Actor Eugene Levy, 76, never wanted to see the world, but now has his own travel series

Eugene Levy visits the Maldives in The Reluctant Traveler With Eugene Levy. PHOTO: APPLE TV+

LOS ANGELES – Canadian comic actor Eugene Levy has never been a traveller.

As a child in Canada’s Ontario province, the farthest his parents might take him and his siblings was Lake Erie’s Crystal Beach, 1½ hours away by car.

They would spend two weeks each year staying at the same spider-dominated cottages, eating at the same fish and chips place and visiting the same local amusement park.

Levy rode a train for the first time at eight and never repeated the exotic experience.

As a 76-year-old, he maintains the ancestral position that the known is the best place to exist.

Why should he leave his life in the Pacific Palisades neighbourhood of Los Angeles, where every day promises comfort?

Each morning, he wakes up and puts on round Leon eyeglasses he bought in bulk. He drinks coffee with cream and sugar. If it is Wednesday or Friday, he golfs, always with the same people.

He and his wife of 45 years, screenwriter and producer Deb Divine, might go to West Hollywood to see their daughter, Sarah, and her baby son.

“I truly love having nothing on the agenda,” he said.

So when executive producer David Brindley and Apple TV+ programming executive Alison Kirkham called him in 2021 and asked him to host a travel show, he said no.

They would never get him to a safari, he told them.

He had watched animals on wildlife programmes and did not need to travel halfway around the world to see them. He does not love water. He does not like the heat nor the cold.

Eugene Levy baulked when he was offered the show, but The Reluctant Traveler showed him the (mild) joys of leaving his comfort zone. PHOTO: NYTIMES

This, along with his vehement aversion to sushi and fear of humidity that could ruin his hair, became basically the episode guide for The Reluctant Traveler With Eugene Levy, which is now available on Apple TV+ and follows him from Finland to the Maldives.

There is a safari episode, a hot episode, a cold episode, a jungle episode and a lot of uncooked fish.

Levy’s lack of anything resembling wanderlust is the defining gimmick. But it is also genuine and he still has no idea why anyone would have thought of him for the role of travel guide.

“I’m not a curious person,” he said. “No sense of adventure.”

He cannot pretend to be excited about things he is not and he has historically had no interest in being himself on camera for anything longer than a talk-show appearance.

Levy’s career has been a series of ensembles and repertory companies. His first professional role was joining Canadian-American comedian, actor and writer Martin Short in putting together the 1972 production of Godspell in Toronto.

Eugene Levy in South Africa in The Reluctant Traveler With Eugene Levy. PHOTO: APPLE TV+

In the 1990s, Levy became a leader of cinema’s pre-eminent mockumentary troupe, co-writing and starring in Waiting For Guffman (1996), Best In Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Consideration (2006). He also acted in eight of the nine American Pie (1999 to 2020) movies.

Through this oeuvre, he became the comedic personification of spectacled, mostly well-meaning men who, in his assessment, “weren’t necessarily the sharpest pencils in the drawer”.

It was in Schitt’s Creek (2015 to 2021), the sitcom Levy created with his actor-son Dan – about a group of coddled people who gain sentience through exposure to real life – that he came closest to portraying himself: an affable, affluent father who wears nice suits and has no tolerance for bad hotels.

Schitt’s Creek gained nine Emmys, including a lead actor award for Levy, by the end of six seasons.

Eugene Levy meets Albo Agunday and Massa Sawada while visiting Tokyo in The Reluctant Traveler With Eugene Levy. PHOTO: APPLE TV+

That success and impact led him to The Reluctant Traveler.

He had ruled out doing another comedy series because he believed nothing would be as good as Schitt’s Creek.

He would have considered drama, but then Mr Brindley and Ms Kirkham called with their idea for the unscripted series, which was different from anything he had done before.

Levy said the concept was originally pitched to him as Room With A View, a series highlighting luxury hotels around the world.

His wife was surprised when he told her he was going to take the job. “It’s so outside his comfort zone,” Ms Divine said.

She asked him: “Eugene, honestly, you’re going to do that?”

He was, partly because Ms Kirkham and Mr Brindley had proved their creative flexibility by altering the brief to focus on his warm curmudgeonliness.

Eugene Levy visits Finland in The Reluctant Traveler With Eugene Levy, now streaming on Apple TV+. PHOTO: APPLE TV+

Levy’s collaborators are drawn to his sweetness and lack of pretence, along with his methodical brilliance.

“He’s the brunt of the jokes,” actress Sarah Levy said of her father’s faux-low status.

“He wasn’t afraid to have funny people around him as the star of the show because his strength was reacting to them,” she said. “They would be funny and getting a laugh, and then he was able to get a bigger laugh from his reactions to them.”

This is what makes The Reluctant Traveler work, despite breaking Levy’s avoidance of being the lead or playing himself. “Putting myself front and centre was kind of an uncomfortable thing for me,” he said.

Mr Brindley describes him as “a sort of anti-lead”. It is odd to watch someone who is passively receiving – or actively resisting – experiences a typical travel host would greet with enthusiasm, like exploring the open markets of Venice or wading into the cerulean waters of the Indian Ocean.

When Levy is offered reindeer fillet, he said: “I don’t want to eat reindeer, to be honest.”

In a segment about food in Japan, he swallows a tiny morsel of raw fish with the enthusiasm of a toddler trying a broccoli floret in order to unlock access to dessert.

“It’s me,” he says to the camera during the same episode, identifying who the problem is.

But his best moments are, as usual, ensemble-based.

Eugene Levy in New York on Feb 22. PHOTO: NYTIMES

In what may be the funniest scene of the series, he goes ice fishing with a man and his unsmiling six-year-old son. For most of the day, Levy fails to catch anything while the boy amasses an enormous pile of perch.

As production went on, he began approaching interactions he would typically skip with a new attitude.

“You know, this isn’t bad,” he recalled thinking. “I’m kind of liking it.”

He said the conversations he had were the most memorable part of making the show, which included staying in two renovated royal palaces and sticking his arm up an elephant’s rectum to secure a stool sample in South Africa. (He failed to retrieve an acceptable specimen.)

His daughter Sarah went to several shooting locations for The Reluctant Traveler and spent time with him, as did his wife Divine.

Sarah said that growing up, she rarely travelled with her father except to places where he was working – often from their home in Toronto to Los Angeles in the summers, and to Rome and Monte Carlo, one year.

If it were not for television and film, he would not have encountered so many things outside the enviably contented existence he has created.

And although being elbow-deep in an elephant is probably as far from teeing off in the Pacific Palisades as it is possible for him to get, that willingness to extend himself for the bit – and the cheque – has led to his success.

It helped him create a home he never wants to leave.

Looking back, Levy said he was happy he took the job, in a typically understated way: “Actually, it was kind of an enjoyable show to do.” NYTIMES

The Reluctant Traveler With Eugene Levy is available on Apple TV+.

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