Canada’s Everyman Funnyman
by Marcie Somers
Eugene Levy has one of those faces that are instantly recognizable. Mention his name to teenagers or to baby boomers and the answer you’ll likely get is “wasn’t he that funny guy in American Pie or Armed and Dangerous or The Man?” Over the past 30 years, Eugene Levy has appeared in over 80 feature films and television shows. While the roles are comedic in nature, whatever you do, don’t call him a comedian.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about me is that I’m a comedian, which I’m not. A comedian is someone who can stand up in front of an audience and make you laugh. I’ve never done stand up and I never will! I’m a comic actor. My comedy comes through my characters.”
And what memorable characters they are! On SCTV he played Earl of Camembert, the earnest, but dimwitted news anchor; cheerful Leutonian accordionist Yosh Schmenge (alongside SCTV alum John Candy); schlock Las Vegas lounge comic Bobby Bittman; diminutive union patriarch Sid Dithers; energetic, used car salesman Al Peck; and inept dance show host Rockin’ Mel Slirrup.
He has appeared in all of Christopher Guest’s movies – as Mitch Cohen the folk singer making a comeback in A Mighty Wind, the hapless dog owner, Gerald Fleck, in Best in Show and small-town dentist/singer wannabe, Dr. Allan Pearl in the classic, Waiting for Guffman.
More recently, he’s obtained cross-generational appeal with his work as the clueless but loving dad in American Pie, he played Steve Martin’s best friend in Bringing Down the House, and was in Dumb and Dumberer, the teen comedy that takes place in the 1980s.
For the most part, the characters he plays are nerdy, but lovable, and although Levy is keenly aware that he runs the risk of stereotyping himself, he says that “playing dumb is a lot funnier than playing smart.”
“I think all of my characters aren’t the sharpest tools in the drawer, but you can’t fault their heart and their intent. They are all characters that people can feel for and that’s what’s always been important to me.”
Growing up in Hamilton, the middle child of working-class parents, Levy didn’t set out to become an actor. In fact, he didn’t really know what he wanted to do – acting just fell into his lap. In high school, he formed a singing group because, says Levy, “My older brother had a singing group that performed rock and roll and barbershop. I thought his band was so amazing to watch and see, that I thought I should start a group too. I rounded up a few friends and formed a quartet. So, my performing really began in a singing capacity.”
Although he had developed a taste for performing, Levy did what was expected of him and following graduation from high school, went to McMaster University where he studied Sociology “because it had the lightest workload.” It was there that he met two people who would influence his life in the years to come – Martin Brenzell, director of Drama and Ivan Reitman who would go on to direct such classics as Animal House and Ghostbusters.
“Martin Brenzell was a huge influence on me. Although he was hired primarily to oversee the extracurricular plays that were put on, he ran workshops that were essentially an acting class. We had these workshops at every rehearsal for every production we did where we received instruction on acting techniques.”
Levy got so involved in the workshops and plays that his academic career eventually took a backseat. Says Levy, “I was having so much fun taking these classes, writing for the school paper and trying to be in as many places as I could – besides the classroom, that I eventually stopped going to classes where it got to the point that I was unable to pass my third year.”
Still, it never occurred to him that this was something he could do for a living. “People just didn’t become actors. Back then (late 60s) it was out of the question for a nice Jewish boy to be a full-time actor. Going to university was the most important thing to do in order to get a profession – especially for my parents.” For Levy, whose father dropped out of high school when he was a teenager to help his family, nothing was more important than getting a degree and having a proper job. “My dad wanted to give his kids the opportunity he never got.”
He went back to McMaster the following year, promising his parents that he would get a degree, but instead went right back to what he had been doing before. Enter the second person who influenced the direction of his life – his old McMaster buddy, Ivan Reitman.
“I realized that I was going to fail again, so I called Ivan Reitman who was working on his first feature film, Foxy Lady and said, ‘Look, I’m in big trouble. I need a job; can you help me?’ He had one position left to fill and that was for a coffee boy. I jumped at the opportunity, moved to Toronto and started working for $60 a week. That was the first conscious decision I made to make film and acting a full-time profession.”
Looking back, Levy wonders what would have happened if he had not gotten in touch with Reitman. “I often wonder, had I not made that call, or had I waited another day, that job wouldn’t have been available, what I would have done – whether I would have left Hamilton or stayed and looked for a job selling suits. I don’t know, but that moment was a big turning point for me.”
In 1971, Levy moved from behind the camera, to the front of the camera to star in Reitman’s next film Cannibal Girl, alongside Andrea Martin, with whom he would later work with on SCTV. From there, he appeared in several plays, including Godspell and became a regular with Second City, a Toronto improv, comedy club.
In 1976, shortly after the success of Saturday Night Live, the creators of Second City decided to do a TV show based on the sensibility of what SNL had created. It was there, that Levy met his pals, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara who would also achieve success. “SCTV was an absolute blast. I was young, the hours were insane, but I loved every moment of it.”
