Levin attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. At Drake, he regularly played poker with other notables, such as Martin Erlichman and Eugene Schulman (both before and after Schulman married Helen Glazer in 1949). In addition to attending Drake, Levin also attended the Horace Mann School, from which he graduated, and New York University, where he majored in philosophy and English.
After college, he wrote training films and scripts for television. The first of these was Leda’s Portrait, for Lights Out in 1951.
Levin's first produced play was No Time for Sergeants (adapted from Mac Hyman's novel), a comedy about a hillbilly drafted into the United States Air Force that launched the career of Andy Griffith. The play was turned into a movie in 1958, and co-starred Nick Adams. No Time for Sergeants is generally considered the precursor to Gomer Pyle, USMC.
Levin's first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, was well received, earning him the 1954 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. A Kiss Before Dying was turned into a movie twice, first in 1956, and again in 1991.
Levin's best-known play is Deathtrap, which holds the record as the longest-running comedy-thriller on Broadway and brought Levin his second Edgar Award. In 1982, it was made into a film starring Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine.
Levin's best-known novel is Rosemary's Baby, a horror story of modern day Satanism and other occultisms, set in Manhattan's Upper West Side. In 1968, it was made into a film starring Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. Ruth Gordon won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance. Roman Polanski, who wrote and directed the film, was nominated for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.
Other Levin novels that were made into films included The Boys from Brazil in 1978; The Stepford Wives in 1975 and again in 2004 and Sliver in 1993. Currently a new version of The Boys from Brazil is in development for 2009.
In the 1990s, Levin wrote two more bestselling novels: Sliver (1991) which became a film by Philip Noyce, the director of Patriot Games with Sharon Stone and Tom Berenger, and Son of Rosemary (1997), the sequel to Rosemary's Baby.
Stephen King has described Ira Levin as "the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels, he makes what the rest of us do look like cheap watchmakers in drugstores." Chuck Palahniuk, in True Stories, calls Levin's writing "a smart, updated version of the kind of folksy legends that cultures have always used."