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Sean Hayes on "Good Night, Oscar"

Sean Hayes on "Good Night, Oscar"
Sean Hayes on "Good Night, Oscar" 06:37

This is the story of two men who became famous on TV about 50 years apart. Both hilarious actors, both piano virtuosos.

First: Oscar Levant. In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, he was everywhere, as a movie star ("An American in Paris," "The Band Wagon"); a composer, conductor and concert pianist; and a raconteur famous for his brilliant one-liners.

Jack Paar: "And what do you do for exercise?"
Levant: "I stumble, and then I fall into a coma."

Inside U.S.A. with Chevrolet
Oscar Levant at the piano on "Inside U.S.A. with Chevrolet," October 23, 1949, in New York City.  CBS via Getty Images

The other man is Sean Hayes. For 11 seasons, he played the hilariously self-absorbed Jack McFarland on "Will & Grace," the first sitcom with openly-gay main characters.

This week, a new play opened on Broadway in which Hayes stars as Levant. It's called "Good Night, Oscar," an intense and funny play about a tortured man.

"This is about as far from Jack McFarland as you get," said Pogue.

Actor Sean Hayes. CBS News

"I love Jack McFarland, and I loved that experience; it's one of the greatest of my life," said Hayes. "It's hard to break out of the thing that people see you as, that you became famous for. But then, you know, if we're not scaring ourselves as actors, what are we doing?"

The darkness comes from Levant's drug addictions and mental-health struggles. He broke taboos at the time by describing them publicly. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright said, "It was genuinely shocking in 1958 to see someone in Oscar's condition on television, because he wasn't well, and at times he was heavily and often irresponsibly medicated. But Oscar took the fangs from it away, because he was always wonderfully and richly funny about it."

Paar: "We have a bunch of pills here…"
Levant: "I took 'em. They're nothing."

The play was Sean Hayes' passion project, written just for him. But not everyone considered him a natural to play Levant. "I won't lie; I thought Sean was an extremely odd casting choice," said Wright. "He doesn't have a physical resemblance at all. But we went to this lunch that was set up by the producers, and across the table he morphed into the man. He adopted his posture, his voice, his perpetual scowl.

"I went to that lunch thinking he was the wrong actor, and I left that lunch thinking he was the only actor."

Hayes said, "We all worked together to kind of find how I could inhabit him, through voice and face and other kind of tics, actor tics that we could use."

In the play, Levant gets a four-hour leave from a mental health facility to appear on Jack Paar's "Tonight Show." It's based on a real incident and, according to Wright, "In spirit, it's largely true."

Paar (Ben Rappaport): "So, bring us up-to-date, Oscar. What've you been doing with yourself lately?"
Levant (Sean Hayes): "My behavior has been impeccable. I've been unconscious for the last six months."

Ben Rappaport as Jack Paar and Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant in "Good Night, Oscar."  CBS News

In both life and on Broadway, Levant was a friend of George Gershwin, and a famous interpreter of his music. But it was a complicated relationship. Wright said, "George loved to tease Oscar in what was sometimes a sadistic manner. He also would say to Oscar, 'What are you gonna play for the folks tonight? A medley of your hit?'"

In the play, Levant is supposed to conclude his talk-show appearance at the piano, with a blazing performance of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Fortunately, Hayes himself is a gifted piano player. "I was five years old or so, and I started taking lessons across the street," said Hayes. "And I just stuck with it. I thought I was gonna be a concert pianist or a film music composer."

Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant performing Gershwin, in "Good Night, Oscar." CBS News

It's the finale of an emotionally draining performance. "The play ends in a very kind of sensitive, emotional place," Hayes said. "And gosh, even thinking about it now, I get a little emotional, because mental illness and addiction run in my family tree. And so, I feel for Oscar in an extremely deep way."

Pogue asked, "Is it exhausting?"

"It's absolutely exhausting," he replied. "A lot of times after the show, I am depleted so much that I really just have to go home and take care of myself."

"Good Night, Oscar" has a limited run of four months. But for Hayes, any effort to bring back Oscar Levant is worth the attempt. "There was nobody like him," he said. "There was nobody as funny as him. He's just been kind of forgotten about. I'm just happy and proud that we have this venue and this vehicle to bring Oscar back to life, because I think he deserves it."

Oscar Levant plays Gershwin, in a not-exactly-solo performance, in "An American in Paris":

Gershwin's Concerto in F by O. Levant by Lew Quzmic Baltiysky on YouTube

For more info:

Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Joseph Frandino. 

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