Calvin Levels Wins a Star-Making Role in the Atlanta Child Murders—So Why Is He on Unemployment?
But a scan of the teleplay—written by Abby Mann, whose 1961 Judgment at Nuremberg earned a Best Screenplay Oscar—persuaded Levels that the movie raised important questions about Williams' guilt (see page 62). Levels set about convincing Mann and co-producer Gerald Rafshoon—former Atlantan and onetime media advisor to Jimmy Carter—that only he could play Williams. Levels had been told that Wayne was haughty and condescending, and so he called upon his own "superiority complex" to clinch the deal at his audition.
"They wanted more arrogance," Calvin reports. He more than complied. "I did an improvisation. I said, 'What is this—? How could you not give me this role? I just did a play on Broadway [Open Admissions], I wrapped up all these critics and you're jerking me around.' Rafshoon said, 'If you were so good, how come the play closed?' "
Lounging on the brown plush sofa in his Greenwich Village duplex, Levels jumps up to replay the scene. A slight figure in black pants and shirt, he erupts into the bully role and is astonishingly convincing. "They came back at me hard," Levels recalls. But he met each personal insult with an insult of his own. "Mann said, 'Are you a homosexual?' I said, 'What about you, Mr. Mann? You live in Hollywood....'" Calvin twists his nice-guy face into an accusatory leer. The transformation is complete.
The impertinence—and the acting—paid off. Levels got the part. He never met Williams but listened to Mann's taped interview with Wayne (the convicted killer earned no remuneration for his help). Before production began in L.A. last June, the actor was dispatched to Atlanta to meet the parents of 10 of the murdered children. He reports that several parents remain uncertain whether Williams was the culprit in the sensational crimes, and Levels himself was moved by their fury and frustration. "It was the most spiritual experience I ever had," he says. "We talked for hours and we all cried."
When the shoot began Levels was emotionally distraught. Part of the problem, he explains, "was my body. Wayne looks like a junk-food addict, so I put on 30 pounds by eating pancakes, malts, everything. I was trying to deteriorate my system, so I drank enormous amounts of vodka on my days off. I was almost in a daze."
Although he has several movies to his credit (including Ragtime and CBS' Crisis at Central High, with Joanne Woodward) Levels felt the need to prove himself in the company of Ruby Dee, Martin Sheen, Rip Torn and Jason Robards. "I knew if I didn't come off well my life could be ruined," he says, adding another touch of hyperbole. "In a sense, it was similar to what was happening to Wayne during his trial."
While it may seem ludicrous to compare an actor's concerns to an accused killer's fears, that is how Levels approached the role. Born in a Cleveland ghetto, Calvin has always flung himself into things that interested him. His father, Jesse, was a prizefighter turned recreation director who taught him boxing "as soon as I could walk." His mother, Grace, encouraged him to become a kind of Renaissance child. He began acting in community theater at 4 and studied dance when his mother wasn't giving him cooking and sewing lessons.
A product of Cleveland's public schools, he was a street kid proud of his skill as a boxer. He claims to have apprenticed himself at 12 to a local pimp. "I was interested in street life," Calvin reports with typical bravado. "I shot dice, hung out in pool halls."
He also dreamed of a better life. Dissatisfied at 16 with public school, Calvin enrolled at Friends School, a progressive private institution with sliding-scale fees linked to family income. For a while he harbored fantasies of becoming a nuclear physicist. But after graduation, he attended Cuyahoga Community College, where his studies in drama took hold.
Calvin's adolescence was rocked with turbulence. In 1968 his mother had died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The year before that, Jesse Jr., his oldest brother and an aspiring comedian, had been murdered by an intruder in his New York apartment. Levels' surviving brother, Reginald, became mentally disturbed—the victim, Calvin says, of a traumatic five-year stint in prison, where he was sent on a car-theft conviction. Calvin's father was a stoic who offered little more than financial support as the actor grew to manhood. The teenager found comfort in his paternal grandmother and in the friendship of adults, notably a local jazz magazine writer who encouraged him.
Following two years at Cuyahoga, Calvin headed for California and study at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. Vowing not to take a job that would interfere with his acting classes, he lived in a studio apartment for the first year and subsisted on a daily ration of six pieces of bread and a half pint of milk. The payoff came when he was cast in a small role in a short-lived TV series, The Class of '65.
After five years in L.A. (where he did 7-Up and M&Ms commercials between roles), Calvin, on a visit to New York, chanced upon his biggest theater break yet. He auditioned for and won the part of an angry, illiterate college student in off-off-Broadway's Open Admissions. When the play moved to Broadway in 1984 he won a Best Actor Tony nomination.
Accolades, unfortunately, don't pay bills or guarantee work. "I've been living on oatmeal," says Levels. "I got less than six figures for playing Wayne Williams and people told me I got ripped off. All the money went for bills and I've applied for unemployment." A silence falls and the bitter wind rattles the windows, as if to emphasize his point. It is a pretty bit of irony for an actor poised at the top, and Calvin Levels would be the last to play it down.