Obituary: Gene Levitt

Tom Vallance
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:21

TELEVISION WRITER, producer and director - Gene Levitt created one of the television's most successful series, Fantasy Island, the blatantly escapist show in which characters who visited a remote island were able to have one lifelong dream come true. The show, which starred the former Hollywood leading man Ricardo Montalban and a dwarf, Herve Villechaize, survived a poor press reaction to become an enormous favourite with viewers, and ran for over six years. Among other series written, produced or directed by Levitt were Hawaii Five-O and Alias Smith and Jones.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1920, Levitt received a degree from the University of Wyoming, having hitch-hiked to Wyoming as a youth after seeing a billboard about the West. He worked as a reporter with the City News Service in Chicago but had temporarily to abandon his career in journalism with the outbreak of the Second World War. Joining the Marines, he served as a bomb disposal officer in the South Pacific.

After the war, he formed a writing partnership with a fellow student from Wyoming, Robert Mitchell, and they moved to Hollywood to work in radio. Their first major success was The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, featuring the fictional detective created by Raymond Chandler. Van Heflin played Marlowe in a brief series in 1947, but the show became a hit the following year when it returned with a tougher hero, played by Gerald Mohr, and terse scripts by Levitt, Mitchell and Mel Dinelli. The show's hard-bitten tone was set by the opening words barked out by Mohr at the start of each episode, "Get this and get it straight, crime is a sucker's road, and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or an early grave." (Mitchell, who went on to write such series as Charlie's Angels and Chips, died in a car crash earlier this year.)

Levitt's credits in television included several television movies, including a fine suspense story which he both wrote and directed, Run a Crooked Mile (1969), starring Mary Tyler Moore and Louis Jourdan in an intriguing tale of a schoolteacher who suffers amnesia after a road accident and becomes involved in a plot to change the European gold standard.

Barnaby Jones, featuring Buddy Ebsen as a veteran detective whose homespun exterior conceals a keenly analytical mind (he even has a crime laboratory in his home), was one of the hit series on which Levitt worked, but his biggest personal success came with the creation of Fantasy Island, which ran from 1978 to 1984.

The ABC network had had a huge success with the series Love Boat, which featured several interwoven stories each week - comic, romantic or sentimental - set on a luxury liner, and wanted another show with similar wish-fulfilment appeal. Levitt came up with Fantasy Island, which, like Love Boat, featured several different stories each week played against a background which was exceedingly romantic, in this case a remote island resort where each visitor could have one lifelong dream come true.

Typical stories involved a frustrated businessman who wanted to score the business coup of his life, or a plain young man who wanted, during his stay, to become irresistible to young girls (the island was consistently well populated with bikini-clad ladies). Overseeing the dramas was the island's mysterious ruler Mr Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) and his diminutive helper Tattoo (Herve Villechaize) who would excitedly welcome the weekly guests with the phrase, "Da plane! Da plane!"

As the series progressed Roarke became more mysterious, dispensing magic spells and potions, and even doing battle with Mephistopheles (played by a guest star, Roddy McDowell).

Originally filmed at a real tropical paradise, a public park called the Arboretum 25 miles from Los Angeles, Fantasy Island overcame poor reviews (as had Love Boat) to become an enormous hit and the peak of Montalban's career. "During my early years at MGM," he said, "I drew attention from the bobby- soxers. Later, when I was appearing in the theatre and television movies, I was recognised by a mature segment of the public. Since Fantasy Island it happens with all ages."

For Levitt, the show's success meant that he had the freedom to pursue other interests - he lived on a sailing boat in Hawaii for three years, and was also an avid poker player.

Gene Levitt, television writer, director and producer: born New York 28 May 1920; married (three sons, one daughter); died Los Angeles 15 November 1999.

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