In August 1979, 18 Chicago artists and actors decided they wanted to stage plays, taking risks with material and experimenting with form. They called themselves Innisfree. They would champion unknown playwrights. They held production meetings. But they couldn’t agree on a play, and they never staged a single production. The group split up, and the few members who decided to try again–Gary Cole, David Alan Novak, Steven Bauer, D.W. Moffett, and Lindsey McGee–called themselves the “Remains.” Their first show was Peter Weiss’s The Tower, staged in the summer of 1980. A year later current codirectors William L. Petersen and Amy Morton joined the company, and a year after that Ted Levine became a member.
In October 1982, Remains Theatre staged its ground-breaking adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick at the Goodman Studio Theatre. The Reader’s Bury St. Edmund called it “a lousy play but a kaleidoscopic stunner of a theater piece.” Writing about it in the Tribune, Richard Christiansen called it “an utterly absorbing, absolutely thrilling production of living theater.” The show received the Jeff Award for best production.
Levine was 25 years old at the time, cast in the role of Stubb, the second mate. “It was like a comic book, very stylized and done in minimalism. We tried to contrast the images with the words.” In one scene Levine’s body was strung upside down like a corpse. When the curtain opened, he could see the audience spellbound, their attention unwavering. At that moment he knew that his instincts about performance and his desire to be an actor were dead on.
“Hey, you’re that white guy.”
A small group of black men yell in the direction of Levine, who’s waiting for a bus. He doesn’t quite know what to make of this recognition, but he likes it. The white guy they mean is Frank Holman, the loopy, off-center hoodlum Levine played on Crime Story, the stylish drama that ran weekly on NBC from September 1986 to May 1988.
Levine has been classified and objectified the same way beautiful starlets are, only casting directors aren’t sending him up as the ingenue. He’s the sweetest guy you’d ever want to meet, but with his craggy face, long thinning hair, and frightening growl of a voice, Levine has been perfect for a string of nasty characters–from the deranged husband of Caryl Churchill’s Traps to the freaky DJ of Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime to the hostile superior officer of Roger Cornish’s A Class “C” Trial in Yokohama. On Crime Story it was small-time mob functionary Holman, and Levine ran with it. The show got him some good exposure and offers of film roles. Michael Mann, the film director (Thief, Manhunter) and television producer (Miami Vice) who was the show’s executive producer, told me people “would walk up to me on the street and say, ‘I love that guy Holman.'” Since then he has played a murderous white supremacist, in Costa-Gavras’s Betrayed, and a bigamist leading a double life, in Alan Rudolph’s underrated Love at Large. He also appeared in Hector Babenco’s Ironweed and John Irvin’s Next of Kin.
Now, at 33, Levine awaits reaction to, and possibly criticism for, his most important film role so far–the serial killer stalked by Jodie Foster’s FBI agent in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. In Demme’s version of Thomas Harris’s popular third novel, Levine is Jame Gumb, aka “Buffalo Bill,” a psychopath who tracks down and abducts women, then removes sections of their skin. The film and Levine’s bravura performance have become the center of some heated controversy over an actor’s moral responsibility in portraying such depravity. It’s a loaded, highly suggestive part to begin with, and no matter how Levine handled it, he knew going in he was open to attack. Whatever one thinks about Levine, or the choices he made with the role, it’s impossible to walk away from the film feeling indifferent. According to Harris’s novel, Gumb is a “white male, thirty four, six feet one inch, 205 pounds, brown and blue, no distinguishing marks.” Levine isn’t quite that tall, or as heavy, and his hair is lighter, but otherwise the description is eerily fitting. How did he get the role?
“I scared them to death in the audition. I had no idea what I was going to do. I read the script; I read the book; I tried stuff. I met Jonathan in Los Angeles, and we just talked, and I got a sense where he was at about it. He called me back; I went to New York to talk some more, and I just read. I sort of copped something on the way, which is something you have to do, whether it’s right or wrong. Actually I think my audition was better than my performance, by far,” he says.
Edward Saxon is one of the film’s three producers. What Levine brought to the audition, Saxon says, was “absolute fear. There was a sense of watching the real thing, of the guy who was really trying to keep everything under control. In that audition Ted was Gumb. It got kind of electric.”
