Tony Curtis, Hollywood Heartthrob Who Donned Skirt, Dies at 85
Tony Curtis, the 1950s Hollywood heartthrob who won acclaim as a sleazy press agent in “Sweet Smell of Success” and earned stardom as a skirt-wearing saxophone player in “Some Like It Hot,” has died. He was 85.
The star died in his bed at his Las Vegas home, according to a statement by the Clark County coroner’s office.
Curtis appeared in 90 movies and was nominated once for an Academy Award, for Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” (1958). Curtis impressed critics in the film about a prison escape, playing a convict shackled to a black inmate (Sidney Poitier) he despises until they forge a bond fleeing through the U.S. South.
A year later, Curtis co-starred with Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot,” the Billy Wilder comedy about two musicians who hide from the Chicago mob by donning dresses and joining an all-female band. In 2000, the American Film Institute called it the funniest U.S. movie ever made.
Handsome and athletic, Curtis had no trouble finding roles or women when he arrived in Hollywood in 1948. Three years later he married actress Janet Leigh, with whom he appeared in a few movies and produced daughters Jamie Lee and Kelly Lee, both actresses.
Famed for his face, mocked for his New York accent, Curtis thought his acting had been underrated. “Because he was so handsome and successful, a lot of recognition was denied him,” Jamie Lee Curtis told her father’s biographer.
The actor, born in Manhattan on June 3, 1925, was originally named Bernard Schwartz, the son of Hungarian immigrants Manuel and Helen Schwartz.
His father was a tailor who moved his shop and family between Manhattan and the Bronx. In his first memoir, “Tony Curtis: The Autobiography,” the actor described a transient childhood in rough neighborhoods that were often hostile to Jews.
From his earliest memory, Curtis recalled being enthralled by movies. When slapped by his mother, the would-be actor shielded his face because he needed “to protect the only gift I felt God had given me,” he wrote.
He enrolled in a high school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side because a friend said they would be among more Jewish students there. The friend, Gene Singer, also suggested he study acting.
“He never seemed like a Bernie Schwartz. It just didn’t quite fit. His whole persona was ‘Tony Curtis’ even then,” Singer told Barry Paris, who collaborated on the actor’s autobiography.
Curtis joined the U.S. Navy in 1943, serving in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war, he took acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School, whose other students then included Walter Matthau, Harry Belafonte and Bea Arthur.
Curtis was in an off-Broadway production of “Golden Boy” when he was spotted by a talent agent who signed him to a contract at Universal Pictures.
He made his film debut in “Criss Cross” in 1949. Two years later he became a box-office smash hit as fans flocked to see him as the bare-chested, swash-buckling hero in “The Prince Who Was a Thief.” Some critics said he sounded like a prince from the Bronx.
Curtis was more serious about acting than indicated by his high-energy parts or such early films as “I Was a Shoplifter” and “Son of Ali Baba.”
After filming “Houdini” with Janet Leigh, Curtis found critical esteem with “Trapeze” (1956). He built his reputation in a three-year period with “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), “The Defiant Ones” and “Some Like It Hot.” (His Cary Grant parody in the latter became a classic that was often mimicked.)
Years later, Jack Lemmon noted in an interview the difficulty of acting in movies, where there are few rehearsals and scenes are routinely shot out of sequence. Curtis had a rare mastery, he said.
“He’s the only guy I know who learned his craft successfully -- literally, learned how to act --- on film,” Lemmon said.
For “The Defiant Ones,” Curtis insisted that Poitier receive equal billing and not a “supporting” credit in their portrayals of the chained convicts with a mutual cause. “That’s how I got top billing for the first time in my life,” Poitier said. “I think that speaks a lot of him.”
Both earned Oscar nominations for best actor, probably splitting the vote. David Niven won the award that year for “Separate Tables.”
Other notable early movies by Curtis included “Spartacus” and “The Great Impostor,” both in 1960. Then, after a string of lesser movies that Curtis said were done for the money, he won favorable notice in the role of a true-life mass murderer in “The Boston Strangler” (1968).
Curtis and Leigh, popularly viewed as a model Hollywood couple, were divorced in 1962. The next year Curtis married German actress Christine Kaufmann. Two daughters, Alexandra and Allegra, were born before the couple divorced in 1968.
He then married Leslie Allen, a 23-year-old model, with whom he had two sons, Nicholas and Benjamin. (Nicholas died in 1994 of a heroin overdose.) That marriage ended in divorce, as did his fourth one, to Lisa Deutsch, a lawyer. His last marriage, in 1998, to equestrian Jill VandenBerg, became his longest.
Curtis lived on a grand scale over the years. He bought an 18-room Hollywood villa in 1966 with four acres and a garage that sheltered the actor’s new Lincoln Continental, a 1934 Rolls-Royce, a 1937 Bentley, and a 1935 Duesenberg, among his other cars.
To meet financial obligations that included mounting child- custody payments, Curtis said he took roles whether scripts were good or bad. He also supported his mother and a brother who spent his adult life mostly in mental institutions and died in 1992.
Curtis began using cocaine in 1974, triggering a dependency to which he added sleeping pills, stimulants and much alcohol. His low point came in 1980 while in a Neil Simon play, “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” when he often slept under a blanket in the backseat of his car, he said.
He entered the Betty Ford Center in 1984 and returned to the clinic the next year before recovering to work in movies and television again. He played in films into his late 70s and appeared in a musical version of “Some Like It Hot” during a national tour in 2002.
A lifelong artist, Curtis painted in acrylic and assembled box constructions. He used a personal website to sell his creations. The Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio mounted an exhibition of his work in 1992.
His second memoir, published in 2008, detailed his friendships and loves with Hollywood’s biggest names.
To contact the reporter on this story: Kathryn Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org
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