Writer-producer-director Barry Levinson reflects on his long career.
Few writer-producer-directors achieve “titan” status in either television or film, but Barry Levinson has done it in both.
His career accomplishments are legendary and just keep coming, as seen recently with his HBO films Paterno and The Wizard of Lies.
Some of his earliest work led to acclaim. In the 1970s, the Baltimore native — by then, an L.A. transplant — began writing for variety series such as The Tim Conway Show and The Carol Burnett Show, and with the Burnett staff he won the Emmy for variety writing in both 1974 and ’75.
Thanks to a producer on Tim Conway, Ron Clark, Levinson landed a meeting with Mel Brooks and segued into features, writing for Brooks’s Silent Movie and High Anxiety.
The 1982 feature Diner, Levinson’s directorial debut, put him on the map; it also earned him an Oscar nomination for the screenplay. His next film, The Natural, cemented his reputation as a director, and he followed that with such respected films as Rain Man — which brought him an Oscar as best director — and Good Morning, Vietnam.
He returned to Baltimore for Homicide: Life on the Street, which ran on NBC from 1993 to ’99 and became the first television drama to win three Peabody Awards. Levinson himself won an Emmy for directing the show in 1993; he was also a writer and executive producer with his longtime production partner, Tom Fontana.
In 1997 Levinson and Fontana brought Oz to HBO; the drama set in an urban prison ran until 2003.
Levinson, who has collected 11 Emmy nominations, has long been admired for his mastery at finding the profound in the everyday. “I like to explore the ordinary aspect of people,” he says. “I think that’s the most revealing.”
He revealed much about his life and career when he was interviewed in September 2016 by Jenni Matz , director of The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire discussion can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: What were your interests as a kid?
A: Certainly sports — the Orioles and the Colts — and movies. At a very young age, I remember when the TV came into the house and I was fascinated by it.
When I was young, I was ill. In those days they didn’t have a television in the hospital. My father had televisions, because he had an appliance store, so he brought one in and I would watch it.
I remember an incident in the hospital — this was before remote control. This program started, and I hated it. I couldn’t get out of bed to change the channel. The nurse came in and I asked, “Can you change the channel?” And she said, “Why?” I said, “I don’t like this show. It’s not very good.” And I remember this: she said, “Why? Do you think you can do better?” And I said, “Yes, I could.”
Q: How did you get your start in the industry?
A: There was a TV course at American University with Jim Silman, a terrific teacher and the program director of Channel 9, WTOP in Washington, D.C. He took an interest in me and said, “We have a training program at the station. It doesn’t pay much, like 50 dollars a week, but would you like to be part of it?” So I went into television.
I was still taking courses at American University. I would do the Ranger Hal show in the morning with hand puppets, and then I’d run back and take a course. Then I’d run back and do the midday news, and then run back and take another course, and then get ready for the evening news.
Eventually I got into doing some on-air promotions where I would cut music and visuals together. Because of that, I got some attention and ended up getting a job at WTTG in Washington, a MetroMedia company, doing on-air promotion.
Q: You probably could have stayed there and had a nice career, but in the late ‘60s you moved to L.A….
A: I was offered a promotion at the station, but being head of the department didn’t interest me. For some reason I thought, “I’m going to go to L.A.”
Q: What happened when you got there?
A: I was in Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and just hung around there. This was October ’67. I met a guy named George who said, “I have to go up to Hollywood, can you give me a ride?” I drove George up; I didn’t ask what he had to do. When we pulled up, he said, “Come on in. I’m checking out an acting class.”
I went in, and it was much more exciting than the college theater department. It was a fun evening. George signed up to be an actor and said, “Why don’t you join?” I moved up to Hollywood. That acting school was the first step toward what became my career.
Q: You met Craig T. Nelson in that class, and the two of you were hired on The Lohman and Barkley Show. Was that your first real gig as a writer-performer?
A: Yeah. We started on Lohman and Barkley as writers, then we began to write and perform. Then Rudy De Luca came on as a writer, and he would also write and perform. That show won a local Emmy, but got canceled like the next day, so we ended up going for interviews for The Tim Conway Show.
Normally there were two writers, but here there were three of us, and we got on the Conway show. But that show didn’t last long. At that point Craig wanted to focus on acting, so Rudy and I started to work together. We got a show in England that Larry Gelbart was producing, The Marty Feldman Show, and we were there for about a year.
Q: What did you learn about comedy writing from Larry Gelbart?
