Acclaimed Canadian comedian, movie and television star Eugene Levy will be honoured May 17 at the annual Negev Dinner sponsored by the Hamilton, Ont. branch of the Jewish National Fund.
Born and raised in Hamilton, Levy has been succeeding in show business ever since 1972, when he joined the cast of Godspell, eventually playing Jesus in the final months of the production.
Of all the honours he has accumulated over the years – being named an officer of the Order of Canada, receiving the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and getting his own star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, in addition to sharing one with the entire cast of SCTV – Levy told The CJN the Negev Dinner is one he never expected.
Proceeds from the Negev Dinner will support Aleh, an Israeli disability support agency serving 750 children with developmental and medical conditions. Aleh has four residential facilities in Israel (in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Gedera and in the Negev near Ofakim), and their services are available regardless of ethnic or religious background.
You’re going to be honoured by the Jewish National Fund in Hamilton. What does that kind of recognition mean to you?
It means a great deal. The Negev Dinner in Hamilton is a tradition going back to before I was born. I grew up knowing what this dinner means to the city of Hamilton. To be the honoree is quite something. You never grow up thinking you will be the honoree.
What was it like growing up Jewish in Hamilton in the 1950s and ‘60s?
I grew up in the downtown section of Hamilton on a street where there wasn’t much of a Jewish community. In fact, there was no Jewish community at all. The only time being Jewish came into play was at school when they were handing out Gideon Bibles and they would ask, “Is there anybody who might not want to accept this Bible?” and I would have to put my hand up. When you’re in Grade 3, that makes you a little self-conscious, even if you don’t understand why. When I turned 13 and became a teenager, my social scene was kind of involved in the Jewish community in terms of going out and going to parties and things like that. Growing up in school and going to high school, my world was pretty exclusive.
What was it that drew you to acting and comedy?
I always liked it. I did school plays in high school and really immersed myself in drama when I got to McMaster (University), and yet there was no drama course and no film board back then, so it was all kind of extracurricular, but I absolutely loved it. I was in absolutely every play I could be in and missed a lot of classes because I spent so much time hanging around the theatre and hanging around the film club.
I had no idea this was something I could do for a living. It’s not like I was thinking this is what I want to do. It never occurred to me that even though I was spending so much time doing it that you could actually go out and make a living at it. It wasn’t until I left McMaster and called my friend Ivan Reitman, who I had gone to school with at McMaster, and he gave me a job on his first picture in Toronto. That’s how I got started, but there was never any kind of conscious decision that acting is what I wanted to do. I just kind of got into it through the back door.
At both McMaster and later at Second City, you were rubbing elbows with some pretty incredible talents. What was that like?
They were very talented people. Ivan Reitman and Dan Goldberg from the McMaster Film Board. We had a lot of fun and I got to make a couple of movies from there. Ivan turned the club from a kind of underground thing into a profit-making club. We had a lot of fun. I also hung out at the school paper at McMaster, the Silhouette, with some really bright and funny guys, Lawrence Martin among them, who’s now a great political writer and journalist for the Globe and Mail and the Washington, D.C. correspondent for many years. I think he’s still with the Globe and Mail and has written a few books on Jean Chrétien. There was a really bright and funny group at McMaster. I loved spending time with them and had more fun spending time with them than going to class, unfortunately. Getting into Godspell in 1972 was our first professional show, and we were in that show with some pretty incredible talents – my friend Marty Short from McMaster was in that show, Gilda Radner and Andrea Martin and Victor Garber and Paul Shaffer. That was my first time rubbing elbows with some extremely talented, bright actors.
You got to play Jesus in that one. What was that like for a Jewish boy?
It was a terrific role. I got to play Jesus for the last three months of the production. What was it like? Jesus was a Jew, no question about that. I would call him the first Reform rabbi who had some ideas that ran contrary to what was going on back then. I always look at him as one of the great Jews. If nothing else, he was one of the great prophets.
You’ve called your current show, Schitt’s Creek, the project that you’re most proud of. Why is that?
There’s a number of reasons. I’m incredibly proud of my kids. My son Dan and I put the show together, and he has gone on to do an amazing job show-running and has proven himself to be a dynamic writer and producer and an actor. I think the writing is superb on the show and the cast is one of the strongest casts that I’ve been associated with. It has a comic sensibility to it that I absolutely love. The show is so grounded in reality and grounded in truth that it’s the kind of comedy that I actually find very exciting. The town that we’ve created is a town that I would describe as an all-inclusive town. This town really deals with people in terms of who they are, not what they are. There’s no black, brown or white, or gay or straight, or male or female. People are accepted for who they are, and I think it’s sending a strong message to the world.
How did you get the title past the censors?
We argued the fact that S-C-H-I double-T is a legitimate surname. You can find this name in just about any phone book in any city around the world. When we were having our initial meetings with the CBC and they talked about the name of the show, we said, “Well, if you have someone on a program and their name is Schitt, are you telling me you wouldn’t run their name under their interview?” So they said fine. In addition to being the name of the family that founded the town, it’s also the most appropriate title for the situation the Rose family finds themselves in.
Who were your comedy influences?
I grew up watching a lot of early television comedians like Jackie Gleason and Ernie Kovacs, but I think of all those comedians probably Jack Benny had the biggest influence on me because of the way he surrounded himself with funny people and was smart enough to let them get their laughs so he could get bigger laughs by reacting. For me, that’s the kind of reactive comedy I love.
What’s next for you?
I don’t have a lot of time, because the three months I have off I really love having off, so there really isn’t a lot of time to get involved in anything else. I put 100 per cent of myself into this thing, so when the show is finally over, I’ll think about getting back into movie work or whatever.