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Marvin Levy: The Road From Tex and Jinx to ‘Close Encounters’

It’s been more than 40 years since publicist and newly minted Governors Award honoree Marvin Levy began his close association with Steven Spielberg, but their adventures together only constitute one of acts in the Levy saga.

From the time Levy graduated from NYU in 1949, the affable but no-nonsense communications pro has been somewhere near the center of showbiz gravity.

“I was always a fan of the Broadway musicals starting in high school, and by college we were regularly scoring tickets for opening nights and showing up in tuxedos. We’d see epic shows like ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ and ‘Brigadoon,’ and being naughty boys, we’d go to the backstage door dressed in our tuxes and they’d let us in and we’d get word of where to go for the cast parties.”

When asked if a Variety column item from 1954 — “Marvin Levy and Gordon Morris penned the special material for thrush Didi Douglas’ new nitery act” — was written about him, Levy laughed and confirmed he was the Marvin Levy credited.

“I’ll be honest. I don’t remember the work, but it had to be me because Gordon Morris was my fraternity brother from NYU,” he says.

Levy does remember another colorful stint in the showbiz trenches of Manhattan around that time. “I worked for Tex and Jinx McCrary, who practically started the TV talk-show format. They had a midday TV show and a late-night radio show as well as a Sunday afternoon radio show and a column in the New York Herald Tribune. I had to help them prepare for interviews, so one day I’d be prepping for a chat with General Clark, who led the capture of Rome in World War II. The next day it would be the head of the New York Stock Exchange.

“I was one of three people they had doing research: the other two were William Safire and Barbara Walters! And I’ll tell who was about the best pre-interview gig I ever had: Variety editor Abel Green. He had the best stories and knew the best people and everything he said sounded like it was written in boldface.

“Then I met the woman who remains in my mind as second only to the greatest woman and the love of my life, my wife. I met Audrey Hepburn, who had her first stage role in ‘Gigi.’ Years later I saw her again at the premiere of Richard Lester’s ‘Robin and Marian,’ and I still remember and agree with what Jack Valenti called her: ‘Our National Treasure.’”

It wasn’t long before Levy began his more than seven decades-long career working for the major studios, starting with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s New York offices in the mid-’50s. If Levy was unflappable by the time he began his association with Spielberg on the 1977 sci-fi classic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” perhaps it’s because of those formative years on the junket circuit for Metro. In those waning days of the studio system, there was still enough star power to electrify the public and power the public’s imagination and hunger for Hollywood fantasies.

“I worked on the junket for ‘Raintree County’ with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in 1957. That was going to be MGM’s new ‘Gone With the Wind,’ but it didn’t live up to those expectations.”

If Levy’s early innings prepared him for the reality of blockbusters that failed to ignite at the box office, they also confirmed the wisdom of his choice of careers. And if Levy’s early career experiences sound like escapades from a Hollywood Golden Era musical, it only got better.

“At MGM, it was my job to take the stars to El Morocco. I wasn’t starstruck, but my wife and I were just dating and they had a terrific trio there. I remember spending time with Debbie Reynolds, who was just terrific. And Glenn Ford was a really good guy. And Shirley MacLaine was and is wonderful.

“And outside of Steven [Spielberg], probably the most interesting guy I ever worked with was Warren Beatty at Columbia. He had a penthouse at the Beverly Wilshire, and if you ever went into a meeting with Warren unprepared, it would not be a nice experience. He was incredibly prepared for every detail of publicity and everything else on a movie.”

Having spent the first half of his life in New York showbiz and the second half in sunny Southern California, could I possibly force the ever diplomatic Mr. Levy into making a choice?

“They’re totally different. Both great. But one thing is for sure: the New York mentality stays with you all your life. There’s no place like it.”

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