It was also during those SCTV years that he created his most memorable characters. The Schmenge Brothers came about as a result of watching a polka TV show. “John Candy and I were in a hotel room in Edmonton (where the show was filmed) and we were watching a local polka show. I turned to John and said, ‘Wow, there’s a couple of schmenges.’ We had used that word on the show before, but we didn’t do anything with it until a year later we were trying to think of an idea and I turned to John and said, ‘What about that Schmenge idea we had?’ And that’s how Yosh and Stan Schmenge started.”
He continues, “Some characters came from the stage, such as Earl of Camembert, however a lot of the other characters came about as a result of makeup. Often, we didn’t know what we were going to do until we came out of makeup. That’s how important the makeup people were on that show. So much so, we’d write a script, but it wasn’t as though we had worked out the characters, so we would turn to the makeup people who had great ideas. They would start to go to work on our characters and then you’d look in the mirror and suddenly, the voice came with the character and then you had the character. That’s how Sid Dithers and Woody Tobias, Jr. came about.”
Levy’s body of work is so varied, that he has been able to appeal to have cross-generational appeal. “The lucky thing is, you can hit a movie that really broadens your audience base and I’ve been very lucky because I’ve had a few of those movies that have worked for me in that regard.”
After appearing as the loveable, but clueless dad in American Pie, Levy became an instant hit with teenagers. Levy is constantly amazed with the recognition he gets with the youngsters. “It’s pretty amazing how many young people know who I am. It shows you the power of movies. I find it shocking actually when I think about it because by all rights, they shouldn’t know who I am. They certainly don’t know about anything I’ve done before American Pie.”
Levy also experienced the same degree of success with African American audiences, after his film, Bringing Down the House. “Before that movie came out, they didn’t know me from Adam, but for some reason, they just loved my character. That movie alone, gave me a lot of recognition within that community.”
Despite Levy’s various successes, he still feels the uncertainties of whether a script is going to work. “Honestly, the scripts I get are never guaranteed hits or successes. I don’t even know if people are going to like the movie. Even American Pie – the script read a lot rougher than the movie. I kept thinking, ‘Boy, if this movie gets in the wrong hands, this could be really nauseating.’ Fortunately for me, the movie turned out to be a great movie, which is what you really hope for, but never really know. Chris and Paul Weitz (the directors) did a great job with that movie. They allowed me to do a great job because they gave me a lot of freedom to change the part and improvise. I think that’s one of the reasons it turned out as well as it did.”
Levy has loved collaborating with Christopher Guest and as master of the script, there is obviously a lot less uncertainty. Over the past ten-years, the two have penned indie classics Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind and Best in Show.
“I was a big fan of his work that he did with National Lampoon and I had met him a couple of times. So, I was completely shocked when one day out of the blue, I received a phone call from Christopher telling me that he’s working on a movie and that he would really like to have me write it with him. I was really taken aback, because I thought there were a million other people he could have called, he has tons of brilliant friends, why me? So, I said ‘okay,’ and went down to his country cabin in Upstate New York to meet with him. I was very nervous, because I didn’t really know him and yet here, I was in a very confined space with somebody that I didn’t know personally and I didn’t know if we were even going to get along, let alone be in synch creatively. But from the moment he picked me up at the airport we were doing a lot of laughing and almost immediately, we seemed to fit so well and worked so well together, it was kind of miraculous actually.”
One of the things the two are known for is the tongue-in-cheek feel of their movies, which are often categorized by film critics and moviegoers alike as “mockumentary,” a term Levy is uncomfortable with. “A mockumentary implies that you are making fun of subject matter, which we don’t do. We try to get our bearing on a subject and the comedy comes out of the true characters and the situation. For instance, when we did Waiting for Guffman, we talked to small town people about life in a small town. What you see in Best in Show is pretty much what you see when you go to national dog show competitions. The world we represent is pretty much the way it is. Of course, we take a few liberties for your laughs, but we try not to do that at the expense of the characters.”
Levy needn’t worry about his latest film. For Your Consideration is a departure from their trademark mockumentary format. It takes a satirical look at Hollywood, telling the story of weather-beaten, screen siren Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara) who has been struggling to get recognition for thirty years. After some short-lived notoriety in the late eighties, her star has long faded. Her latest gig is playing Esther Pisker, the ailing mamele of a Jewish family in the Deep South awaiting the return of her estranged daughter Rachel – played by belligerent stand-up comic Kelly Webb (Parker Posey) – in the melodrama Home for Purim. One day, Marilyn gets wind of an Internet rumor that her performance could land her an Academy Award® nomination. Levy plays her scheming agent.
The film premiered at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, which was significant for Levy, as it meant showing it for the first time in his hometown of Toronto.
Down the road, Levy would love to sink his teeth into an adult comedy (à la Jim Brooks style), where he can “show more and more acting chops than comedy, but unfortunately a lot of people aren’t making movies like that now.”
“Either that or I would love to work with Sir Anthony Hopkins. How and why that would ever happen in a comedy, I’m not sure – why he would be dragged over to this side or why I’d be dragged over to that side!”
In the interim, Levy will continue to do what he does best and that’s make people laugh. “At the end of the day, even if my part is a bit goofy, the key thing is that I’m doing what I love to do, and that’s make people laugh.”
Clearly, he must be doing something right.
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Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 21, 2006.