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Writer Knows the Importance of Depicting Oscar

Joel Kimmel is a big fan of Oscar Levant. But he’s an even bigger fan of musical theater.

“When I grew up, it was the heyday of the Broadway musical,” the 42-year-old writer said wistfully. “ ‘Pajama Game,’ ‘Bells are Ringing'--they may not have been profound, but they sure were entertaining. And we don’t have them anymore. I’ll never forget the emotions ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘Follies’ brought out in me. I’m sure that ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ when it arrives, will sell out for years and years. But there should be a place for small, original musical work to be done.”

To that end, he’s written “At Wit’s End” (at the Coronet Theatre in West Hollywood), a one-man play with music directed by Charles Nelson Reilly and starring Stan Freeman as pianist and wit Oscar Levant. Kimmel assembled the script from Levant’s books (“A Smattering of Ignorance,” “Confessions of an Amnesiac” and “The Unimportance of Being Oscar”), scrapbooks, old kinescopes, and memorabilia donated to the USC archives by Levant’s widow, June.

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“I structured the play from his words,” Kimmel said. “I found in my research that Oscar did these ‘concerts with comments,’ as he called them--and it suggested a form to me.” The play takes place on the night Levant returned to work in front of an audience, after a nervous breakdown.

“Usually one-man shows are so boring,” said Kimmel. “They people the stage with imaginary characters we don’t see, and talk to empty chairs. So I deliberately avoided that.”

Instead, Levant/Freeman chats with his real audience. “It’s very contagious,” Kimmel noted. “By the second act, when he’s talking about his days in Hollywood, ‘An American in Paris,’ he describes a scene to the audience and says, ‘Remember that?’ And the audience nods or says, ‘I remember'--as if it’s really Oscar! I mean, they’ve bought the illusion. Stan doesn’t really look like Oscar. But midway through the play, you lose the character; Stan has become Oscar.”

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And meeting Oscar, the author believes, is the true treat.

“I’d always been fascinated with him,” Kimmel said. “I don’t know if we have anybody like him today. Oh, we have musicians and we have wits--but not in one person. Oscar was a concert musician and a film actor and a TV personality and an author and a composer. But mostly he was famous for being Oscar Levant--this witty curmudgeon who knew everybody: royalty, sports figures, actors, politicians. He was an extraordinary man, coping with drug addiction, a severe chronic depression.”

Amid the show’s clever patter, the character does not shy away from confronting the dark areas of his life--including being institutionalized--as Levant himself did publicly. “Some people have said that we should stick to the light stuff, not deal with the demons,” the writer said. “But then it wouldn’t be a play. Oscar himself said, ‘There’s a fine line between sanity and insanity, and I have managed to erase that line.’ ”

Kimmel smiled. “He was a wonderful collaborator, in that I took what was really a life, and tried to condense the important and interesting facts into a believable evening. And whenever I needed some wonderful jokes, they were there for me; I didn’t have to concoct them. Of course, the nice thing about working with a dead collaborator is that he never criticizes you. Sometimes though, I don’t know where I leave off and he begins.”

In person, the distinctions are clearer. Kimmel grew up in New York, attended Boston University, and headed back to New York to make his mark as an actor. On his first Equity audition, he got a job: a two-year stint in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” which brought him to Los Angeles in 1969. Soon, Kimmel segued into TV writing with partner Ann Gibbs; their credits include “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Love Boat” and “Webster.”

“Most of my television work is fairly undistinguished,” he said hurriedly. “I know I’m doing something most people want to be doing. And I know these shows are very well-liked; audiences sure watch them year after year. . . . The difference with theater is, I could watch ‘At Wit’s End’ every night. I don’t watch the television shows I write. But I’m not ashamed of them. You try to tell a little something of value in a 22-minute story--and be amusing. Sometimes you’re there till midnight trying to make it good. Then you look at it and say, ‘That’s as good as it got?’ ”

The leap of faith came in 1987. Kimmel put his money where his mouth was, took a year’s leave from TV and embarked on the play.

“TV is seductive,” he admitted. “You do need your security, and when you’re writing for television, you’re in this rat race. You need a car that’s competitive with everyone else’s, you have to keep a certain life style, attend industry functions. It’s very easy to get sucked into doing that full-time; I’ve been guilty of it in the past. But I never got the gratification I’ve gotten so far out of having had a play produced and well-received.”

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There are other gratifications.

“I don’t get paid for my teaching--at UCLA, the Taper,” he said. “I donate my time to a few organizations in the arts like the Media Access Office, which is involved with media portrayals of people with disabilities. I’m not rich; I can’t just write out checks. So I have to give something of myself. I think that’s the most important thing in being a writer--balancing your life. Hopefully, I’ve got a nice one now: For financial balance I can write television. For emotional balance, I can write another play.”

In the meantime, Kimmel’s happy aligning himself with Levant.

“This play’s not written for Oscar’s fans,” he said. “I hope they’ll come, too. But I get the biggest kick out of young people seeing it. Kids today are not exposed to the kind of music I was when I was growing up. There’s no place today to really hear Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen--music that’s an American legacy. There’s a whole generation who come to see ‘At Wit’s End’ who’ve never heard of Oscar. Those are the ones I really love getting in the theater.”


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