Banner Photo: Brad Meltzer's Decoded cast (left to right)- Christine McKinley, Brad Meltzer, Buddy Levy & Scott Rolle.
Buddy Levy '88 | UI Alum sleuths out stories on and off screen
By Lisa Heer
“The stories. It’s always about the stories.”
Lately UI English Alum Buddy Levy has been telling those stories on the History channel’s hit television series Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, where Levy co-stars as a “decoder” who travels around the world attempting to solve some of history’s more complex mysteries.
Levy was contacted to do the show by the Los-Angeles based company Go Go Luckey through e-mail in 2009.
“They had found me based on the historical books I had written and my experiences as a journalist- especially in the realm of adventure,” said Levy. “They figured I could withstand the rigors of the road and scouring the country (and world) sleuthing out stories. It was a long process, but I was there from the beginning and after numerous trips to LA to film short sequences, then a trip to D.C. to film a short pilot, I was ultimately selected as one of the three ‘decoders’ who travel around attempting to solve historical mysteries and conundrums.”
But Levy doesn’t just act like he’s chasing these stories on the big screen. As a successful freelance journalist and author, Buddy Levy has spent his entire life chasing “the stories”- and they’ve led him to some interesting places.
Like Morocco for instance, where he covered one of his first adventure sport stories about a team of racers from his hometown (Sun Valley, Idaho) who competed in Mark Burnett’s Eco-Challenge.
“Spending three weeks travelling all over Morocco by jeep and cargo plane and helicopter, seeing the amazing mountain communities and travelling with world-class journalists and photographers hooked me- it was an incredible rush of adrenaline that lasted for a long, long time,” said Levy. “The next thing I knew I was travelling to Argentina, Borneo, Greenland . . . all seeking adventures and writing about them.”
Levy’s intrigue in writing began at a young age, and he pursued his passion at the University of Idaho in 1978. “From an early age in my life I gravitated toward writing, literature, and great stories,” said Levy. “I published my first story when I was 14, and always loved poetry, short stories, and writers like Hemingway and London.”
By 1988 Levy had earned both his BA in English Literature and MA in English with a Creative Writing Emphasis from the University of Idaho, and began teaching right after he finished his degrees.
“I always knew I would be a writer, and the teaching fell naturally into place for me. I really enjoy the students, and being in the classroom with a small community of writers/thinkers pursuing ideas and working together has always engaged me,” said Levy, who taught for several years at both Washington State University and University of Idaho.
Levy’s career took an interesting turn though. “I suppose in some respects my career has gone better than I expected, but I’ve learned that one must be flexible, malleable and ready to try new challenges.”
His new challenge stemmed from his freelancing and writing interests, which he began pursuing full time.
“I always knew that I would write books, but I rather expected to be writing novels and not narrative history and adventure journalism. Those were a bit unexpected and evolved because I was ready to adapt to the situation that presented itself,” said Levy, who has been the author of four successfully published books. Many of his articles and essays have also been featured in numerous magazines such as Discover, High Desert Journal, and Poets & Writers.
The adventure sports which Levy covers aren’t completely foreign to him, however. Along with his wife Camie, Levy has participated in a number of day-long adventure races consisting of running, mountain biking, trail running, swimming, paddling, and orienteering/navigating.
“They were really fun and really hard- you ended up dirty and bleeding but smiling at the finish,” said Levy, who considers his background in the mountains of Idaho as preparation for adventure racing. “I also ran numerous marathons in the late seventies-early eighties.” In Levy’s case, “numerous” means eleven.
In the midst of covering and participating in such adventure sports, Levy also developed an interest in writing about history-themed topics, and in 2003 began working with his New York literary agent, Scott Waxman, to develop his first such book: American Legend: The Real-Life Adventures of David Crockett.
“After I finished my David Crockett proposal and my agent sent it out to the publishers, I had that horrible wait to hear the fate of my work,” said Levy, who had spent about six months perfecting his proposal. On the day his agent knew he would hear word from New York, Levy hiked up Moscow Mountain with his dog to await the news.
“When I was near the top my cell phone rang and I had to run around to a ridge to get coverage, and my agent was on the other end saying he had a very good offer from an editor at Penguin/Putnam. My hand was shaking. I hung up the phone and stood on the mountain and howled with joy through the trees,” said Levy. “I was so proud. I still get choked up thinking about it. I wish I could replicate that feeling again and again, and I hope for other writers they get to feel it too.”
As it turns out, this was only the beginning for Levy’s involvement.
“Starting a big biography for a major New York publisher was daunting and a bit intimidating at first, but I must say that my education at Idaho’s English department prepared me very well for the challenge, and the book came out in 2005,” said Levy. “From that point, I was so enthralled with historical subject matter and the great stories that exist out there that I just kept going- one book after another just fell into place.”
Levy’s most recent history-themed book, River of Darkness, follows Francisco Orellana’s voyage down the Amazon River shortly after the journey of Hernán Cortés. Preceding this book, Levy wrote about Cortés and the Aztecs in Conquistador, which was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal in 2008.
Levy has certainly had success as a writer, but he admits that he also had ambitions to be an actor when he was younger and experimented in theatre and comedy. Even so, he never expected to be the co-star of a hit series on a nationally televised show.
“I’ve learned to have pretty decent intuitions and put myself in situations that are just outside of my comfort zone, and then step up to the challenge,” said Levy. “It’s a bit scary sometimes, but in life there is risk and in facing risk and succeeding, there is very deep personal and professional reward.”
And taking that risk has definitely been rewarding for Levy.
“Involvement in the show [Decoded] has been tremendous,” said Levy. “I’ve learned to be very open minded about history, to ask good questions, to listen very carefully and not draw conclusions hastily. Being on the show has offered a crash course in American History and underscored the importance of hearing out multiple points of view.”
You can catch Levy and his fellow “decoders” Tuesday nights on the History channel beginning in October at 10 p.m. as the series Decoded kicks off with its second season.
“It’s going to be great, and there are some really fascinating stories out there,” said Levy. “Could change what you thought you knew about history.”
Levy hopes to continue working in television, both on and off camera.
“Because of my writing, I intend to create content for television as well. I am working on a project with a representative in LA right now, in fact,” said Levy. He also intends to write many more books (ten is his goal) and to write and publish a novel.
Wherever his career takes him next, one thing will be certain: Levy will continue to chase the stories.