attack on December 28, 1980. He was 75 years old, but his body of work will always be remembered, having made 49 films total during his Hollywood career. His last film role was in the courtroom drama ...And Justice for All (1979) He’ll never be forgotten. Sam Levene—what a character indeed!