York grad’s interview with Lennon hits the big time after 39 years

York alumnus Jerry Levitan (BA ’76, LLB ’79) was stuck in traffic driving his six-year-old daughter to school when the call came from his girlfriend telling him a five-minute animated film he produced had been nominated for an Oscar. Needless to say, he was excited, but hardly more so than when he met the fellow who started it all, back in 1969 – Beatle John Lennon.

Jerry LevitanIn a story told many times since, Levitan, a 14-year-old die-hard Beatles fan, snuck into Toronto’s King Edward Hotel and got an invitation to come back and do a 40-minute interview with Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono during their famous "bed-in" for peace.

Left: Levitan as "Sir Jerry", his alter ego when not practising law

During the conversation, Levitan told Lennon that a lot of young people in Canada thought then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau was “pretty cool”. “I always felt that I had a role in John Lennon wanting to, and ultimately meeting, Trudeau,” Levitan told AOL.ca this week. “You hear him on the tape saying: ‘We’ve heard about him swinging in London with a leather coat, and if kids like you think he’s cool, well, maybe we should see him.’”

Levitan kept the recording of his interview, which he made on a borrowed reel-to-reel tape deck that he carried to the hotel at 7am, and a five-minute Super 8 movie of Lennon and Ono, for 39 years and, except for publishing a story and transcript in TO magazine in 1988, didn’t do anything with them until last year, when he commissioned filmmaker Josh Raskin to produce a short film. The original artefacts are now on loan to a museum in Liverpool for a planned Beatles exhibit.

“Lots of people knew about the interview,” Levitan told YFile from his law office in Toronto, just before leaving for Park City, Utah, and the final screening of his project at the Sundance Film Festival. “I get calls from the media every year around the anniversary of John’s death." Lennon was assassinated outside his New York apartment block on Dec. 8, 1980.

When he decided to make the film, with the help of a $20,000 grant from the Bravo!/FACT Foundation and $30,000 of his own money, Levitan met Raskin (nephew of Paul Axelrod, York’s dean of the Faculty of Education) and liked his work. “It was fantastic,” Levitan recalls. “I said, ‘this is the guy I want to work with’. He really got my story.”

I Met the Walrus, a five-minute animated short film with Levitan’s interview as the sound track, has been the opening short for one of the featured films at the Sundance Festival. Levitan flew down Thursday for today’s final screening and Saturday’s closing ceremonies. The next stop on his film’s tour will be Hollywood on Feb. 24 for whatever Oscar awards event the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Science manages to mount, given the current strike by the Writers’ Guild of America. I Met the Walrus is nominated for Best Animated Short Film with four others.

Left: An animated Jerry Levitan as a 14-year-old

The film’s devotion to Lennon’s anti-war message is in keeping with Levitan’s studies at York: political science in the Faculty of Arts, and constitutional law, litigation and human resources law at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Among Levitan’s classmates at Osgoode was Patrick Monahan (LLB ’80), now dean of the law school. Monahan has invited Levitan to show his film at York before the Oscars.

As a lawyer, Levitan is an expert on Ontario’s liquor licensing laws, representing restaurant and bar owners. But, he has another career that also keeps him busy: playing his alter ego, Sir Jerry, a singer/songwriter and children’s entertainer.

For more on Jerry Levitan, visit his Web site at www.levitanlawyers.com. For more information on I Met the Walrus, visit the film’s Web site at www.imetthewalrus.com.

By David Fuller, York communications officer