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 Nathan Detroit, and Marlon Brando 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!
I would like to have seen Sam as Nathan Detroit -- I bet he was wonderful. Love me some Sam! Perfect choice for this blogathon, and good tribute to a favorite of mine!ReplyDelete
Delighted to hear from you, Big Sis! I'm with you: I wish I could have seen Our Man Sam Levene on Broadway as Nathan Detroit back in the day! Where's a time machine when you need one, huh? :-D Thanks for joining the WHAT A CHARACTER! fun along with me, dear friend!Delete
I love this guy, Dorian. THANKS so much for highlighting his life and career. Sam Levene was born for movies and maybe movies were born for Sam Levene. He was such a wonderful screen presence. Even when he was bad he was good. Actors like these, who knew their craft backwards and forwards were national treasures - don't you think? I would love to have seen him in GUYS AND DOLLS too. The heck with Sinatra.ReplyDelete
Yvette, you had me smiling with "The heck with Sinatra"! :-D At the risk of getting on the bad side of "The Chairman of the Board," I would have been the happiest of campers if Sam Levene had been able to bring his Broadway triumph in GUYS AND DOLLS to the big screen. Sam was so gosh-darn versatile and long-lived as an actor and a performer, bless him! Beaucoup thanks for your enthusiastic comments about Our Man Sam, my friend!Delete
Sam just seemed to be everywhere, didn't he? He was always a delight and - as befits the occasion - a memorable character. Great post as always, Dorian!ReplyDelete
Chick, thanks so much for your positive feedback about my salute to Team Bartilucci fave Sam Levene! Whether Sam was in comedies or dramas, he always stole the show, bless him! Thanks again, pal!Delete
I like this, did I mention? ;) in youth he was real sharp, and what I like is that from looking at him you'd expect a wise street tough but then he'd be smart and that's a cool layer to bring. yet another vital actor, like so many in this blogathon. Thanks!ReplyDelete
Kristina, you're a gal after my own heart, as always! When I was working on my post on Our Man Sam, I too happened to be thinking that Sam was a mighty sharp fella, smart and cool and a guy you'd want to spend quality time with! :-) Many thanks for your comments, my friend, and warmest wishes to you and yours!Delete
Dor, I am ashamed to say that when I saw the title of your blog, I thought, "WHO?" But after I started reading I thought, "Oh yeah -- THAT guy!" This just goes to show why the blogathon is important, and why posts like yours are necessary. Folk like me need to brush up on these talented character actors.ReplyDelete
I had no idea of all Levene's work in Hollywood and Broadway. What a versatile fellow!
On a side note, I laughed at the thought of you grabbing a chair and smacking it over someone's head.
Ruth, thanks for your praise for my Sam Levene post! You just made my day with your delightful comment: "I laughed at the thought of you grabbing a chair and smacking it over someone's head." I'm a gentle soul (OK, who's that snickering? :-)) By golly, nobody better harm my favorite character actors, even if it's only in a classic movie! :-)Delete
On that note, Ruth, I'm heading right over to Silver Screenings to read your Ernest Borgnine post! :-)
The only trouble with Sam Levene is that the more you see of him, the more you want to see of him. Just like reading your article. More would have been fine.ReplyDelete
A friend of mine and her late husband saw the original "Guys and Dolls" on Broadway on their honeymoon. At least the rest of us have the Original Cast Album to give us a hint of that legendary show's glory.
Whenever Sam (if I may also be so bold) shows up in a movie, my own hubby always exclaims "Why, it's good old reliable Nathan." The hubby once played Nathan in a community theatre production of G&D, so he feels a particular kinship to the talented Mr. Levene.
Caftan Woman, your comment had me smiling: "The only trouble with Sam Levene is that the more you see of him, the more you want to see of him. Just like reading your article. More would have been fine." Aw, you're a sugar bowl with 2 handles! You're a gal after my own heart, my friend! And you and your friend were blessed to have gotten to see GUYS & DOLLS on Broadway, not to mention being in the cast of your community theater's G&D production! :-D Beaucoup thanks for your kind comments!Delete
I remember him better from After the Thin Man. And I really want to watch The Mad Miss Manton, so when I do, I'll pay extra attention to him.ReplyDelete
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
Le, thanks for your kind comments about Sam Levene, especially from AFTER THE THIN MAN and THE MAD MISS MANTON! I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I'm going to run right over to Critica Retro for your blog post! :-)Delete
What a career and what a talent! As I have been by so many of the careers of the characters chosen for this blogathon, I am blown away by Mr. Levene's work ethic. It's touching how much they loved to work in show business and did what had to be done - in all genre and mediums. And putting his work in a neat package as you've done brings to light how many classic films were made better by his appearing in them.ReplyDelete
A great read and choice, Dorian!! Thanks so much for taking part in the blogathon!
Aurora, thanks and you're welcome for your kind kudos! :-D Getting to know more about a swell, talented guy like Sam Levene in a great Blogathon like WHAT A CHARACTER! is like a labor of love for all the talented character actors who've helped to make movies great, especially folks like Sam who clearly loved his work, and made us love it and him too! Thanks for including me in this awesome Blogathon!Delete
I am frustrated at not being able to find more about where in russia he came from, who his parents were, what the rest of his life was like.....ReplyDelete