Cops and Crooks – Sam Levene (1905 – 1980)

Posted in Rewind by - January 20, 2014
Cops and Crooks – Sam Levene (1905 – 1980)

Russian-born character actor Sam Levene spent over 40 years playing characters on both sides of the law. From the harassed everyman to the fast-talking detective, Sam was always dependable. Whether in the background or in your face, in comedy or drama, he always gave us characters you enjoyed watching.

Born Samuel Levine on August 28th 1905, Levene spent his first acting years on the stage, starting in 1927. His movie career took off in 1936, with a scene-stealing debut performance in the Joan Blondell comedy ‘Three Men on a Horse’. That same year he was also great playing Columbo-like police Lieutenant, Abrams in both ‘After the Thin Man’ (1936) and the later ‘Shadow of The Thin Man’,(’41) In between these he had an important role as William Holden’s brother-in-law in 1939’s Golden Boy. A small but good part came as a PoW pilot in 1944’s ‘The Purple Heart’, a re-telling of the famous Doolittle Raid, the American retaliation on Japan for Pearl Harbor.

After playing a cop in Robert Siodmak’s classic noir ‘The Killers’ in 1946, he was excellent as the worried-looking inmate Louis, brutally beaten by Hume Cronyn’s sadistic captain Munsey, in the tough 1947 prison flick ‘Brute Force’. Other decent roles at this time included a reporter in ‘Boomerang!’, and as murder victim ‘Sammy’ Samuels in the excellent Robert Mitchum noir ‘Crossfire’, (both ’47).

1953 had Levene on form as Jane Powell’s cash-strapped producer Joe Woods in the entertaining musical ‘Three Sailors and a Girl’. 1956 saw Sam in a small role in ‘The Opposite Sex’, a partly musical remake of the classic 1939 comedy ‘The Women’ . After playing editor to Gregory Peck’s reporter in the 1957 comedy ‘Designing Woman’, Levene had a memorable role in the brilliantly bitter ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ (also ’57), as Martin Milner’s put-upon agent Frank D’ Angelo.

A stage actor of some note, Levene was nominated for a Tony award in 1961 for ‘The Devil’s Advocate’, and he appeared in over 30 Broadway plays in 40 years, from 1932’s ‘Dinner at Eight’, to ‘The Sunshine Boys’ in 1972. He also created the original Nathan Detroit in the original Broadway production of ‘Guys and Dolls’ in 1950.

Although the Sixties was a great time to be a character actor, it proved to be a quiet period for Sam, making only two films and about five television appearances. The first film he made that decade was the 1963 Moss Hart biopic ‘Act One’, with an excellent Jason Robards as playwright George S. Kaufman. The other, and much better, was the 1969 Anthony Quinn drama ‘A Dream of Kings’, an emotional tale with Ingar Stevens wonderful in her last film before her tragic suicide in 1970.

Levene was in a couple of now cult movies in the Seventies. He was uncle Eddie in Otto Preminger’s spotty 1971 comedy ‘Such Good Friends’, starring Dyan Cannon as a pampered housewife, and Larry Cohen’s 1977 shocker ‘God Told Me To’. Also known as ‘Demon’, this was a pretty good thriller about a spree of motiveless killings in New York, committed by random people, all seemingly possessed by a god-like demon.

In 1979 Levene had his usual small roles, but in two very good movies. The larger, better part was in Jonathan Demme’s under-rated Hitchcockian thriller ‘Last Embrace’, looking like a latter-day Edward G. Robinson. This was followed by a smaller bit in Norman Jewison’s courtroom drama ‘…And Justice for All’, and which would turn out to be Sam’s final screen appearance.

A hard working and fondly remembered actor, Sam Levene died from a heart attack on December 28th, 1980, aged 75. He spent over 50 years in the business, and no matter how small the role, Sam was always the professional. A rare breed.

Favourite Movie: After The Thin Man
Favourite Performance: Brute Force

This post was written by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *