THE LEGENDARY TONY CURTIS PASSES AWAY



From my perspective, TONY CURTIS was one of the movie stars that mattered. So it saddens me deeply to report his passing.

He was not only an incredibly beautiful man, but he was supremely talented. Mr. Curtis possessed great comedic gifts and was also an extraordinarily effective dramatic performer.

I’m a very big fan of his former spouse JANET LEIGH and his thoroughly awesome daughter JAMIE LEE CURTIS.

He was fabulous in SOME LIKE IT HOT. He’s one of the reasons that that film is an enduring uproarious classic.

But to me, he’ll always be Leslie in BLAKE EDWARDS’ hilarious 60s extravaganza THE GREAT RACE.

There’s a clip of the masterful take no prisoners pie fight at the end of this post. I do have it elsewhere on site. But I still maintain that that is one of the most hysterical five minute sequences ever committed to celluloid.

I’m really going to miss him. He was wonderful.

TONY CURTIS, a classically handsome film star who earned an ACADEMY AWARD nomination as an escaped convict in STANLEY KRAMER’S 1958 movie THE DEFIANT ONES, but whose public preferred him in comic roles in films like SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE GREAT RACE (1965), died Wednesday of cardiac arrest in his Las Vegas area home.

He was 85.

His death was confirmed by the Clark County coroner, The Associated Press reported.

As a performer, Mr. Curtis drew first and foremost on his startlingly good looks. With his dark wavy hair, worn in a sculptural style later imitated by Elvis Presley, pale blue eyes and full lips, Mr. Curtis embodied a new kind of male beauty that came into vogue in the early 1950s.

A hotblooded heterosexual in his private life, he was often cast in roles that drew on a perceived ambiguity: his full drag impersonation of a female jazz musician in SOME LIKE IT HOT; a slave who attracts the interest of a Roman senator (LAURENCE OLIVIER) in STANLEY KUBRICK’S SPARTACUS (1960); a man attracted to a mysterious blonde (DEBBIE REYNOLDS) who turns out to be the reincarnation of his male best friend in VINCENTE MINNELLI’S GOODBYE CHARLIE (1964).

But behind the extravagant gorgeousness could be found a dramatically potent combination of naked ambition and deep vulnerability, both likely products of his Dickensian childhood in the Bronx.

TONY CURTIS was born BERNARD SCHWARTZ on JUNE 3, 1925 to HELEN SCHWARTZ and EMANUEL SCHWARTZ, Jewish immigrants from Hungary.

EMANUEL operated a tailor shop in a poor neighbourhood and the family occupied cramped quarters behind the store – the parents in one room and little BERNARD sharing another with his two brothers, JULIUS and ROBERT.

HELEN suffered from schizophrenia and frequently beat the three boys. (ROBERT was later found to have the same disease.)

In 1933, at the height of the Depression, his parents found they could not properly provide for their children.

BERNARD and JULIUS were placed in a state institution. Returning to his home base, BERNARD frequently found himself caught up in gang warfare and the target of anti Semitic hostility. As he recalled in many interviews, he learned to dodge the stones and fists to protect his face, which he realized even then would be his ticket to greater things.

“I was always the new kid on the block, so I got beaten up by the other kids,” Mr. Curtis recalled in 1959.

“I had to figure a way to avoid getting my nose broken. So I became the crazy new kid on the block.”

His sidewalk histrionics helped avoid fights and led to acting in plays at a settlement house. He also grew to love film.

“My whole culture as a boy was movies. For 11 cents, you could sit in the front row of a theatre for 10 hours, which I did constantly.”

In 1938, his sibling JULIUS was hit by a truck and killed.

In search of stability, BERNARD made his way to Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side. During World War II he served in the Navy aboard the submarine tender U.S.S. Proteus. His ship was present in Tokyo Bay for the formal surrender of Japan aboard the U.S.S. Missouri on September 2, 1945, which he watched through a pair of binoculars.

“That was one of the great moments in my life,” he later wrote.

