Eugene Levy has been a Schmenge brother, a heartbroken folk singer, and is perhaps known best by the Class of 2012 as Jim’s Dad from the American Pie series.
You might have expected the Canadian film icon to treat an honorary degree from Dalhousie as simply another role, like adding “distinguished scholar” to his IMDB listing. Instead, he talked candidly to graduates and their families about how an acknowledged “university dropout and major academic disaster” found his passion and followed his heart to success.
He didn’t leave his affection for character acting entirely at home: the first portion of his speech was in the guise of slightly-discontented father figure, working his way through a list of stereotypical complaints about “kids” these days—saggy pants, tattoos and texting—that seemed to get more laughs from the parents in the crowd than the graduates.
“Am I sounding like Jim’s Dad?” he asked with his renowned deadpan delivery. “Well I’m just having fun, but I guess I do sound like I’m an old fart up here. Probably because I’m 65 years old – I am an old fart!”
Discovering his passion for acting
Soon, though, he segued into a reflection on his own experience as a student at McMaster University in Hamilton in the 1960s. It was there that he discovered his love of film and theatre, with just one wrinkle: these were extracurriculars at McMaster at the time, not formal academic subjects.
“Had there been [classes], I most certainly would have taken them, and my academic record might have turned out to be one that my mother and father would not have been embarrassed to talk about in public,” he said.
But he couldn’t help but find the film and theatre clubs — whose members included such future comedy heavyweights as Ivan Reitman, Dave Thomas and Martin Short — far more exciting than his sociology classes. Knowing full well that following his calling meant disappointing his parents, he left school and began working as an actor, embracing the bad apartments and short-term challenges needed to get to the breaks that made his name in Canadian comedy.
Speaking with Dal News after his address, Mr. Levy shared how proud he was that his daughter, Sarah, didn’t have to go that route. At Dalhousie, she was able to pursue her passion for acting academically, in a way that he couldn’t at the time. She graduated with her theatre degree in 2008.
“It’s amazing. I was thrilled to death that my daughter, who was interested in acting, could go and major in a theatre program… I simply didn’t have that opportunity where I was, and didn’t know how to get it. That’s why I gravitated to the film club and the drama club.”
Those clubs wouldn’t be the last experience Mr. Levy would have amongst inspiring company. As his career progressed, he would join such legendary comedy ensembles as Second City Toronto, the sketch-comedy show SCTV, and the cast of incredible performers that make up the Christopher Guest films including Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind.
“I think you know pretty quickly,” said Mr. Levy, when asked about how he knows when he’s surrounded by the right people. He stopped for a moment to reflect on the Toronto production of the play Godspell, his first big break alongside such future stars as Mr. Short, Victor Garber, Gilda Radner and Andrea Martin.
“These were people who were exceptionally bright and exceptionally talented, and you just loved hanging out with them. I think you gravitate towards people you can learn something from.”
Now, 40 years into his career, Mr. Levy, a Member of the Order of Canada, has become a cross-generational star. It’s likely that the different age groups watching his speech in the Dalhousie Arts Centre (or streaming online) all have different touchpoints with his work.
“That’s something that comes with age,” he laughed, adding that he’ll still get recognized from performances that are now 30 or 40 years old. “It’s great when you can cultivate a new audience. That certainly happened with American Pie, and it happened with Bringing Down the House [his 2004 comedy with Steve Martin and Queen Latifah] with the African American audience… after that, I was getting stopped everywhere.”
Advice to the class of 2012
He was certainly getting stopped after his convocation address: he spent several minutes amongst the crowd, posing for photos with young graduates. In his speech, he poked some fun at the Class of 2012’s immediate next steps: “You’re about to enter the bleak, bleak world of tension, stress and anxiety — and yes, I’m talking about moving back in with mom and dad.”
But amongst the wisecracks, he made sure that Dal’s newest graduates reflected on where their futures can end up if they pursue their passions.
“You graduates are at the starting line of what will be a most exhilarating journey,” he said. “Don’t forget to take some time to enjoy it, and don’t take the back seat with someone else at the wheel. Follow your heart.”
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