Beatles fan went the extra mile, scored


TORONTO -- A real-life encounter between a 14 year-old Beatles fan and John Lennon in 1969 has inspired "I Met the Walrus," a five-minute Canadian film contending for an Oscar for best animated short.

Think "Almost Famous" with the Beatles. Except this portrait of a young boy in a dream landscape is told from his lips. The voice track for "I Met the Walrus" is based on an interview Toronto lawyer Jerry Levitan did as a then Beatles-obsessed teenager 39 years ago with a surprisingly accommodating John Lennon.

Levitan recalls doorstepping as a fake photographer to get into Lennon and Yoko Ono's Toronto hotel room.

"My heart was beating so fast. I was like Al Pacino in 'The Godfather,' where he's in the restaurant with the planted gun and about to kill the cop," he says, remembering how he summoned the courage to knock at Lennon's door.

When Levitan did knock, the door opened a crack, he uttered "Canadian News," and was led in.

Levitan recalls Lennon throwing him a broad smile as he entered the crowded room. He fumbled with a Super 8 camera and an old Kodak Brownie around his neck to maintain his ruse.

After Levitan got Lennon to sign his copy of the "Two Virgins" album, he summoned yet more chutzpah.

"I just said to John, 'Can I come back later and bring a tape recorder and do an interview on peace so I can let kids listen to it?'" he recalls.

To his surprise, Lennon agreed. Later that day, Levitan jumped a long line of media, including U.S. network news reporters, to do a 40-minute interview with Lennon and Ono.

For 36 years, Levitan sat on the audiotape, until 2005 when he met Toronto-based animator Josh Raskin.

The duo agreed to pare the 1969 interview down to five minutes and overlay the voice track with a visual narrative of pen sketches by James Braithwaite and digital illustrations from Alex Kurina.

The resulting animated short has earned a host of awards on the festival circuit on its way to the Oscars.

Animator Raskin says festival audiences empathize with a young boy's nervousness and disorientation in his hero's midst while a visionary Lennon boldly riffs on youth culture and global conflict.

"You hear a larger-than-life figure interviewed by a relatively naive, over-excited teenager," Raskin observes.

Levitan, who produced "I Met the Walrus," says his Beatles encounter forever changed his life, not least because knocking at Lennon's hotel room door could have gone horribly wrong had the famed Beatle or his handlers turned him away.

"My big fear (was) someone (saying), 'Who are you? You're nothing, go away!' How would I have picked myself up from that?" Levitan says.

Instead, Lennon welcomed the Beatles fan across the threshold and saw value in making a recording with a 14-year-old to reach yet more young people with his message.

"The most important thing (for Lennon) at that moment wasn't getting on CBS or ABC, but talking to this kid for a long time," Levitan marvels.