Eugene Levy doesn’t think he’s funny.
“Ironically, I’m actually pretty straight-laced,” he says. That’s an odd statement when you consider Levy’s funny act came of age around the time Canada was coming into its own on the comedy stage.
From helping put Canadian comedy on the global map with TV sketch comedy foundation-builder SCTV, to co-writing and starring in Christopher Guest cult classics and playing that awkward dad in American Pie, Levy’s career has been a non-stop guffaw since the late ’70s.
It was while he was studying sociology at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON in the 1970s that Levy met some of the biggest (future) names in Canadian comedy, including Martin Short and Ivan Reitman – relationships that would last with him throughout his career.
In fact, Levy’s first job on the big screen in 1973 came in Reitman’s horror-comedy Cannibal Girls, where he played opposite Andrea Martin. Levy admits the reception to that film wasn’t all that warm: it opened and closed within a week at The Coronet theatre in Toronto, known at the time mainly for playing porn. (Despite the dismal reception, Levy and Martin won awards for Best Actor and Best Actress at the 1973 International Horror Festival in Spain.)
But that titillating premiere was just the spark of his career. Shortly after Cannibal Girls, Levy, (along with Short, Martin, Gilda Radner, Dave Thomas, and other future Canadian comedy icons) landed a part in the Toronto stop of a touring production of Godspell. Expected to only run a few dozen performances, the critically and audience beloved play ended up running at the Royal Alexandra Theatre for more than a year.
And, as luck would have it, the famed comedy school and club The Second City was opening a Toronto location in 1973 during the theatrical run. The fledgling improv troupe was looking for talent to fill its roster – and Levy, along with many of his stage castmates, auditioned for a spot in the main stage company.
Though Levy doesn’t remember his audition, he says he got to (however briefly) rub elbows with the likes of fellow Canucks John Candy and Dan Aykroyd for the first time. Levy ultimately didn’t get a spot in the opening cast of The Second City, but was called back three months later, during which time he had also been bumped up to the lead role of Jesus for the final weeks of Godspell.
“Second City opened a pretty major door in the world of comedy,” says Levy. “[It] was the ultimate school for comedy writing and performing. Those golden rules that we learned at Second City followed us through to this day.”
Andrew Alexander, CEO of The Second City, became head of the newly opened Toronto outpost in 1974, and says Levy was always a “brilliant and terrific ensemble player.”
“Eugene had a great way of finding those moments on stage that would bring a scene to life. He absolutely held his own with the likes of Godspell, Dan and John,” he says.
Catherine O’Hara, who has been frequently cast with Levy through their careers, remembers meeting him during the run of Godspell and wanting to be “part of his gang.”
“When Second City came to town I got a job as a waitress and watched from afar,” she says. “And I’m so lucky now to get to be his partner.”
Levy was at Second City for two years before SCTV launched in 1976, where he was a performer and writer. The trailblazing sketch comedy show, which starred many of his Godspell cast mates, as well as O’Hara, Candy and Harold Ramis, was nominated for 13 and won two Emmys during its five-year run.
“He is a smart writer and wrote a lot of great group scenes and was responsible for some of my most enjoyable days on SCTV,” says O’Hara. “His scripts have always been good, funny, tight and smart.”
Andrew Clark, program director, comedy writing and performance, Humber College, grew up watching Levy and crew, and still cites SCTV in his History of Comedy class.
“My parents would let me stay up late to watch SCTV,” says Clark. “Eugene Levy and the rest of that cast shaped my entire sense of humour, to the point where we would see who could do the best impressions of Johnny LaRue or Sammy Maudlin at recess,” he says. “He really influenced a whole generation of comedians. Not just me, but people like Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow. You can’t underestimate how amazing and talented he is.”
Levy put his SCTV training to work in a big way, securing supporting roles in TV shows and movies like The Canadian Conspiracy, Club Paradise, Armed and Dangerous and Father of the Bride.
