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Published: Saturday, 1/17/2009

Longtime actress Madge Levinson now has a successful career in movies playing older ladies

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Madge Levinson scans a listing of her work history with a critical eye.

I ve got to update my resume, she says with resolve. Indeed, 2008 was productive and she can add some juicy plums.

She portrays Sigourney Weaver s mother, Ophelia, in Prayers for Bobby, a 90-minute film premiering Saturday at 9 p.m.

The veteran Toledo actress was cast in Whip It! (directed by Drew Barrymore) in which she sports blue hair (surprisingly flattering) in a bus scene with the young star, Ellen Page (Juno).

In Youth in Revolt starring Michael Cera (Page s boyfriend in Juno), Madge was to play an old lady and was slated for a nude scene, but her character was cut. My friends were disappointed, she laughs.

Madge Levinson has her hair retouched on the set of the film  Whip It! Madge Levinson has her hair retouched on the set of the film Whip It!
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And as a result of three long, hot, July days in Highland Park, Mich. (a city near Detroit) working as an extra (for $75 a day) in Gran Torino, she can be seen near the beginning of the film for a few seconds, walking out of the Clint Eastwood character s home following the funeral of his wife. She gets into a car that has a dead battery, which a sullen Eastwood starts.

What Madge did on her 85th summer vacation, particularly her work in Prayers for Bobby, was a capstone for the actress, who s appeared in nearly 100 community theater productions and as many television, radio, print, and corporate ads and commercials. (She famously grasped and spontaneously kissed a snake in a 1999 commercial several years ago for the Sweet Feed Co.)

What of it all? Madge, petite and 120 pounds, grins merrily, claps her hands together, and looks upward.

Ah, she says, taking a deep breath and bringing her hands to her face, [the summer] was the most magnificent experience I ever had! ... I m telling you I had to pinch myself. I couldn t believe this was happening to me!

Madge, in blue hair, with Ellen Page, the star of  Whip It! Madge, in blue hair, with Ellen Page, the star of Whip It!
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For five days in June, a driver picked her up and delivered her to the Oakland County set of Prayers, a true story set in the 1970s and 80s about a teenager who realizes his homosexuality. Mary, his intensely religious mother, is determined to cure him of his sin, and though Bobby tries, he s overwhelmed by a sense of condemnation and ends his life in 1983. Mary questions her faith and eventually becomes an advocate for gay and lesbian rights.

Ophelia was a very, very complicated character to cast, says Daniel Sladek, an executive producer of Prayers. She s Mary Griffith s mother, the Griffith children s grandmother. They loved her but she was also a pain in their side.

Such casting is particularly tricky when dealing with actual people, Sladek notes, adding that during the 12 years he and his co-executive producers plugged away at their passion project they became friends with the Griffiths.

We went through a volume of local talent, he says. She [Madge] nailed it. ... Talking about professionalism: she was there on time, she knew her lines, she delivered abundantly again and again.

Curmudgeonly Ophelia telegraphs her lines via a red-hot poker: If you ask me, queers should all be lined up and shot. Upon opening a birthday gift from a granddaughter she says, I ve never used a journal and I m not about to start using one now.

And after Bobby s death, she nips at Weaver to snap out of it.

Ophelia is really very selfish, Levinson says. She s nasty. Of course, my husband says that s typecasting.

Madge will turn 85 on April 14. I always say I m in my 85th year. That s more impressive [than 84].

Filmed in 19 days in June in northern Detroit suburbs, Prayers had a budget of about $5 million, Sladek says.

The set had a familial feeling; Levinson baked almond biscotti for Sladek s 43rd birthday, and crocheted a shopping bag that tucks into a ball for the willowy Weaver.

She s much prettier in person than on screen. And she has a beautiful personality, too. She never played the diva, Madge says.

Everybody was so superlatively complimentary and so sweet and so considerate. And I had the feeling that [the film] was so much a group effort, she says. And they made me so beautiful.

Levinson and her husband of 62 years, Alvin Levinson, 89, have a son and daughter in their 50s and two grandchildren. They live in an art-filled home near the University of Toledo. She s an energetic member of the North Coast Theatre troupe, which performs experimental plays in the South Wing of the Oliver House.

She coordinates the Young Playgoer s touring program at the Toledo Repertoire Theatre. She runs the annual Shakespeare contest for the Toledo Branch of the English Speaking Union. She tutors English as a second language, and cooks, bakes, and runs the household.

She was the fourth of five daughters born in Beaver Falls, Pa., 31 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, to a produce wholesaler and the greatest mother in the world. She was a fantastic baker and cook. She made all our clothes and clothes for our dolls.

Levinson s first performances were singing Cielito Lindo in second grade, performing in a children s Shakespeare theater at 12, and being in high school plays, but never as the ingenue. I was short and fat. I remember playing a maid called Louise. I remember a stage direction that said Louise lumbers out, she laughs.

The salutatorian of her high school class, she earned a chemistry degree at the University of Chicago ( because my sister did ) and days later, married Al; a friend of her older sister, he was earning a master s in social work degree in Chicago after World War II.

His jobs took them to Indianapolis, Cleveland, Gary, Ind., and in 1969, to Toledo. They raised a family, she worked various jobs including at a nursery school and for 13 years, at the Sight Center of Northwest Ohio.

The stage is her creative outlet.

Theater s her whole life, says Gloria Moulopoulos, artistic director of the Toledo Repertoire Theatre. She has worked on costumes, sets, in the box office, and as an usher. She a consummate actor/actress. She s always honest in her portrayal and is always right on target.

She can be charming and disarming and she can be very demanding. She doesn t mince words. She s very, very bright. She calls them as she sees them. Sometimes it can be a little stunning.

As an actor, Levinson works from her gut. I don t research a role. I look at a script and everything I do is intuitive.

I can lose myself and become somebody else. Performing is nice but the real joy in theater is growing and becoming aware of the character you re portraying. When you really nail something, it s the greatest high in the world, she says. Now I ve not tried all those other highs.

In 2004, when the Detroit Institute of Arts borrowed the 1871 painting famously nicknamed Whistler s Mother to anchor a show of James McNeill Whistler s art, they hired her to portray Anna Whistler in a funny commercial. And, they arranged for Levinson, clad in white bonnet and black dress, to throw out the opening pitch at a Detroit Tigers game.

She learns about auditions from her two Detroit-area agents. Any time there s a call for an old lady, they call us; Selma and Shirley and Lorene and Joyce, she says. We call ourselves the usual suspects.

She figures the usual suspects are updating their resumes, too. After all, the Michigan Film Office offers an attractive incentive of tax credits: up to 42 percent of a production company s expenditures.

The Levinsons don t receive the Lifetime channel on their television, so Madge will go to a friend s home Saturday night to watch Prayers.

Her summer of fun had an extra bonus. All told, she earned about $10,000 enough to pay for vinyl siding of their home.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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