When Levine got the part, he began researching serial killers. “There’s so many guys out there. There’s case histories of them,” he says. Levine met with John Douglas of the FBI, who tracks down and prosecutes sex-crime offenders. “I listened to some tapes and read some letters of some of these people. I was looking for consistencies. Something I found very interesting: serial killers are often half-Jewish, which is something I am, too.
“I watched this videotape of a guy building a kit, a dungeon where he was abducting women, raping them, and disposing of the bodies,” he goes on. “By and large all these guys are really nondescript, ineffectual, powerless people. They want to have control over women. I took that a step further with Gumb. Gumb wanted to be a woman, not in the sense of being transsexual, he wanted to possess the female godhead, the power he perceives women having. He wanted to be his own woman–because he wasn’t having sex with his victims, he was simply consuming them.”
The movie’s most disturbing, provocative scene takes place near the end. Levine’s Gumb has constructed an elaborate fantasy room, and he videotapes himself undergoing a transformation, visualizing himself as a woman. Demme shoots the scene in a tight, low-angle close-up. Levine is shown dressed in a kimono and wearing a blond wig, vigorously applying mascara and directly addressing the camera: “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me. I’d fuck me.” Demme pulls the camera back, the background music is Q. Lazzarus’s “Goodbye Horses” (an obscure song Demme also used in Married to the Mob). Levine pulls open his kimono to reveal his left nipple, which is pierced, and a diagonal body tattoo just above his stomach. Levine buries his penis between his legs and performs a ritualistic dance, his gestures exaggerated, his arms outstretched. The scene has verve and guts, distilling in gestures and movements Gumb’s pathology. The dance, both ridiculous and sublime, alerts the audience to Gumb’s motivations; it’s alternately horrifying, revealing, and faintly absurd. I ask Levine how he prepared mentally for that sequence. “I took a couple shots of tequila,” he says.
Saxon says “The scene took a lot of courage. It wasn’t in the script, and for me it’s a very moving scene, it identifies the pain and twisted psychology of this character.”
“We tried it a couple different ways,” Levine says. “Once a little more raunchy, except Jonathan wanted to use the ‘Goodbye Horses’ music, so it ended up being more gentle. The thing that was going through my mind is his physical being. He’s kind of like an old glitter rocker, like Iggy Pop if he hadn’t become Iggy Pop, or David Bowie hadn’t become David Bowie. Here’s a guy who imagines himself with this kind of feminine power, you know, this spiritual kind of mother power. Mick Jagger, Bowie, all these guys have this androgyny that makes them attractive to men and women. Serial killers all pursue that feminine energy, that female persona. They get both [masculinity and femininity] wrapped into someone, and that’s like perfection, real power, and that’s what Gumb is after.”
In the film Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, an FBI agent in training tracking Gumb. (His gruesome nickname derives from the E.E. Cummings poem “Buffalo Bill”: “How do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death.”) She enlists the help of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a deranged genius now imprisoned for his own serial killings. Lecter suggests of Gumb: “He wasn’t born a killer, he was made one, through years of systematic abuse. Billy hates his own identity, he always has–and he thinks that makes him a transsexual. But his pathology is a thousand times more savage.”
Demme and Levine agreed to eliminate any stereotypes that could suggest that Gumb is homosexual. It “was very important that we were very careful in not sending any incorrect or inflammatory signals,” says Demme. “Gumb of course is not homosexual; he’s not portrayed to be gay. . . . He suffers from a gender problem. He’s a man who loathes himself so much he wants to be the farthest away from what he fundamentally is–a woman.”
“It was hard. I’ll never do a character like this again,” Levine says. “I would have loved to just have done the part from the script, and not deal with the book, it would be so much easier to work that way, and there are so many images in the book that aren’t in the film. On the one hand they can be useful to you, on the other hand you can end up working too hard, which is something I think I did. I drove myself nuts with this character. I lived with this son of a bitch. Something that is very consistent with serial killers is they look at a lot of pornography, and I did that too. That will make you fucking crazy.”