Back in New York, he enrolled in acting classes in the workshop headed by Erwin Piscator at the New School For Social Research, where one of his colleagues was another Seward alumnus, WALTER MATTHAU. He began getting work with theatre companies in the Catskills and caught the eye of the New York casting agent JOYCE SELZNICK, who helped him win a contract with UNIVERSAL PICTURES in 1948.

BERNIE SCHWARTZ sounded too Jewish for a movie star, so the studio gave him a new name: ANTHONY CURTIS, taken from his favourite novel ANTHONY ADVERSE and the anglicized name of a favourite uncle.

After his eighth film, he became TONY CURTIS.

He started with bit parts in films like Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS (1949), Arthur Lubin’s Francis (1950) and Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73, alongside another UNIVERSAL bit player ROCK HUDSON.

At first, Mr. Curtis’ career advanced more rapidly than Mr. Hudson’s. In the Technicolor Arabian Nights adventure The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951), he received top billing. His costar was PIPER LAURIE, another offspring of Jewish immigrants (born Rosetta Jacobs), with whom he was paired in three subsequent films at Universal, including Douglas Sirk’s No Room for the Groom, a 1952 comedy that allowed Mr. Curtis to explore his comedic gifts for the first time.

In 1951, Mr. Curtis married the ravishing MGM contract player JANET LEIGH, whose beauty rivalled his own.

“Tony and I had a wonderful time together. It was an exciting glamorous period in Hollywood,” Ms. Leigh, who died in 2004, once said.

“A lot of great things happened. Most of all: two beautiful children.”

The highly photogenic pair soon became a favourite of the fan magazines, and their first movie together, George Marshall’s HOUDINI (1953), was also Mr. Curtis’ first substantial hit.

Perhaps the character of Houdini — like Mr. Curtis, a handsome young man of Hungarian/Jewish ancestry who reinvented himself through show business — touched something in the actor. In any case, it was in that film that his most consistent screen personality, the eager young outsider who draws on his charm and wiles to achieve success in the American mainstream, was born.

Mr. Curtis endured several more UNIVERSAL costume pictures, including the infamous 1954 film The Black Shield of Falworth, in which he costarred with Ms. Leigh but did not utter the line, “Yondah lies da castle of my foddah,” that legend has attributed to him.

His career seemed stalled until BURT LANCASTER, another actor who had survived a difficult childhood in New York City, took him under his wing.

Mr. Lancaster cast Mr. Curtis as his protégé, a circus performer who becomes his romantic rival, in his company’s 1956 production TRAPEZE.

But it was Mr. Curtis’ next appearance with Mr. Lancaster — as the hustling Broadway press agent Sidney Falco, desperately eager to ingratiate himself with Mr. Lancaster’s sadistic Broadway columnist J. J. Hunsecker in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) — that proved Mr. Curtis could be an actor of genuine power and subtlety.

The late 50s and early 60s proved to be Mr. Curtis’ heyday.

Taking his career into his own hands, he formed a production company, CURTLEIGH PRODUCTIONS and in partnership with KIRK DOUGLAS assembled the 1958 independent feature THE VIKINGS — a rousing adventure film, directed by Richard Fleischer, that has become an enduring favourite. Later in 1958, the producer/director STANLEY KRAMER cast Mr. Curtis in THE DEFIANT ONES, as a prisoner who escapes from a Southern chain gang while shackled to another convict (Sidney Poitier).

The film may seem schematic and simplistic today, but at the time of its release it spoke with hope to a nation in the violent first stages of the civil rights movement and was rewarded with nine OSCAR nominations, including one for Mr. Curtis as BEST ACTOR. It was the only acknowledgment he received from the ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS & SCIENCES during his career.

Mr. Curtis began a creatively rewarding relationship with the director BLAKE EDWARDS with a semiautobiographical role as a young hustler working a Wisconsin resort in MISTER CORY (1957), which was followed by two hugely successful 1959 military comedies: The Perfect Furlough and Operation Petticoat, in which he played a submarine officer serving under a captain played by CARY GRANT.

