60II: Home Movies

Although Barry Levinson is not a household name, his movies are: Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam, Disclosure, Bugsy, and Wag The Dog. But if you asked Levinson to name his favorites, he'd probably name the less well-known movies, those that he's made in his hometown. Correspondent Vicki Mabrey profiles this true son of Baltimore.

Levinson recently released another Baltimore movie, Liberty Heights, which he wrote and directed. It's an autobiographical story about two young brothers who discover the world beyond themselves and their family.

Liberty Heights is set in 1954, the year that public schools in Baltimore were first desegregated.

"I wanted to do a movie that dealt with race and religion and class distinction, and not in a real serious way," Levinson says. "But in a way that shows the great misunderstandings which allow for humor to be part of it. I'm not trying to push the jokes but you're talking about human behavior and sometimes that can be, you know, humorous and dramatic."

Levinson often uses humor in his films. His first movie was about a group of guys who hung out in a Baltimore diner. Although Diner almost never made it off the ground, the movie soon became a comedy classic.

"The studio really didn't want to release it," he says. "[they told me] 'Well, [the characters are] just talking, they just talk and you're not showing the story that they're talking about. They're just talking across a table and that's not interesting enough.' But ultimately, it was."

That endless talking escalated into a raging feud in his next Baltimore movie, Tin Men, which told the story of two rival aluminum siding salesmen. Like the Diner guys, the Tin Men were based on real characters Levinson knew growing up. His third Baltimore movie, Avalon, is about three generations of his mother's family, and the stories they told around the dinner table.

Barry Levinson's mother, Vi, says that even as a child, her son appreciated stories about their family.
Those stories made an impression on Levinson even then. "One time he did something we were hysterical about," says his mother, Vi Krichinsky Levinson. "He took a tape recorder and put it under the kitchen table while we were having dinner. Because between my mother and father, you could die laughing, and Barry would get all this, and then take it upstairs, and he remembered all this. He had tapes of it."

The family stories mixed truth with myth. Levinson' s grandfather id come to Baltimore from Russia. But did he arrive on July 4th, as he claimed? Levinson isn't sure. "God knows if that was true but it was the storytelling that was fascinating to me," he says.

Levinson's family didn't just provide the tales, tall and otherwise, for Avalon. In one scene he even used his own relatives as extras, to re-enact his grandmother's funeral.

In retrospect it seems natural that Levinson followed his grandfather's footsteps, and became a storyteller. But it wasn't obvious until he found himself out in Hollywood. Mel Brooks gave him his first big break. For High Anxiety, Levinson not only wrote but acted, playing a psycho bellhop. Brooks encouraged Levinson to write about life back in Baltimore, and the result was Diner. The unexpected success of that movie led to an offer Levinson couldn't believe, let alone refuse. Robert Redford asked him to direct The Natural.

With the success of The Natural, Levinson became a top director, working on a string of studio hits, including Good Morning Vietnam with Robin Williams, Bugsy with Warren Beatty and Rainman with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman met Levinson when the actor was looking for a director for a movie about an autistic man and his brother traveling across country. Three directors had already passed on it, saying it was a script without a plot.

But Levinson liked the idea. Hoffman remembers their first meeting: "[Levinson] said 'It sounds good to me. Two schmucks in a car.' [That's what] our subtitle was because there's no real story, there was no real plot. It was just two schmucks in a car. And he likes that kind of stuffÂ…He's the king of schmucks'."

Barry Levinson has his own official Web site .
In the end, both Levinson and Hoffman won Academy Awards for Rain Man. Since then they've worked on three other movies together, including Wag the Dog, a fictional account of a producer who stages a war to cover up a presidential sex scandal. It was shot nearly a year before the real Clinton sex scandal broke. "It was very weird, very weird'," Levinson says of the parallel between art and life.

Hoffman says he'll work on any project Levinson is involved in. They've been close friends since Rainman.

Hoffman says his friend is a regular, family guy: "Everybody has a shadow side, everybody has a dark side. But I can tell you that I've never worked for a director who's sitting on the set when you arrive telling stories about his uncle or his aunt or his grandmother or his parents. Always Baltimore, Baltimore, Baltimore. And they're wonderful funny stories. Family is at the root of eery thing he does as a director, and family is what he wants to create more than anything on the set'."

There is another side to Levinson that comes out more often in his work on television. He is executive producer of Oz, a dark series on HBO about prison life. He was also executive producer of Homicide, the long-running, Emmy-winning detective series. Now that Homicide is out of production, Levinson is directing the pilot for a new police series called The Beat, based in New York City.

Levinson himself is unassuming and unpretentious, and so is his approach to filmmaking. He's not drawn to the big blockbuster action movie, but prefers what he calls "little movies."

"I think my real heart is in those little pieces, " he says. "It's a little movieÂ… because it just deals with humans."

In his most recent little movie, Liberty Heights, Levinson looks at a memory of racism and anti-Semitism seen through the eyes of an ordinary boy trying to understand something a complex world.

As with all of his Baltimore films, Levinson took some scenes from his own experience. He remembers going to a swim club that had a sign saying "No Jews, no dogs or coloreds allowed'." In the movie, there is a funny scene in which characters calmly discuss why the three groups were put in that order.

This actually happened, Levinson says: "The irony is, it wasn't we were so angry. I mean, that was a conversation we had, you know, because it made so little sense to us that we began to think about, how do they have a meeting to come up with the order? It's just, which is the most offensive to this group of swimmers? So that is where I wanted to explore it because it's not always pure anger. Sometimes you just can't understand the logic. And the logic is absurd, ultimately."

Broadcast produced by Linda Martin; Web site produced by David Kohn;