Brian Levant admits he didn’t choose to enter The University of New Mexico to engage entirely in rigorous academics. However, during his time at UNM, he found his passion, graduated, and has gone on to have a highly successful career in the TV and film industry.

Brian Levant

This week Levant, a director, writer, producer, and author, will be presented with the UNM Alumni Association Lobo Award given to a UNM alumnus/a who has given outstanding personal service to the University or whose career achievement reflects on the University.

“I came to UNM as a freshman in 1970, in part because Playboy magazine declared the school had ‘the best drugs and loosest women.’ And it was one of the few schools that at the time didn’t demand an SAT. There was no way I was going to expose my gross deficiencies in math to an admissions officer,” he laughingly recalled. Twelve days after his 18th birthday, Levant arrived at UNM with a burning desire to be a filmmaker, but at the time there was no organized program, just a few history and theory classes.

“Still, I spent countless nights watching movies in the SUB Theater, The Lobo Theater, Don Pancho’s, and at the Guild.”

After his sophomore year, Levant transferred to California Institute of the Arts, a private art university, but found it was a poor fit and returned to UNM. 

“While I was gone, UNM had brought on Ira Jaffe, who was then a one-man film school. Today he is Professor Emeritus of the department he founded. Ira recognized my hunger and ushered me through me a buffet encompassing the entire history and every tributary of the cinematic arts. UNM had also just instituted its Bachelor of University Studies degree, which allowed me to create my own program, hopscotching through a variety of art, literature, writing classes, and numerous independent study projects. Then I took this incredible education, moved to Los Angeles, and became a comedy writer.”

Soon after moving to LA, Levant met Happy Days creator Garry Marshall at a Saturday morning basketball game.

“I guarded him and blocked a couple of his shots. After the game, we talked, and he offered me a story meeting. Happy Days was the number one show in television at the time. I sold them the first story I pitched and would be part of the show on and off for the next seven years.  It was an incredible learning experience.” 

“The Sitcom Boot Camp was tremendously rewarding, and I so enjoyed working with students who shared so many of the same ambitions I had held, and I took an inordinate amount of pleasure in grabbing a green chile cheeseburger at the SUB before class… while qualified for Social Security.”

- Brian Levant, recipient of the UNM Lobo Award

Levant became the Happy Days showrunner, a capacity he also served in the series’ spin-off, Mork & Mindy, starring Robin Williams. After winning the Cable Ace Award for Directing in a Comedy Series for his long-running Leave it to Beaver revival, Levant turned his attention to writing and directing feature films. His movies include the original Beethoven, the Steven Spielberg-produced box office juggernaut The Flintstones, the holiday film Jingle All the WayAre We There Yet? with Ice Cube. In 2010, Levant came back to Albuquerque with his wife Alison, also a Lobo alum, and directed the Jackie Chan vehicle The Spy Next Door

“It was great to be back in the Duke City and spend so much time with our college friends and dining at Quarters, Monroe’s, and The Frontier. It was an incredible, truly once in a lifetime experience, but it also underlined the fact that long ago I had achieved every goal I’d set for myself in college and began to wonder what came next.”

Levant’s films have over $2 billion in gross revenues and have spawned 11 sequels.

Nearly every year since the late 1970s, Levant has lectured and worked with film students at his alma mater.

“I thought about how I’d drawn from my UNM experience every day of my career and plotted to build a class which could help supply the things I wished I’d known before I tried vaulting the wall that separated the student filmmaker from the professional. I returned to a UNM Film and Digital Arts program that was bursting with energy and promise under the direction of another of Ira Jaffe’s students, [Department Chair and Associate Professor] James Stone. I launched the Sitcom Boot Camp, where a small group of students would collaborate in creating, writing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting an original, network-style comedy and see it performed by student performers and local professionals, for an audience… all in 42 hours of class time over only six weeks.”

For six years the classes grew in confidence and skill while creating storylines about building and rebuilding relationships, while learning to create interesting characters, story and scene structure and to write crisp dialogue—skills transferable across the entire entertainment spectrum, Levant noted.

“The Sitcom Boot Camp was tremendously rewarding, and I so enjoyed working with students who shared so many of the same ambitions I had held, and I took an inordinate amount of pleasure in grabbing a green chile cheeseburger at the SUB before class… while qualified for Social Security.”

Lately, he has turned his talents to writing and designing coffee table books. His first book, My Life and Toys, chronicled the intersection of my career and toy collecting habit and came out in 2022.

This fall, Levant will release 50 Years of Happy Days, he wrote with friend and collaborator Fred Fox Jr., and he has more projects in the pipeline.

“When I got their email saying I’d won the Lobo Award, I was very surprised and rather pleased. Looking over the other honorees this year, it seems they are individuals who’ve done wonderful things for many, many people and I’m happy they would include someone on that list who’s spent their career just trying to make people laugh. It’s very nice to be recognized a half-century after I graduated, and my wife Alison and I are looking forward to returning to the place we began our life together… and grabbing a sweet roll at the Frontier.”

"We are thrilled to honor Brian Levant with the prestigious Lobo Award,” said Jaymie Roybal, UNM Alumni Association Board president. “As a talented and well-known writer, director, and producer, his remarkable career achievements not only reflect positively on The University of New Mexico but also inspire our students and alumni. His outstanding personal service to the university exemplifies the spirit of dedication and excellence that we are proud to recognize within our alumni community."

Image: Director, writer, producer, and author Brian Levant and students from the final Sitcom Bootcamp in 2023

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