A: He was great in so many ways, in terms of structure, character and language. He could somehow sharpen it all and color it a little better. He could pinpoint how to correct something. He was the most impressive person I had met at that point, where you went, “Wow, this guy is a real heavyweight.”
As a kid I’d watch Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, not knowing anything about the writers, and then suddenly I’m working with Larry Gelbart, and later Mel Brooks. It was pretty amazing.
Q: You next worked on The Carol Burnett Show. Did the players stick to the script or did they improv?
A: On other shows, the cast would read cue cards. Carol and her group didn’t. They’d memorize the sketch so they were really playing the material. That’s what was so great. And sometimes they would add a thing here and there. Tim [Conway] would certainly do that.
Q: Were you on set when they performed?
A: We were there. They would do two shows — I think at five o’clock and eight o’clock. And they would do it like a live show, except it was being taped. It was extremely efficient.
And somehow when she got into costume, Carol would figure out even more about her character, then she would just explode. She was always better than whatever was on the page. She elevated it, and she raised the bar for everybody. They were at the top of their game.
Q: Why did you leave?
A: We got involved with Mel Brooks and became writers on Silent Movie and, later, High Anxiety. And by the time we were going to High Anxiety, we just stayed in film.
Q: Did you make a conscious decision to leave television?
A: It just evolved. To be honest, Mel Brooks was most influential in my breaking off to do a feature of my own. I would tell him about these diner guys. I was telling it in stories, and — I’ll never forget it — one day we were outside the commissary at 20th Century Fox and he said, “You should write that.”
He said, “Fellini did a film about young men, and you should write about those guys.” That stayed in my head and when we were on a break, I suddenly hit on the idea: what if the story starts at Christmas and ends on New Year’s Eve? As soon as that framework occurred to me, I just wrote it. But Mel was the one who said to write about that.
Q: What about the idea to direct it [Diner] yourself?
A: I wanted the opportunity to actually do what I had in my head. It’s not just what’s on the page, it’s… what are the rhythms? What does it look like? How close can I get to the bullshit talk and make that interesting? That’s what was starting to happen in my head.
Q: What’s your style of directing when working with actors?
A: I would say it’s like controlled freedom. I want everybody to feel as free as they can to move around and not suddenly go, “When do I say that line? When do I turn here?” That gets too technical and can bog you down. I want to find a way where it is naturally comfortable to them and at the same time serves how you want to put the pieces together.
Q: Let’s talk about Rain Man ….
A: I’ll give you the surrounding circumstances. Michael Ovitz called me and said, “Sydney Pollack is going to direct Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, and he’s having some problems with the script.”
So I read the script, and on the way to Palm Springs I’m telling this story to my wife, Dianna, and another couple. And we passed those big windmills and I said, “It would be like he’s going down the road and there’re windmills there….” And Dianna said, “You should direct it.”
I said, “I’m not directing this. Sydney Pollack’s doing it. I’m just reading it. I’m going to talk to him about it and give him some thoughts.”
A couple days later, Ovitz called me and said, “Sydney is dropping out.” It was like seven, eight weeks before they were going to start principal photography. He asked me if I would be interested in directing, I met with Dustin and Tom, and that was the beginning of that.
Q: What do you recall about working with Dustin Hoffman on his role as Raymond, an autistic savant?
A: Well, Dustin called me one day and said, “When Raymond gets anxious, it says in the script that he goes into a pitching motion of winding up and throwing the ball. It takes too long to do it.”
When an actor is struggling with something, it’s always worthwhile to examine it rather than saying, “No, it’s going to be fine.” I kept thinking about it. I got an idea and called him up: “What happens if when you get anxious you do ‘Who’s on first?’” He said, “The Abbott and Costello thing?” I said, “Yeah.” And he asked, “Who’s playing the other guy?”
I said, “You say the whole thing, like a mantra. You don’t know it’s funny. But there’s a rhythm to it and if you do it in that way, it can settle him down.” He tried that and that seemed to solve that.
Q: What attracted you to Homicide: Life on the Street in 1993?
A: I always liked television — I always thought television could do certain things that features can’t do. I got David Simon’s book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and I thought, “This is really terrific, but I don’t know how you’re going to cut this down to a two-hour movie.”
I said, “Why can’t we make this a series? It’ll be about a homicide squad and how they deal with death on a regular basis. It’s not an action story where we’re chasing the bad guys. There’s a murder and you’ve got to try to deal with it, and it also follows their personal lives.” That was basically it. I thought it had value as a TV series much more so than as a feature.
Q: How did you pitch a show with no car chases and no gun battles to the network?