He, along with Short, Paul Flaherty and John Hemphill, also created the 1990 YTV and The Family Channel (U.S.) comedy series Maniac Mansion. The show, which was adapted from a videogame of the same name, was about a man who inherits a mansion that turns out to be haunted by dinosaur ghosts, ran for three years.
A connection from a decade earlier with famed director Christopher Guest, came to fruition in the ’90s when Levy got a call asking him to work on Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (1996), produced by Karen Murphy. Levy co-penned the script and also starred in the movie, which saw critical success. (Levy says his Second City training came in extremely handy working with Guest, who famously improvises much of his projects.)
Despite not becoming a mainstream hit at theatres, the film has since developed a cult following. The duo followed that flick up with three more: Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003) and For your Consideration (2006), helping land Levy a spot as a cult-comedy power player.
“What Levy did in the Guest movies was to show how exaggerated and yet real people’s lives are,” says Clark. “It’s a fascinating genre of comedy that’s unique to them. But it’s hard to imagine shows like The Office or Veep or any in that genre without the Christopher Guest movies.”
While Levy grew his international recognition with bit parts in popular shows like Mad About You and The Drew Carey Show, the part that he says “lifted me out of one category and into another,” came with American Pie in 1999.
The coming-of-age hit comedy saw Levy playing the lovable but clueless character of Jim’s Dad, and launched Levy’s name with a new demographic.
“It opened my career up to an entire new audience – kids,” he says. “I don’t think anyone under 25 cared too much about what I was doing or the kinds of projects I was doing [before American Pie]. Jim’s Dad really hit home in such a resounding way that I started getting offers for movies that appealed to a younger audience.”
Following Pie, Levy saw some minor successes in the U.S., landing roles on Chris Rock’s Down to Earth and Josie and the Pussycats where he played himself in a cameo.
Levy is also the only cast member of the first American Pie movie to appear in all eight sequels, three of which were feature films, and the remainder going straight-to-video.
His long list of post-Pie projects also includes voice work in hit films like Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009), Astro Boy (2009), Canadian cult hit Goon (2011) and Pixar’s Finding Dory (2016).
After being approached by his son Daniel, Levy signed on to co-create, write and star in one of the biggest roles of his career in the CBC comedy Schitt’s Creek.
Now going on its fourth season, the show revolves around a rich family that loses it all and is forced to move to the small town of Schitt’s Creek that Levy’s character, Johnny Rose, had purchased as a gag gift for son David Rose (Daniel Levy).
Levy, the younger, says there was never anyone else considered for the patriarch of the family but Levy senior, who plays one of the straightest roles of his career in the series.
“[In previous roles] my job has been to come in a few times and be funny. I didn’t have to carry story,” says Levy. “I had to come in, hit a mark, get a laugh and go out – playing a character that is bigger and broader than life. Here it’s fun to be the straight guy and let the laughs happen around me and be the credible anchor in the show.”
The idea of casting his father as the (relative) straight man wasn’t a stretch for Dan, who says he didn’t get the iconic comedian version of Levy at home growing up, unless called for, such as his dad wanting to get a laugh out of him when he was upset.
“It was always more of a workshop than the idea of us doing a show as father and son,” he says. “So it’s surreal that we are going into season four of working together now.”
While Levy says he doesn’t have any specific goals for his future in show business at this point of his career, his work continues to draw audiences and accolades. He was awarded the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, a lifetime achievement award in 2008 and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2011. His work on Schitt’s Creek won him the Best Actor in a Comedy Series title at the 2016 Canadian Screen Awards. The show also won Best Comedy Series.
Sally Catto, GM of programming at CBC, says it speaks to Levy’s talent that he has gone against his past roles to play Johnny Rose on Schitt’s Creek.
“Regardless of the role, he has a genuine connection with the audience, and that’s not easy to do,” she says. “He is truly one of the most gifted talents we have ever worked with. It’s his range that is so incredible. His comedic timing and comedic ability are brilliant. I can’t say enough about what I think of Eugene and what he means to the country.”