The Great American Artist Jack Levine Is Dead

11/16/2010 07:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Wild man John Belushi had just died from a drug overdose in Los Angeles, and everybody on the Greenwich Village street where he'd lived was in a state of shock and sorrow that day in 1982.

Except for one guy - the great American artist, Jack Levine.

Jack stood on the stoop of his house, seething. His wife, the artist Ruth Gikow, was upstairs, near the end of a long battle with cancer that would claim her life just weeks later.

A big oxygen tank on a dolly cart was being pulled up Jack's front steps, clang-clang-clang. As the deliverymen carried it to Ruth's room, Jack gestured toward the Belushi house and spoke through tight teeth.

"When I think of how Ruth is hanging on, and how this guy just... threw it away...." Jack shook his head and put his hands together in a twisting motion, as if to wring water from a washcloth.

"You've got to get every drop of whatever you've got," he growled.

Jack Levine got every drop. He died on Monday at age 95, and if he didn't have a paintbrush in his hand at the end, he was certainly thinking about his next attack on a blank canvas.

I lived in the basement apartment of Jack's house for eight years, starting in 1981. The rent he charged me wouldn't be enough to garage a car in that neighborhood these days, and Jack and I had arguments about the rent all the time.

Except I was the one urging him to raise the rent. Jack refused.

"I'll sock the next guy," he'd say. "Besides, you'll get married soon."

I wasn't sure about that, but Jack was.

"You get married just before you get tired," he explained.

That was vintage Jack Levine. He was the world's most optimistic pessimist.

He once noticed that one of his paintbrushes was monogrammed with another artist's name. "I'd hate to have a paintbrush named after me," Jack decided. "A sandwich, maybe..."

After his wife died Jack once told me he was glad to have a daughter, Susanna. "Otherwise," he added, "I'd be leaving everything to cat hospitals." Ba-da-bum.

When Susanna got married I asked Jack if he was looking forward to grandchildren. "That's an awfully tall order," he replied. "I don't like people who are greedy for grandchildren. Besides," he added, "the species is not endangered." Rim shot.

Of course he was delighted when Susanna gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. You could always tell when Jack Levine was delighted - if not by his words, by the twinkle in his eye.

He was lucky. He was royalty. He'd take breaks from his easel to stand on his front stoop and accept greetings from the people who passed. Neighbors, delivery guys, mailmen, superintendents...everybody knew him.

I'd throw parties in my apartment and Jack was always invited. My sister Gina was at one of those parties. She was an art history major at the time. "Hey Jack," she told him, "you were on my mid-term exam!"

Jack's eyebrows went up. "I hope it was a multiple choice question," he deadpanned.

Life goes on. I moved out, moved on. Flash-forward to one month ago. I was back in the Village, showing my wife Kim where I lived when I was single. An old man was sitting on the stoop, thin and frail. A Boston Red Sox baseball cap seemed too big for his head. A nurse was there to watch over him.

It was Jack, as always wearing those black-framed Woody Allen eyeglasses. But Jack was wearing them first, long before Woody was born.

My wife and I approached the stoop. It had been more than twenty years since I'd moved out, and I wondered if Jack would recognize me. He lifted his head to look at me. He didn't smile, but those sky-blue eyes did twinkle.

"My," said Jack Levine, "how you've grown."

Charlie Carillo is a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition." Before that he was a reporter and a columnist for the New York Post. His fourth novel, "One Hit Wonder," was just published by Kensington Books.