Barry Knows Jack

Levinson on Living Life and Filming Death

By Curt Schleier

Published April 14, 2010, issue of April 23, 2010.
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Len Amato, head of HBO films, called up director Barry Levinson. “He said, ‘We’ve got this script [by Adam Mazer].’” Levinson said. “I talked to [Amato], and said I was interested.” Levinson is talking on the phone about “You Don’t Know Jack,” about Jack Kevorkian. Known as “Dr. Death,” Kevorkian went to prison in his battle to give terminal patients the right to assisted suicide.

Levinson knew “basically the very simple facts” about Kevorkian before starting the project, but since working on the film, Kevorkian keeps coming up: “This past May, my wife’s father had a failing heart condition. He was really on the downside, and he ended up with a massive stroke. He was paralyzed; he couldn’t even open his eyes, couldn’t speak.

“He was lying in bed (in the hospital) and… it was clear that he was uncomfortable. We asked the nurse, ‘Can’t you give him something to make him more comfortable?’” But she’d already given him his full medication.

When the family asked again for help, the nurse got angry, blurting out, “You know, I’m not Dr. Kevorkian.” “Since I started working on this film, I hear these things all the time,” Levinson said.

Kevorkian is not the simple villain painted by the nurse — he just wants the patient to have the right to decide. One of Levinson’s goals is that the film will put assisted suicide back in the national dialogue. “If nothing else. It should be up for discussion, as opposed to everyone being afraid to talk about it,” he said.

“You Don’t Know Jack” certainly packs the kind of wallop that will get people talking. It features an all-star cast, including Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon, Brenda Vaccaro and John Goodman. That it airs on HBO (April 24) and doesn’t play the local cineplex is a measure of the mood of the country. “The theatrical atmosphere really isn’t suited for this film,” Levinson explained. “The distributors would be way too timid, and I think HBO isn’t timid that way. If it were released theatrically, they’d say, ‘Can you soften this?’ ‘Can you do this?’ and all that stuff. It wouldn’t be seen out there in the way it can on HBO.”

These are surprising words coming from Levinson, the Academy Award-winning director of “Rain Man.” You’d think with a track record that includes critical and financial successes such as “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Tin Men” and “The Natural,” he could name his movie. But the movie business has changed, and reputation or not, it’s “always a struggle to get something made and tell some kind of a story.”

He is in a reflective mood of late, in part because he’s just been honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America. So yes, he’d talk to the Forward about his personal Baltimore trilogy: “Diner,” “Avalon” and “Liberty Heights.” After all, he remembers his grandfather reading the Forward.

That grandfather, in fictional form, starts the film “Avalon” by describing how he came to America in 1914 and then tells of his first night in Baltimore:

It was the most beautiful place you ever seen in your life. There were lights everywhere! What lights they had! It was a celebration of lights! I thought they were for me, Sam, who was in America. Sam was in America! I didn’t know what holiday it was, but there were lights. And I walked under them. The sky exploded, people cheered, there were fireworks! What a welcome it was, what a welcome!

Ask Levinson what life was like growing up Jewish in Baltimore, and he tells you: “I actually covered it pretty well in the sense of what I showed in ‘Liberty Heights’ and ‘Avalon.’ Our dinners were like that. If there was something [the adults] didn’t want you to hear, they would speak in Yiddish. That was sort of common. When they spoke Yiddish, we always knew why. The punch lines of jokes always seemed to be in Yiddish, too.”

Levinson attended Hebrew school, but only briefly. “That didn’t work out particularly well. I either quit or was thrown out. I wasn’t a very good student to begin with, and Hebrew school was a worse situation for me. As a kid, if I didn’t understand what I was learning I would turn off. Hebrew school was all about reciting, and if I didn’t know what it meant I wouldn’t pay attention.”

His family celebrated the holidays, but not evenly. “My mother’s family, the Krichinsky side, was not nearly as religious as the Levinson side. My grandmother Levinson kept kosher. My grandmother on the Krichinsky side drew the line at crab cakes.”

Much of this showed up in “Avalon,” an extremely realistic portrayal of his life. In fact, in one scene, in which Grandma Krichinsky is buried, Levinsky said that “as mourners I had extended family members. As I was beginning to explain what they were supposed to do, someone said: ‘We know. We know. This is the second time we’ve been to her funeral.’”

There was also a sense of déjà vu from another incident, this one in “Liberty Heights” when Levinson and friends gate-crashed a public pool that banned Jews. “Initially the reaction after the film came out was that this was impossible, that after World War II, Jews weren’t allowed to swim in public pools.

“Then I started getting letters from people thanking me for putting that incident in. They’d say, ‘Anytime I told the story about Jews not being able to swim in the public facilities in our town, no one would believe me.’ It wasn’t just Jews, of course. African Americans and dogs weren’t allowed, either.”

The interesting thing about using your own background as grist for your creative mill is that “other things come up, which I’d forgotten. I’ll give you an example. And I’m telling this story in terms of my naiveté and not understanding antisemitism. As kids, when we’d go to pick up a Jewish girl, you’d go into the house and she’d be upstairs getting ready. You’d meet the parents, and they’d ask are you related to this Levinson or that Levinson. But if you went out with a gentile girl, she was always ready to go. She’d be on the porch, waiting for you, and that was the difference to us. Gentile girls were always prompt. That was the way we viewed it.

“But the reason they were so punctual is that they didn’t want you to go into the house. She didn’t want to have to say to her dad, ‘This is Barry Levinson.’ That was the reality.”

Curt Schleier is editor of and

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