Under BILLY WILDER’S direction in SOME LIKE IT HOT, another 1959 release, Mr. Curtis employed a spot on imitation of Mr. Grant’s mid Atlantic accent when his character, posing as an oil heir, attempts to seduce a sultry singer (MARILYN MONROE). His role in that film — as a Chicago musician who, with his best friend JACK LEMMON, witnesses the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and flees to Florida in women’s clothing as a member of an all female dance band — remains Mr. Curtis’ best known performance.

Success in comedy kindled Mr. Curtis’ ambitions as a dramatic actor.

He appeared in Mr. Douglas’ epic production of SPARTACUS, directed by STANLEY KUBRICK and reached unsuccessfully for another OSCAR nomination in THE OUTSIDER (1961), directed by Delbert Mann, as Ira Hayes, a Native American who helped to raise the flag at Iwo Jima.

In THE GREAT IMPOSTOR, directed by Robert Mulligan, he played a role closer to his established screen personality: an ambitious young man from the wrong side of the tracks who fakes his way through a series of professions, including a monk, a prison warden and a surgeon.

Mr. Curtis’ popularity was damaged by his divorce from Ms. Leigh in 1962, following an affair with the 17 year old German actor CHRISTINE KAUFMANN, who was his costar in the costume epic TARAS BULBA.

He retreated into comedies, playing out his long association with UNIVERSAL in a series of undistinguished efforts including 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE (1962), CAPTAIN NEWMAN M.D. (1963) and the disastrous WILD & WONDERFUL (1964), in which he costarred with Ms. Kaufmann, whom he married in 1963.

In THE GREAT RACE, BLAKE EDWARDS’ 1965 celebration of slapstick comedy, Mr. Curtis parodied himself as an impossibly handsome daredevil named the Great Leslie. In 1967 he reunited with Alexander Mackendrick, the director of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS for an enjoyable satire on California mores, DON’T MAKE WAVES.

During the 60s he also found time to do a voice acting gig as his prehistoric lookalike Stony Curtis, in an episode of THE FLINTSTONES.

Mr. Curtis made one final ambitious attempt to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor with THE BOSTON STRANGLER in 1968, putting on weight to play the suspected serial killer Albert DeSalvo.

Again under Richard Fleischer’s direction, he turned in an effective, rigorously deglamorized performance, but the film was dismissed as exploitative in many quarters and failed to reignite Mr. Curtis’ career. He divorced Ms. Kaufmann and married the 23 year old model LESLIE ALLEN that same year.

Mr. Curtis struggled against drug and alcohol abuse as starring roles became fewer, but then bounced back in film and television as a character actor.

His brash optimism returned and he allowed his once shiny black hair to turn silver.

Again he came back after even those opportunities began to wane, reinventing himself as a writer and painter whose canvasses sold for as much as $20,000.

“I’m a recovering alcoholic,” he said in 1990 as he concluded a painting in 40 minutes in the garden of THE BEL AIR HOTEL.

“Painting has given me such a great pleasure in life, helped me to recover.”

After his star faded in the late 1960s, Mr. Curtis shifted to lesser roles. With jobs harder to find, he fell into drug and alcohol addiction.

“From 22 to about 37, I was lucky,” he told INTERVIEW magazine in the 1980s.

“But by the middle 60s, I wasn’t getting the kind of parts I wanted and it kind of soured me…But I had to go through the drug inundation before I was able to come to grips with it and realize that it had nothing to do with me, that people weren’t picking on me.”

In the early 80s, he went for a 30 day treatment at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California.

“Mine was a textbook case,” he said in a 1985 interview.

“My life had become unmanageable because of booze and dope. Work became a strain and a struggle. Because I didn’t want to face the challenge, I simply made myself unavailable.”

One role during that era of struggle did bring him an EMMY nomination: his portrayal of DAVID O. SELZNICK in the TV movie THE SCARLETT O’HARA WAR in 1980.

He remained vigorous following heart bypass surgery in 1994, although his health declined in recent years.

In a 2007 interview with THE LAS VEGAS SUN, he described his frustration during a lengthy hospitalization for a bout with pneumonia in 2006. THE LAS VEGAS REVIEW JOURNAL reported he was hospitalized several times in more recent years in Henderson and New York with breathing trouble, including once last July.

