Dan Castellaneta on Oscar Levant, Winning Emmys, and Finding His Voice(s)

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic

Dan Castellaneta‘s latest creative project FOR PIANO AND HARPO world premieres at the Falcon Theatre February 1, 2017. In FOR PIANO AND HARPO, Dan writes about and stars as the renowned 20th century pianist/comedian/actor Oscar Levant. The busy multi-tasker managed to spare us some moments between his The Simpsons responsibilities and FOR PIANO AND HARPO rehearsals to answer a few questions for Better Lemons.

Thank you for taking time out of your crazy, busy schedule for this interview!

When did you first become aware of Oscar Levant?

I had a record album of old comedy bits from radio and television. One of the cuts was of The Fred Allen Show where he interviewed Oscar Levant. He was introduced as a concert piano player, but was really funny. I became more aware of him as my wife had a childhood crush on him. Then I noticed his appearances in many MGM musicals.

What attracted you to Oscar Levant – his off-centered wit? His eccentricities? His uninhibited bon mots?

I love the fact that he was this accomplished musician and composer with one foot in the world of high culture and the other in the world of Broadway and pop culture. He was extremely well-read, but took to talking like a wise-cracking “B” movie gangster.

What made you want to write a piece around Oscar Levant?

I was reading Harpo Marx’s biography, Harpo Speaks. There was a chapter about how Oscar Levant crashed a dinner party at Harpo’s Beverly Hills home and stayed for a year and a month. I thought a play about these two completely funny, interesting, and different characters living together might make an interesting play. I didn’t want it to be a 1930’s Odd Couple, so I focused primarily on Oscar Levant’s struggle with mental illness and drug addiction and how perhaps memories of his friendship with Harpo helped him cope.

One of my favorite Oscar Levant quotes is “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m schizophrenic, and so am I.” What’s yours?

Here’s one that he said to his friend George Gershwin. “Tell me, George. If you had to do it all over again; would you still fall in love with yourself?”

You were still a teenager when you realized you had a gift for doing impressions. Yet you initially studied art to become an art teacher. What incident convinced you that comedy could be a viable career for you?

When I was teaching, one of my students was helping me clean up the art class and I started doing voices for him just to make the task a little less tedious. He said to me, “What are you doing here, man? You should be in Hollywood.” It kind of hit home to what I truly felt. So after that, I resolved to pursue acting.

Did you start off doing voice-overs in commercials on radio?  What are some of the first ones you ever did?

I did start off doing voice-overs for radio and television with my wife Deb, in Chicago. We were a male-female voice team, as was the fashion at that time. My first voiceover was for a national TV spot — I think was for Betty Crocker. It was a picture of a guy looking at a chocolate cake. And I was voicing his thought, which was, “I’m a fool for your chocolate!” I had to say that line fifty different ways until they found the one they liked.

There seems to be major periods of time in between your stage performances – in 1999, you wrote and starred in WHERE DID VINCENT VAN GOGH? Your next stage role was in THE BICYCLE MEN at London’s The King’s Head Theatre in 2007. Here we are in 2017, and you’ll open February 1 in FOR PIANO AND HARPO at the Falcon Theatre. Too busy on your day job passion? Miss being on the boards? What brings you back on stage?

Actually, I’ve always been performing on stage during that time. Most times, it was doing improv in and around LA. I’ve also done other plays. Between VAN GOGH and BICYCLE MEN, I was in THE ALCHEMIST Off-Broadway in New York, THE UNDERPANTS at the Geffen in LA, NIGHTHAWKS and TWIST YOUR DICKENS at The Kirk Douglas Theater in LA, and MOONLIGHT & MAGNOLIAS at the Old Globe in San Diego. Since then, I’ve been more interested in writing plays and using improvisation to create material. I’m doing FOR PIANO AND HARPO because I wrote it and wanted to see it get a production. I was available and I work cheap.

Since Oscar Levant was schizophrenic, I would imagine you portray different characters of him in FOR PIANO AND HARPO. Would The Simpsons fans recognize any voices that you’ll ‘do’ as Oscar Levant?

I’m sure Oscar Levant’s quote about being a schizophrenic was more to score a laugh off of his struggles with mental illness, and also because most people mistake schizophrenia with having multiple personalities. As I understand it, Oscar Levant did not suffer from being schizophrenic or having multiple personalities. If he were diagnosed today, he would no doubt be treated for being bi-polar. But in his day, they didn’t really have the proper treatment for it. So I only use one voice to do the character – that of Oscar’s. I don’t know if any Simpsons fans will recognize it.

There’s only an elite few who have won multiple Emmys in their respective category. After winning four for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance, does it get old hat each time you get nominated again? Or do you still get that original burst of excitement like the first time you won?

It’s not as old hat as you would think, because over the years, the competition has been fierce. There are so many more prime time cartoons. Which means there are many more fine-talented voiceover artists to go up against. Now more than ever, it’s a big deal just to get nominated. I haven’t won in a while. But the last time was as thrilling as the first because you never think you are going to win.

In your everyday life, do you fall back on certain voices of your treasure trove of voices in the heat of the moment?

I wish I could tell you a fantastic anecdote about how using one of my voices got me out of a tight situation, but alas, the only voice that comes out is shrill and whiny.

What would you like the Falcon audiences to leave with after you take your curtain call for Oscar Levant?

Other than being entertained and emotionally moved, I hope to introduce and spark interest in this fascinating character. He’s definitely worth knowing about. He thrived in so many arenas — pop music, classical music, literature, Broadway, movies, television, radio.  

Thank you, Sir, for taking the time for this interview! 

FOR PIANO AND HARPO plays at the Falcon Theatre February 1 – March 5, 2017; visit www.falcontheatre.com for more information and tickets.

Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas in his career, including Ann-Margret, Diana Ross, Faye Dunaway, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard, Anna Nicole Smith, Margaret Cho, and three Catwomen—Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar. He had the fortuitous opportunity to conduct Lily Tomlin’s coming out interview. Gil has since reviewed movies and theatre for a number of local and national outlets.
A photo montage of Gil’s Halloween Carnavale photos through the last decade was recently included in the WeHo@ 25 juried exhibition.