During Levine’s ample spare time during the shooting of the film, he looked for ideas or details to round out Gumb’s personality, stuff Harris or the screenwriter Ted Tally didn’t supply. Gumb hated his life, Levine reasoned. But he also envisioned himself as a rock ‘n’ roll star. Carrying out this projection, Levine took an old acoustic guitar, marked it with indentations, an STP sticker, and a figurine of a young woman.
“Obviously with someone like Gumb who’s that destructive and that sick, he’s in a lot of pain. There’s a very thin line between homicide and suicide. Someone who’s homicidal is just as likely to take his own life as someone else’s. This is something I found out researching these guys.
“Gumb’s loving it at the end when he’s being caught, particularly by a woman. It comes to a point where they beg to be caught. There’s fun in eluding the authorities, the deception becomes part of the game, part of the fun, part of the plans. They all want to be stopped, they all want to be killed. That’s why the death penalty doesn’t make any sense and isn’t a deterrent, because somebody who’s murdering somebody wants to die. If anything, it offers more of an intrigue to them. So in a culture that kills its murderers, you’re going to have more murderers.”
Levine had a small shock when he found out about plans for location shooting. “Once I got the part, I was looking at location-scouting photographs. Everything was going to be shot near Pittsburgh, and they’re showing me these houses. They say, ‘This house may be Gumb’s house.’ I’m thinking this house looks really familiar. They told me, ‘We found this really awful, godforsaken coal-mining town on the Ohio River.’ And I said, ‘Bellaire, Ohio.’ And they said ‘Yes.’ I grew up in Bellaire, and the house they were thinking to be Gumb’s house was next door to the house of my girlfriend when I was like in the third grade. . . . We had a read-through, and I was shaking the whole time.
“I came home from New York and I called Del Close, who’s this warlock, mystic kind of guy, and he said, ‘Oh, it’s great stuff, don’t worry about it.’ At the same time I didn’t want to come back to my hometown, presenting it as this lair of serial killers. That was a trip. I did use a touch of the Ohio Valley accent.”
Levine was the fourth of five children born to Milton and Charlotte Levine, doctors with liberal sympathies, members of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He’s part Russian, Jewish, American Indian, and Welsh. He likes to call himself a “rocking hillbilly Jew.” Growing up Ted had a flair for story telling and tall tales. “I was a real good liar. Acting is deceiving,” he says.
He remembers the day of a funeral for an older friend who had killed himself. After the funeral, the family was spread out on the porch, watching a Laurel and Hardy short on television. “It was this very painful, physical kind of comedy, where Ollie’s got his head sticking out of a hole, and Stan’s pulling his neck and tripping over a bucket. We were all laughing and crying; the impulse to laugh and cry sort of comes from the same emotional and physiological trigger. Something really clicked with me. I think it was at that point I realized how you could explore different ranges in acting. I understood something about performance, and what it meant.”
In the late 60s, things were heating up in Ohio. “The FBI was all over my father’s ass for people he knew in college, and ultimately, because of his associations with the union organizers and mine workers over his activism and concerns about black lung disease, they accused him of harboring communists.” In 1969, the family picked up and moved to Oak Park. A week after they arrived, the 12-year-old Ted ran afoul of the local authorities for hunting squirrels.
He never really fit in at Oak Park-River Forest High School; to fight off the loneliness and boredom, he began using drugs. Brushes with the police followed. Clearly something needed to be done. His parents decided to send him to Windsor Mountain, an alternative high school in Lennox, Massachusetts, run by what Levine calls “Czechoslovak socialists.”
The environment and setting liberated him. There were only 200 students in the school. He was mechanically skilled and musically adept, and he finally began to funnel his considerable energy into something creative.
He went on to Marlboro College in Vermont, and started appearing in local repertory theaters there and beyond, going up and down the east coast to find work. “I was doing mostly character stuff, old men and that sort of thing,” he says. Then he dropped out of school. “I was already making money, something like $140 a week, which seemed like an awful lot. It didn’t make much sense to stay there,” he says.
