By Shira J. Boss '93
When choosing a major or a graduate school program, students
commonly feel as if they are rolling out the map of their entire
careers. As Dr. Seuss tells graduates in Oh, The Places You'll
Go!: "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your
shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose."
No decision is a one-way ticket, especially in this era of
career mobility. Peter Levine '65 and Jim Mummery '65, classmates
who majored in history, are examples.
After serving in Vietnam, Mummery went on to a 25-year
management career in the business world. Having never lost his
passion for history, however, he went back to graduate school, quit
his job and became a high school history teacher in his 50s.
Levine, on the other hand, went straight on to graduate studies
in history after the College. He enjoyed three decades of teaching
the subject at Michigan State University before deciding to leave
the classroom for the stage. While others his age are retiring and
migrating south, Levine is back in New York honing his skills as a
thespian, sending his headshots to agents and lining up at
Daniel Schechter '83, who transitioned from music to medicine,
often finds himself giving advice to others on changing careers.
"People are complex, and different interests may serve that
individual at different points in life," he says. "People can
really change their direction and build on their previous
experience with a sense of fulfillment. Where one starts may be
very different from where one ends up."
Peter Levine '65 married his childhood sweetheart and has been
happy for 41 years. But when it came to his career as a history
professor, after 32 years, he left to try something new: show
After spending three decades in East Lansing, Mich., Levine
returned to his native Brooklyn. He was accepted into a prestigious
two-year actors training program, replaced stacks of students'
papers with stacks of his headshot and made his off-Broadway debut.
"We left very predictable and comfortable and leisurely lives, and
those are all good things. But part of us wanted more freedom, more
unpredictability," Levine says of himself and his wife, Gale.
Teaching and performing have been linked in Levine's mind since
he was a student of history professor James Shenton '49 at
Columbia. Shenton was his unofficial adviser, and Levine found the
historian an inspiration. Levine earned a master's in history from
Columbia in 1966 and then went into a Ph.D. program at Rutgers. In
the fall of 1969, he was offered a position in the history
department at Michigan State. "It just sort of happened, and
happened to be a 32-year career," Levine says.
He specialized in sports history, writing books such as Ellis
Island to Ebbets Field: Sport and the American Jewish
Experience (Oxford University Press, 1993) and, with Robert
Lipsyte '57, Idols of the Game: A Sporting History of Twentieth
Century America (Turner, 1995).
"Jim Shenton was my role model," Levine says. "He'd come in with
a stack of books and captivate an audience. When I could finally go
into a classroom without notes and hold a class's attention, I knew
I had arrived." Levine took the performance a step further by
having students put on plays that were relevant to the period they
One afternoon, Levine made his way over to an audition for a
community play. From that show in 1986 until 2000, he worked with
the university's theater program and performed in dozens of plays.
"I did it all with no training," Levine says. "Most of my friends
were astonished that someone they knew had the chutzpah to
get up in front of people."
In fall 1997, Levine came back to New York for a semester to
work on a book. He enrolled in acting classes on the side and got
into an off-off-Broadway show in the West Village. "I realized it's
what I wanted to be doing," he says.
Levine convinced his wife that they should relocate back to the
city, which they did in September 2000. If they had waited just one
more year, he says, they probably wouldn't have done it, given the
declining stock market and the turbulence of September 11.
In March 2001, Levine started auditioning, and from June to
October appeared in four plays. A highlight for him was doing a
revival of Madwoman of Chaillot at the Neighborhood
Playhouse. It was a minor role, but still thrilling for Levine,
especially when he found out that he would be on stage with veteran
actress Anne Jackson. "In my mind, I was the leader of the
vagabonds," he says.
Like most aspiring actors, Levine also has tried out for
commercials. He was excited to get called to audition for a
national Volkswagon commercial that called for a professional type.
He found himself in front of the camera blowing bubbles and
following instructions to act flirtatious before he started feeling
ridiculous. To get through it, he repeated to himself: "I'm 57
years old and have had a life, so none of this really matters."
He didn't get that part, but he did land a lead in the Gallery
Players production of Front Page in Brooklyn, which ran the
first two weeks of April. "Apparently," he says, "I've had as much
success and opportunity in one year as many people have in
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