When Marvin Levy says he never expected to get an Oscar, it’s not false modesty. It just wasn’t a possibility.
Levy is one of the most respected publicists in Hollywood, with more than a half century of experience at companies like MGM, Columbia Pictures, DreamWorks and Amblin. His four-decade partnership with Steven Spielberg is the stuff of legend, having worked on campaigns including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Back to the Future,” “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park.”
He’s also been a member of the public relations branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for years and even served on its board of governors, which is why he knows for a fact that no publicist’s name has ever even been put forth for honorary Oscar consideration. Until this year.
He compared it to a sports agent winning an MVP award.
“It was way out of left field for me. I couldn’t have imagined it,” Levy said with a laugh. “It’s not like I could say ‘Gee, I’d love to get that one day.’ It was not on my to-do list.”
Levy will be accepting his golden statuette at the Governors Awards in Hollywood Sunday, along with actress Cicely Tyson and composer Lalo Schifrin. His longtime friends and colleagues Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall will also be receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.
Born and raised on the east side of Manhattan, Levy never set out to be a publicist specifically, but he always liked writing and had a way with words. One of his first jobs was writing questions for a TV quiz show. He was fired when his “big ticket” question got answered too early in the season.
His first publicity job was at MGM in New York, where he was so far down on the ladder he never even got to travel to Los Angeles. And while he doesn’t remember the first film he worked on, he remembers one of the last, the one that made him think, “I’ve got to get out of here.” It was the 1962 remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
“The lion wasn’t roaring too much at that point,” Levy said, and he found his way to legendary publicists Arthur Canton, Bill Blowitz and then Columbia Pictures which eventually took him to California. It was during that time that he first started working with Spielberg. He was told he was only to concentrate on “Close Encounters” and the hot young filmmaker who was fresh off of “Jaws.”
“That started it, and here we are 41 years later,” Levy said. “He’s been such a tremendous part of my life.”
The partnership was sealed after both he and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” were pushed aside at Columbia and he continued on with Spielberg and Kennedy.
Levy has stories for days about film sets he’s been on. There was “The Deep” where he invited journalists to observe filming in scuba suits underwater. And then there was Hurricane Iniki that bonded him for life with everyone on the set of “Jurassic Park.” (“I tell you if you ever get stranded or in an emergency, hope that you’re with a film crew because they have everything!”).
He’s had a few run ins with some “not very nice” actors who he’s had to tote around to media appearances, and remembers the ones who were always late. Ever the professional, he won’t dish on names, but he will say that some of his favorite people to work with have been Cyd Charisse and Shirley MacLaine.
And while many films that Levy has worked on have gone on to win Oscars for the filmmakers and actors, he still remembers the heartbreak when “Saving Private Ryan” lost the best picture trophy to “Shakespeare in Love” at the 71st Academy Awards.
“That was the toughest night of my life in terms of the business,” Levy said.
Immediately after the disappointment, he had to put on “as straight a face as I could” and host a table at the Governors Ball. But he takes pride in the fact that the film is still beloved and now considered a classic.
In fact, many of the films Levy has worked on are having second lives with anniversary releases, including “Schindler’s List,” which is coming to theaters starting Dec. 7 for its 25th anniversary. It’s made for some serious deja-vu for Levy who finds himself approving press releases, artwork and publicity for films he worked on decades ago.
“I live my life in rewind,” Levy laughed.
Not everything is in the rear-view mirror, though. Levy is looking forward to watching Spielberg tackle one of the few genres he hasn’t done — the musical, with “West Side Story.”
“How lucky can you be? I mean it,” he said. “We work for the best filmmaker around.”