A: Well, every so often you get lucky. I had made a deal with NBC to do six episodes of something in which there would be no network involvement in content or casting. Brandon Tartikoff was head of the network at that point, and I told him about the piece — I laid it out in a conversation. He said, “That sounds great,” and we literally went off and did it.
I brought Tom Fontana into it, and Paul Attanasio did the initial pilot script. Then the show evolved as we went forward, as television should. Very early on — I think it was the first episode that we shot — there was a sequence in what they called “the box” [the interrogation room].
Andre Braugher [as Detective Frank Pembleton] was so good, so compelling. I said to Tom while we were shooting, “We should do a whole episode in a box rather than what we’re doing here. See if we can pull it off.” He wrote that episode, and that became part of the unpredictable nature of Homicide.
Q: Talk about directing the pilot and the choices you made for the shooting style and jump cuts….
A: The network said, “It takes place in Baltimore, but we’re not going to Baltimore. It costs too much.” Well, that wouldn’t feel right for the show. So we asked, “How do we shoot on location [in Baltimore] and keep the budget down?” Which led me to think, “Why not shoot it with a Super 16 camera and do all hand- held?” We won’t do any of the other stuff so we can be as lean as possible.
If we’re going to get into a squad car, we just get in and shoot it. We don’t do camera mounts. If we’re going into a house, we’ve got the basic lighting and then we just shoot. Because the show didn’t have any real action, I thought that we needed to create the energy, and the camera, in a sense, created the energy. The jump cuts give it this raggedness so it feels more real. It’s unsettling at times.
Q: Let’s jump to producing Oz. How did that show come together?
A: Tom [Fontana] had the idea and we went to HBO. It seems like a simpler time. Chris Albrecht [then president, HBO Original Programming] literally, off the pitch said, “Okay, go do this.” We shot a 10-minute thing and then he said, “Let’s do it.” Then it went on the air. And I think it’s the first HBO series.
Q: It’s the first hour-long drama. What is the legacy of that show?
A: It marked a giant change in the direction of HBO. Until then, they used to show movies. Then all of a sudden, they had their own series content. And what HBO is most known for now is their series: Sopranos, Veep, Game of Thrones. … It all began with Oz.
Q: Jumping ahead to 2007, you directed and executive-produced the HBO movie You Don’t Know Jack, about euthanasia proponent Jack Kevorkian. Why did you take that on?
A: It’s an issue that’s big now and it will be an even bigger issue — end of life, the wishes of an individual versus the rules of the state. I thought it was a worthwhile subject to look into.
What I didn’t want to do was some kind of polemic where you’re just giving your viewpoint. [I wanted to depict] a man, the way he functioned, his sense of humor, his dark side, the positives and negatives…. Believe in him or not, it’s a worthwhile subject. And Al [Pacino] certainly would be the actor to bring that character to the television screen.
Q: What were the challenges in making this character more relatable?
A: I don’t think you approach it like, “How do we make him more relatable?” If you meet him, you understand him. And if you can bring some of that to the piece, then you’re better off for it.
When I met [the real Jack Kevorkian] — I’ll never forget — he was up in the office and someone said, “Jack, you want some coffee?” He said, “Yeah, coffee will be good.” “Decaf?” And he went, “Nah, decaf is for cowards.” I thought that was such a funny comment to make, so I said, “We’ve got to put that in the script.”
Q: Let’s circle back to your being a sick kid in the hospital watching TV and the nurse saying, “Can you do better?” What do you think you have brought to the medium?
A: I like to explore the ordinary aspect of people. I think that’s the most revealing. It’s always character-driven for me. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the influence early TV had on me.
As a kid I loved seeing Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty on television, and there’s a line that’s something like, “What do you want to do tonight, Marty?” “I don’t know, what do you want to do, Angie?” As a kid I walked around for days saying that. I don’t remember the story of Marty, I was too little. But I loved that little exchange.
It was so ordinary that it was special to me. Like that Kevorkian comment. And in a sense Diner was so ordinary — “ You gonna eat that?” “ I don’t know if I’m going to eat it.” It’s the nonsense talk that explains relationships without explaining a relationship.
That carried through a lot of the things I do. Find things so ordinary in a certain way that they give a little extra light. And sometimes you do it with a sleight of hand so that when audiences watch, they don’t even know there’s a director involved.
That’s what I loved about some of the old guys — you could never see their hand. When I look back to some of the moments of William Wyler or George Stevens, they created a scene and you were not aware of any cuts or anything. That’s the invisible hand. It pulls everybody into the characters. It’s amazing.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2019