Eugene Levy: Canadian Comic, American (Pie) Dad

Eugene Levy1The world of cinema has given audiences a goodly number of touching father-son moments over the years, from Mickey Rooney as typical teenager Andy Hardy and Lewis Stone’s as his wise pop, Judge Hardy, in the 1930s- ’40s MGM series, to the devotion shown by Godzilla to his less-than-gargantuan offspring Minya in Son of Godzilla, to the familial games of catch that ended the ’80s baseball dramas The Natural and Field of Dreams. For the last decade or so, however, the most popular paterfamilias among moviegoers has probably been “Jim’s Dad” in the American Pie films, a role that introduced a new generation of fans to one of the stars of the brilliant SCTV comedy series, Eugene Levy.

Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in December, 1946, Levy’s professional start came along as a result of his college friendship with future Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. After a bit part in the filmmaker’s 1971 comedy Foxy Lady, Levy’s starring debut came in 1973, alongside eventual SCTV co-star Andrea Martin, in Reitman’s horror spoof Cannibal Girls. Making his way to Toronto, Eugene became part of that city’s Second City comedy troupe, and in 1976 he would join fellow improv performers John Candy,  Joe Flaherty, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas, and Martin–plus Chicago import Harold Ramis–in bringing Second City TV to the small screen. Levy stayed on SCTV–as it would eventually come to be known–throughout its 1976-84 run in syndication, on NBC, and on Cinemax. Here he would develop such beloved characters as smarmy stand-up comic Bobby (“How are ya!?”) Bittman; Leutonian accordionist Stan Shmenge, one half of  The Happy Wanderers duo with brother Yosh (Candy); terminally unhip dance show host “Rockin'” Mel Slirrup; befuddled newsman Earl Camembert; and B-horror actor Woody Tobias, better known as Dr. Tongue’s sidekick Bruno.

Levy would team up with SCTV cohorts Candy and Flaherty for the underrated 1983 comedy Going Berserk, and that same year play the car salesman who unloads a Wagon Queen Family Truckster on Chevy Chase and his family in National Lampoon’s Vacation. 1984 saw Levy in a memorable supporting turn as mermaid-seeking scientist Walter Kornbluth, who makes life miserable for Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks, in Splash, and he would re-team with Candy as the Shmenge Brothers for the 1985 TV special The Last Polka and as hapless security guards in 1986’s Armed and Dangerous.  Flaherty, Martin and Moranis joined Levy–along with Robin Williams, Peter O”Toole and Twiggy–later that year in the less-than-successful all-star Caribbean comedy Club Paradise.

A small role in 1991’s remake of Father of the Bride with Steve Martin would lead to a different part in Father of the Bride, Part II four years later, while in the interim Levy played an assistant demon opposite John Ritter and Pam Dawber in the 1992 satire Stay Tuned. 1996 would see the start of a fruitful screen collaboration when Levy and director Christopher Guest co-scripted and co-starred in the small-town showbiz comedy Waiting for Guffman. The indie film’s critical success would lead the duo to continue working together, both as actors and writers, on such arthouse favorites as the dog show spoof Best in Show in 2000, 2003’s folk music mockumentary A Mighty Wind (for which Levy would share in a Grammy Award for the title song), and their 2006 look at, of all things, indie filmmaking, For Your Consideration.

The turning point in terms of box office appeal, however, would come for Eugene when he co-starred as the sympathetic, if not always helpful, father who catches son Jason Biggs enjoying some homemade apple pie a little bit too much in the raunchy-but-good-natured hit American Pie. The scenes between Levy and Biggs in the film and its two theatrical sequels managed to be both funny and genuinely poignant, a quality missing from the four direct-to-video follow-ups that Levy has starred in (making him the only actor to appear in all seven movies). Oh, well, at least the creators eventually managed to give his character a full name–Noah Levenstein–by the fifth entry in the series.

In the wake of the American Pie films’ popularity, Levy has also had supporting roles opposite Father of the Bride co-star Martin in 2003’s Bringing Down the House and Cheaper by the Dozen 2 in 2005 , and he co-starred later that year with Samuel L. Jackson in the action/comedy The Man. More recently, he’s done cartoon voice work (Over the Hedge, Astro Boy), played ’60s New York farmer Max Yasgur in director Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, and supplied the voice of Albert Einstein…well, the voice of Albert Einstein bobbleheads, anyway…in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. And on a only slightly connected closing note, I’d like to say how complimented I was when, at a baseball game two summers ago, a youngster sitting in the row behind me looked at me and asked if I was the guy who played “the dad in American Pie.”  Would that I was as funny as, or had the career of, Eugene Levy.