Mr. Curtis took a fatherly pride in daughter JAMIE LEE’S success. They were estranged for a long period, then reconciled.

“I understand him better now,” she said. “Perhaps not as a father but as a man.”

“I’m not ready to settle down like an elderly Jewish gentleman, sitting on a bench and leaning on a cane,” TONY CURTIS stated at 60.

“I’ve got a hell of a lot of living to do.”

In 2000, an AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE survey of the funniest films in history ranked SOME LIKE IT HOT at #1.

Recalling the impact of his film career, he told THE WASHINGTON POST in 2002: “I think it has nothing to do with good performances or bad performances. After the number of movies I made where I thought there should be some acknowledgment, there was nothing from the Academy. My happiness and privilege is that my audience around the world is supportive of me, so I don’t need the Academy.”

After divorcing Ms. Allen, Mr. Curtis wed actor ANDREA SAVIO (1984 – 1992) and, briefly, lawyer LISA DEUTSCH (1993 – 1994). He married his sixth wife, the horse trainer JILL VANDENBERG in 1998 and with her operated SHILOH HORSE RESCUE, a nonprofit refuge for abused and neglected horses, in Sandy Valley, Nevada.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Curtis is survived by JAMIE LEE CURTIS and KELLY LEE CURTIS, his two daughters with JANET LEIGH; ALEXANDRA CURTIS and ALLEGRA CURTIS, his two daughters with CHRISTINE KAUFMANN and a son, BENJAMIN CURTIS, with LESLIE ALLEN. A second son with Ms. Allen, NICHOLAS CURTIS, died in 1994 of a drug overdose.

JAMIE LEE CURTIS said in a statement: “My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages. He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him and a wife and in laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world.”

KIRK DOUGLAS, who knew Mr. Curtis well and costarred with him in THE VIKINGS, SPARTACUS and THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER, had this to say: “This is a personal loss for me. Tony and I were two Jewish kids from poverty level families who could not believe our luck in making it as big Hollywood stars. We had a lot in common and shared a warm friendship and many adventures both on and off the screen for more than half a century.”

“I still have one of Tony’s first paintings which he gave me years ago. I did three movies with him and he was a much better actor than people realize: look at Some Like It Hot or The Defiant Ones.”

“It’s hard for me to believe he’s gone because we had a long phone visit not too long ago. My heart goes out to Jill and all of his children.”

Screen goddess KIM NOVAK, who worked with him in THE MIRROR CRACK’D and on the TV movie THE THIRD GIRL FROM THE LEFT commented: “He was such a charming man. He always had an upbeat outlook on life. We got along very well because we both were interested in the visual arts and we had a unique perspective on life.”

Actor/director TONY GOLDWYN said: “He’s one of those actors who in the 50s was a beautiful, charismatic leading man, who became sort of iconic as a sex symbol. Not somebody who you originally thought had a lot of depth. He was just charming and funny and yet he revealed himself to be quite complex and gave some great performances.”

SAM ROCKWELL, who worked with Mr. Curtis in the 1998 film LOUIS & FRANK, remembered him: “The guy was such a sweetheart. Beautifully neurotic, in a very endearing kind of Woody Allen way.”

“He was a fine actor…I shall miss him,” reminisced ROGER MOORE, who starred alongside Mr. Curtis in TV’s THE PERSUADERS in the 1970s.

“He was great fun to work with, a great sense of humour and wonderful ad libs,” Mr. Moore told Sky News.

“We had the best of times.”

In 1977, TONY CURTIS wrote a novel: KID CODY & JULIE SPARROW.

He published TONY CURTIS: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY written with BARRY PARIS in 1994 and a second book about his life, AMERICAN PRINCE: A MEMOIR written with PETER GOLENBOCK, in 2008.

His final screen appearance was in 2008, when he played a small role in DAVID & FATIMA, an independent film about a romance between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim.

His character’s name was Mr. Schwartz.

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