In 1979 he moved with his girlfriend to Ann Arbor, where they formed a small group intending to produce plays by Sam Shepard. Levine directed and acted in productions of The Curse of the Starving Class and Action. “Those were the only two plays we ever produced. We were parasites,” he says, laughing. “I thought Shepard was this country’s greatest playwright. I still think Action is his best play. My old girlfriend had actually gotten kicked out of school, but she was still on record as being a student, so we were able to still use the college’s facilities. It was sort of a vengeance theater company, I guess. She was premed, but she wasted all her time doing theater.”
He stayed there until the fall of 1980, then he moved to New York. “I stayed there about a year. I worked in a cabinet shop, I did industrials, I was a construction worker, and it was just too expensive,” he says. So next he moved to Chicago, where he began doing commercials and public-service announcements. The best known was a stark black-and-white spot promoting literacy and featuring a bearded Levine as a ravaged homeless man. It’s one of the ironies of being an actor that that 60-second spot gained Levine more recognition than anything he’d ever done before.
An actor’s career typically hangs on breaks and good fortune. For Levine it was knowing Amy Morton, whom he’d met at Oak Park-River Forest High School and who had become a member of the Remains ensemble. In March 1982, Remains was holding auditions for a production of Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime. “Teddy called me and said he was looking for work,” she says. “I had him come in and read. Don Moffett was the director, and Don really liked him, so we cast Ted and after that we asked him into the company.”
Moby Dick was detonated seven months later. Over the next three years Levine appeared in several Remains productions, including Name Withheld by Request, a project consisting of different sketches written and directed by various ensemble members. Levine wrote four sketches about love and relationships that were highly praised. In August 1985, Levine directed Franz X. Kroetz’s The Nest at the Goodman Studio (“That was a good play that didn’t get seen,” Levine says).
“He’s really agile, and can do a lot of things,” says Morton. “On television they don’t tend to write three-dimensional characters, and the only thing he’s ever allowed to play are weird, serious guys. On stage he’s allowed to really fill out. You’re allowed to see where those characters come from.
“He’s really quite the Renaissance man,” she says. “He plays a few instruments, he’s a really good carpenter, and an excellent drawer. He’s got a bizarre sense of humor.”
Levine likes the repetition of the theater, the directness, the intimacy with the audience. “You have the time and luxury to learn the lines and forget them,” he says. “The theater is like playing a game of football, with a clear start and finish.
“Generally you have a month of rehearsals and a couple months of productions. You know that, so you have a nice framework. That’s one of the beauties of it. Your balls are on the line. There’s no slacking off. It comes down to the wire, and you’re up there. You’re going to do the whole thing in a number of hours, so prepare for it, relax and stretch, and then you do it. It’s a very physical thing as well. You’ve got to be bigger on the stage. You have to be heard for one thing, which is something I’ve always had trouble with. It’s one of the reasons I like film, because I can mumble. I’ve always felt my person is more effective on film than onstage. I’m just not a real extroverted person. Not that film is easier, it’s just an easier place for me to be.”
Levine met Michael Mann in the late fall of 1985. Remains’ Bill Petersen was on location in Miami filming Manhunter, Mann’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s second novel, Red Dragon, which also happens to feature Lecter, the mad psychiatrist of The Silence of the Lambs. Levine was in town, having just been fired from a touring production of Biloxi Blues for publicly criticizing the assistant director.
He stopped by the wrap party for Mann’s film to see his pal Petersen. “I went over there and crashed the party, and they tried to throw me out. I said, ‘Tell Michael I’m a friend of Billy Petersen’s,’ and that’s how I met Michael. I think he admired me for that. I was wandering around the Florida Keys with my brother, and I got a call from my agent saying Michael was casting for Crime Story.”
“He’s a terrific talent,” Mann says. “He’s got a great sense of character and take on what is normally obscure. He makes choices of movement to direction and characterization that are not easily obtainable. Half of Frank Holman was written, the other half Ted invented.
“The totality of that character was brilliant; it’s a little thing inside of Crime Story that aficionados and the people who worked on the show really appreciated a lot. You have to really be a gourmet about the show to pick out how marvelous Frank Holman is,” he says. Holman was loosely based on Frank Holheimer, who wrote The Home Invaders, the book Mann used as the basis for his first feature, Thief. “He was a thief and rockabilly musician who opened up a bar here; that’s where I got the idea for the music,” Levine says. “And that’s how I got to Vegas.”
