The Way They Were
Rona Barrett's Daytimers Magazine, November 1978
Article Provided By Wanda
Has the climb up the ladder of professional success been an easy one for Michael Levin of ABC’s Ryan’s Hope? Certainly not! Michael’s career from the start has been a difficult one, and if he had it all to do over again, he doubts that he would pick the same profession.
After having been in the Navy for two years, Michael then went to the University of Minnesota. In his junior year, Michael found himself falling asleep in the journalism advertising classes, and decided that he wanted something different.
"I was going to be a writer. My father was a self-made businessman and I didn’t want to go into business. I tried writing, and I found it to be a very lonely and difficult thing," Michael recalled.
Had he ever thought of acting before then? Michael’s answer is very adamant. “No, I had never thought of it. I had always thought of acting as sort of sissy stuff! When I grew up, it was all sports and fighting. I remember, even in high school, thinking, ‘who would go out fo the class play?’” he continued, “Because I didn’t want to work, I decided to become an actor!”
After a trip to New York, and a talk with the East coast casting director for Universal, Michael went back to finish school. “The director told me to finish school, then come back, and I could be an actor! I think he had some kind of a deal worked out with my Aunt Frances who worked for him, because he said ‘you’ve already completed three years of college. Go back and get your degree.’”
Michael is able to laugh about his early naivety concerning acting. He recalls the day of his very first acting class at the University of Minnesota. “I went into a beginning acting class with seventeen-and eighteen-year-old students. The very first day they told us to be little children. I was just petrified. Here I was, this grown man who had never done this before in my life. I remember I hid under the desk! I was being a little kid, so I hid under the desk, and I didn’t have to move. I was twenty-two at the time. But I was sold. That was it right there!”
The University thought Michael was very good, and they wanted him to stay. But he had other ideas. "I was very successful at the university. They thought I was a diamond in the rough, and they wantd me to stay to get my Master’s Degree, but I said no! I had to get to Hollywood. I was going to be a star!"
Unfortunatley, Michael’s high hopes were soon lowered when Universal gave him a screen test, and he failed. “I remember being told to call the director of casting at the studios. He said, ‘we’ll let you know if we can give you anything.’ Michael knew then that it was their way of politely saying no, and he went on a three day drinking spree. He added, “I was shocked!”
After that, Michael was able to get a few small stage parts in Hollywood, and a bit part for television. That part allowed him to join the Screen Actor’s Guild.
At about the same time, Michael took some additional acting classes. He was even in one of the same classes as Jack Nicholson. “That was when I was in California. As I had said before, I didn’t know from nothing. I thought I was terrific! I had all of this fire and juice. In fact, Robert Blake was in that class too. He was more like me. He too had all of that fire!
“Nicholson was just beginning, and he had nothing! I’d watch him in improvisations and I always found him interesting but I thought that he couldn’t act! He would always do what the instructor told him to do, and the instructor was always impressed with him. I always wondered why? Nicholson would never do anything. He would just go and sit there, and wait for something to motivate him. He was always very simple, and very honest. At that time I wasn’t ready to take that kind of an understanding of acting. I wanted to act!”
The story continues for Michael. “Then I got a fellowship to continue in graduate studies for my PH.D. at the University of Minnesota, and to work as an actor at the Guthrie Theater. That was in 1962, the Theater’s very first year. That was when I first got serious about acting. I found that I could act. I did Shakespeare, and a lot of other classical parts. It was exciting.”
It was while Michael was at the Guthrie Theater he met his wife, Elizabeth. She was teaching at the University, and was also writing plays, one of which the Guthrie Theater produced. Their son Aaron, was born at this time. (Elizabeth also has a son, Scott by a previous marriage. Michael’s son, Jason, by his former marriage, also lives with them). But Michael knew, that to pursue his talents, he had to move on.
1965 found Michael heading for New York, and his first Broadway role. “I got a part in Royal Hunt of the Sun. That was with David Carradine. Then after that I did some work at Lincoln Center, and at the Stratford Theatre in Connecticut.”
By now Michael was climbing the walls with the only occasional visit by his wife and children. He insisted Elizabeth pack her bags and join him in New York. Although Michael had rented a city apartment for them to live in, “I couldn’t stand it and vowed I’d never live in the city,” explained Elizabeth. It didn’t take long before Michael moved his family into the country, where they have been nestled ever since.
Little did Michael know what effect would be produced when he consented to do a commercial for Alitalia Airlines. In the commercial, Micahel posed as the Italian spokesman for the Airline. Obviously, he must have been very convincing as an Italian, because within two months Michael was offered two as an Italian. (Incidentally, Michael is actually Jewish). Both roles were for soaps. Happily, the role that he did accept was that of Jack Fenelli, on Ryan’s Hope. That was when the show was first getting off the ground, and he has been with it ever since. Many of his devoted fans will gratefully attest to that!
Michael candidly admits that his career has been a difficult one, and he more honestly says that he does have his regrets. “I don’t have a lot of regrets, but I do have some. In this profession, you don’t have a lot of control over your own life. It’s a silly thing to say, but if I had it all to do over again, and I could change anything I wanted to change, I would pick a profession where I could have a little bit more control over my life. Maybe I’d be an architect, or something like that. I like acting, and I like directing. But that is only when you are working!” Michael continued in his very open manner.
“To say that I am perfectly happy is a little too strong. I am very happy acting, and I am very happy when I am working. But that is only when I am working. I also find that about ninty percent of what is available for an actor isn’t all that good. I don’t like doing commercials, and I don’t like doing bad plays.”
When asked if he felt uncomfortable about performing, Michael added, “There are two kinds of actors. There is the extroverted show off, I am the introvert. I can’t just stand up and perform. I do feel uncomfortable at times.”
Michael loves the applause, but sometimes finds himself filled with the pain of having to perform. After his unusual entrance into the profession, how did Michael ever manage to cope with the difficult pressure of trying to make it to the top? Was there a special driving force? Or was it that Michael was just accepting his fate? He puts it this way, "I didn’t have any particular philosophy. I changed all of the time. I went up, and I went down, and I changed my mind, and then I would come back."
“About five years ago I just accepted the fact that if you are something, like I am now an actor, you might as well just accept it. You must accept it, and then commit yourself to it. You have to do it no matter what! That really helped.”
Michael Levin is stoical, outgoing, and introverted all at the same time. Perhaps his interesting personality accounts for his even more interesting past. Michael Levin is impulsive, and hopefuly that impulsiveness will keep Michael where all his fans want him to stay, right in eyesight, whatever he decides
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