Sam Levene: The Original Nathan Detroit

Sam Levene is an important guy to know about. He acted constantly on Broadway, in films, radio, and television throughout much of the 20th century. The reason you may not have heard of him is that I listed those media in order of his success within it: on Broadway he was a star; in movies, a supporting player; on radio a journeyman actor (never starring on a series); and on TV, the same only less so. And yet consider this: among his over three dozen Broadway shows between 1927 and 1980, he was in the original productions of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene (1930), George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s Dinner at Eight (1932-33), Sidney Howard’s Yellow Jack (1934), The Milky Way (1934, later made into a Harold Lloyd movie), George Abbott’s Three Men on a Horse (1935-37), Room Service (1937-38, later made into a Marx Brothers movie), Guys and Dolls (1950-53, he was the original Nathan Detroit), Arthur Marx’s The Impossible Years (1966-67), and Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (1972-74). These all became movies, right? And yet Levene is only in the films of Three Men on a Horse (1936) and Yellow Jack (1938). It may have been that he was too busy on Broadway at the time the scripts were made into films. Or it may have been a certain amount of anti-semitic bias on the part of casting directors and producers.

Born Scholem Lewin (1905-1980), Levene came out of New York’s Lower East Side. His father was a cantor. Interestingly, Sam never did vaudeville or Yiddish theatre, it appears. He was working at his brother’s garment business and wanted to go from cutting fabric to being a salesman, so he took classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (where Edward G. Robinson also went) in order to acquire polish. A dapper, slick quality would always be one of his defining features. It served him well in his Hollywood career, where he was usually cast in supporting roles, as mouthpieces, cops, D.A.s, crooks and the like, especially in noir films and crime dramas in the 40s and 50s. He played Lt. Abrams in two of the Thin Man movies, and was also in such fare as Golden Boy (1939), Grand Central Murder (1942), Damon Runyon’s The Big Street (1942), Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), The Killers (1946), Boomerang (1947), Brute Force (1947), Crossfire (1947), Leather Gloves (1948), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957). Burt Lancaster, whom he’d met (and given a leg up to) since his Broadway debut in The Sound of Hunting, was a particular friend. His last film was …And Justice for All (1979) with Al Pacino. 

He did some live TV dramas in the ’50s, but it is interesting to me that he never yielded to the temptation of TV guest shots on cop shows and the like as so many actors of his generation did in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Did he considerate it unworthy? They certainly can’t have considered him unworthy — he was a legend!