Set in Chicago in the 50s, Crime Story starred former Chicago cop Dennis Farina as Mike Torello, a detective heading up a special organized-crime unit. Holman was a mob lieutenant. At the end of the first season the setting shifted to Las Vegas, and Levine was written out of the show.
“It was one of the last episodes before they left Chicago. Gary Sinise was going to direct it. . . . My original contract was up, I was on a per-show deal; they were paying me a certain amount as they needed me. I hear, ‘Well, Ted, we’re sorry but we’re not going to be able to take you to Vegas, so good-bye.’ So it’s all really vague, and I want to go to Vegas, I want to continue the show.
“The costumer’s calling me to do this show, a two-minute bit on the stand where I’ve got to turn this evidence against Torello. I refused to come to the set to do this, the whole story is geared to this courtroom scene. So Michael finally calls me up, and says, ‘What’s going on?’ I told him I wanted to go to Vegas. He said, ‘Look, we love you, the editor loves you, everybody likes you on this show. We just can’t figure a way to get you out there.’ I said, just have him turn up there, he’s not dead. Look, Holheimer was a musician, have him turn up in a lounge act.”
Sure enough, Levine turned up on the show’s second season as a blithe, somewhat surreal Elvis impersonator. “That wasn’t an Elvis impersonator,” he says loudly. “Initially it started out as a Johnny Burnette kind of guy, and they turned him into an Elvis impersonator with those fucking Vegas suits. The show got stupid when it went to Las Vegas, which happens a lot. People get kind of self-conscious when they start to read their press, it develops a kind of third eye and becomes ingratiating. It happens to actors and it happens to projects.”
Levine lives in a house in Uptown with Kim Phillips, a makeup artist for films and commercials, and their two-year-old son Mack. His 14-year-old daughter Melissa lives in California. The last time she was in town, Levine gave Melissa a copy of Harris’s novel so she’d know what to expect.
“Kim was sort of offended by the movie, and asked me why I did it, because she always thought I did things that were responsible and valuable,” Levine says. “I think this is valuable in the sense it deals with matters of sexual identity, the confusion people find themselves in. Not that this film is pornographic, but there’s going to be a lot of people who see it and are going to get a sensational rush from it. That’s something that has to be addressed, and movies like this and [John McNaughton’s] Henry at least open up a discussion about that.”
Levine hasn’t worked as an actor since the film wrapped a year ago. “It’s next to impossible to make a living on the stage in Chicago. There are a number of things I would like to do, and I can’t live on $300 a week,” he says. “At the moment I’m swamped by financial things, I’m making the transition from being the hippie on the bicycle to somebody with a mortgage and family. My standard of living is not that high at this point. I hope to keep it down where I can come back to the theater and work. Do it for what I do it for, as opposed to have it make a living for me,” he says. In the meantime he’s been working as a carpenter and roofer. “The fact of the matter is I don’t do everything that comes along. There are a lot of lousy scripts I don’t look at.”
This week he started work on a TV movie called Out of Season, playing the mayor of a resort town, who’s also a declining writer. It should air next December on NBC. “I told you I like television,” he says. “Hit the ball, catch the ball, get the job done–not a whole lot of time fucking around thinking about stuff and driving yourself crazy. That’s one of the reasons I want a large film part, so I’ve got a lot of work and don’t have to worry about the five lines I’m going to be doing sometime next week. An actor can work too hard.
“I don’t live in Los Angeles; I might have to in order to be near it. I love the midwest. LA is like a porno without the sex. It has about that much allure for me. Is this film going to make me or break me? The typecasting thing is very frustrating. I do get cast as bad guys, and I’m not. I love my children, I’m a good father, I’ve got a pretty strong sense of right and wrong. That’s probably the hardest thing in doing the roles that I do, that’s really rough.
“If Ted Levine ‘happens’ after this TV movie, I enter this realm of absolute stupidity. ‘How will they see me?’ The business is rough that way. As an artist, and I consider myself an artist, I go in and if they think I’m a joke, then it’s me they’re rejecting. Yeah, I’m a television personality now,” he says, laughing. “I don’t have to rape or kill anyone. Maybe I’ve finally arrived.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.