Oscar Levant's mercurial personality can be summed up by two of his most oft-repeated witticisms: the self-aggrandizing "In some moments I was difficult, in odd moments impossible, in rare moments loathsome, but at my best unapproachably great;" and the self-deprecating "I am the world's oldest child prodigy." The son of a Pittsburgh repairman, Oscar Levant went to New York at 16 to study music under such masters as Stojowski, Schoenberg and Schillinger. Before reaching his 20th birthday, he had gained renown as a concert pianist, teacher, band leader and composer. He played a minor role in the stage play Burlesque, repeating this assignment in the 1929 film version The Dance of Life. During his first visit to Hollywood, Levant befriended George Gershwin; his friendship approached idolatry, and by the mid-1930s Levant was perhaps the greatest interpreter of Gershwin's works in the world. The relationship had a profound effect on Levant's own compositions, as witness his "Rhapsody in Blue"-like score for the 1937 film Nothing Sacred. Not that he was limited to any one musical style: he composed a faux Italian opera, Carnival, for the 1936 "B"-picture Charlie Chan at the Opera.
A perceptive musical theorist, Levant often wrote upon the art of composing for films; it was he who coined the phrase "Mickey Mousing," in reference to movie scores that slavishly commented upon the action. The longer he stayed in Hollywood, the more he became famous as a "character" rather than a musician. The public first became aware of Levant's acidic erudition when he began popping up on the Information Please radio program. From 1940 onward, he spent more and more time on-screen as an actor. His most fondly remembered film credits include Humoresque (1945), Rhapsody in Blue (1945), The Barkeleys of Broadway (1949) and O. Henry's Full House (1952), in which he co-starred with Fred Allen in the "Ransom of Red Chief" segment. He was at his best in two classic MGM musicals: An American in Paris (1951), wherein he appears in a dream sequence, playing every member of the orchestra in a performance of Gershwin's "Concerto in F;" and The Band Wagon (1953), in which he and Nanette Fabray play characters patterned on Adolph Green and Betty Comden.
While he retained his popularity and circle of friends into the 1960s, Levant's mood swings and increasingly erratic behavior began having professional repercussions. He was nearly banned from television after making a few scatological references concerning a prominent film actress during a 1960 telecast of his LA-based talk show. As time went on, only late-night host Jack Paar would risk having Levant as a guest, and when Paar left TV in 1965, so, for all intents and purposes, did Levant. In and out of rest homes and mental institutions during his last two decades (his final film, 1955's Cobweb, was significantly set in a sanitarium), he became dependent upon pain-killers and other prescription drugs. Despite his deteriorating physical and mental condition, he was able to turn out three superb autobiographical works, A Smattering of Ignorance, The Unimportance of Being Oscar and The Memoirs of an Amnesiac. Oscar Levant died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 66.