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Obituaries

Ralph Levy, 81; Director of Early TV Comedy Shows

October 20, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eventually he was an Emmy Award-winning director. But first he failed.

The young wannabe entertainer answered a cattle call in 1946 for chorus line singers in the Broadway musical comedy "Annie Get Your Gun."

Conducting the auditions were the Irving Berlin show's eminent producers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. They gave him an emphatic thumbs down.

That rejection, Ralph Levy always said, was his big break. It convinced him to forget about singing and concentrate on becoming a producer and director.

Eight years later, he was directing a 90-minute, nationally televised production of Rodgers and Hammerstein music hosted by Mary Martin.

Levy, the director of such in-the-beginning television series as "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" and "The Jack Benny Show," died Monday at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 81.

He collected one Emmy for directing Benny specials and another for producing "The Bob Newhart Show," a comedy-variety show that ran on NBC from October 1961 to June 1962, not the well-known situation comedy of the same name that ran on CBS starting a decade later.

Born into a family of Philadelphia lawyers, Levy was determined to make his career in show business, hesitating only long enough to get a degree from Yale University and to serve in the Army. His first job was as manager of a ballet company.

Stage-struck but highly adaptable to changing media, Levy became one of the first producers and directors for CBS Television when the network began in 1946, taking on such game shows as "Winner Take All." In 1949, he moved west as the network's first director for its new Hollywood studios.

Levy soon found himself directing what would become his forte--comedy. Still under 30, he worked with such entertainment icons as Burns and Allen, Benny, Lucille Ball, Edgar Bergen, Red Skelton and Ed Wynn. All of them, he would say decades later, "treated me intelligently and with respect."

Television was live in the early days--theater in your living room.

"I'd put the cameras at the back of the studio, use a long lens and let the actors play to the audience in front of them," Levy told the Santa Fe New Mexican in 1998. "It was like opening night on Broadway every night."

Anne Nelson, vice president of business affairs for CBS Entertainment who began working with Levy in 1949, described him as "a very talented person."

"Sometimes today when our people complain they have too much work to do, I think of him doing three live shows a week--Burns and Allen, Ed Wynn and Alan Young," she said.

Levy produced and directed the Burns and Allen television series from 1950 to 1958 and all of Benny's television shows, including series and specials, from 1950 to 1965. Levy also directed the pilot for Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life."

Ironically, Levy's most famous credit may be for directing the pilot of the show that ended the live television he so loved. The show was "I Love Lucy," and Ball's co-star and husband, Desi Arnaz, began filming the episodes, realizing the commercial value of residual rights. The show is celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall.

But Levy quickly adapted to film and then videotape, going on to direct such memorable 1960s series as "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres" and then into the 1970s with "Hawaii Five-O."

He veered occasionally into directing for theater or motion pictures, but conceded recently, "I never enjoyed [them] the way I did television."

The director and producer had fond memories of the stellar comedians he worked with early in his career. Groucho, he said, was grouchy, probably because he "suffered from an inferiority complex." Wynn was cerebral; Allen was always prepared, funny and a "doll" to work with; Ball was a top-notch clown, hard-worker and tough businesswoman. Benny, he always said, was the best of all, "a marvelous man."

Levy spent several years in England in the 1960s and 1970s working for BBC television.

Married to Miranda Speranza Masocco, who helped start the Santa Fe Opera, Levy put down roots in the New Mexico capital late in his life. He taught at the College of Santa Fe in 1981 and donated his bound scripts from early television to that institution.

In the 1970s, Levy taught television production at Cal State Northridge and Loyola Marymount University.

He is survived by his wife and a sister, Barbara Thanhauser.

Levy considered recent television fare too loud and vulgar for his taste but did express appreciation for one or two shows, including "Seinfeld."

"[Jerry] Seinfeld is very funny," he said in 1998. "People say his show is about nothing. All of our shows were about nothing. Situation comedies never made a statement."

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