Tony Curtis dies at 85; starred in 'Some Like It Hot' and 'Sweet Smell of Success'

Tony Curtis, the Bronx tailor's son who became a 1950s movie heartthrob and then a respected actor with such films as "Sweet Smell of Success," "The Defiant Ones" and "Some Like It Hot," has died. He was 85.
By Adam Bernstein
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 2:07 PM

Tony Curtis, an actor who rose to movie stardom in the 1950s by blending street attitude with near-pretty looks, gave compelling dramatic performances in "Sweet Smell of Success" and "The Defiant Ones" and became a comic icon as a cross-dressing Jazz Age musician in "Some Like It Hot," died of cardiac arrest Wednesday at his Las Vegas area home. He was 85.

Mr. Curtis was a veteran of more than 100 films of wildly varying quality. But his charismatic leading roles in "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957) and "Some Like It Hot" (1959) -- often ranked, respectively, among the finest dramas and comedies ever made -- assured him high regard among generations of moviewatchers and scholars.

After a hardscrabble childhood, Mr. Curtis realized his looks could be an escape to a better life, and his sex appeal launched his career in the late 1940s. But within a few years, the protective studio system that had nurtured him as a teenage heartthrob collapsed.

"The significant thing is that he did not disappear," said film historian Jeanine D. Basinger. "He made the transition because he actually had more than just a pretty face. He understood the situation he was in very clearly. He was a very intelligent boy from the streets. He was street smart, and he got business-smart."

Mr. Curtis sustained a career for more than five decades and surprised reviewers with his deft handling of a wide range of characters.

When he first came to Hollywood, Mr. Curtis was among the young beefcake performers, including Rock Hudson, hired by Universal-International Pictures after World War II. Mr. Curtis was cast in fantasy and action films such as "Son of Ali Baba" (1952) and "The Black Shield of Falworth" (1954).

His greasy, ducktail hairdo, electric blue eyes and an athletic build won him a following, particularly among young fans. Yet, those early swashbuckling roles also prompted a lingering joke -- that he made awful dialogue worse with his Bronx accent. "Yonda lies da castle of my foddah," he was said to have spoken one typical line.

In 1951, Mr. Curtis attracted a lot of press attention by marrying a co-star, Janet Leigh, the first of his six wives. Leigh, best known for starring in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), and Mr. Curtis became one of the world's most glamorous couples. One of their daughters, Jamie Lee Curtis, also became an actress.

Mr. Curtis's image was reproduced in magazines, and his clothing was torn at by enthusiastic female fans whenever he made public appearances. An official in the studio's fashion department made him a special suit designed to give easily whenever an admirer pulled at its buttons.

By the mid-1950s, with the studio system ending because of deregulation, Mr. Curtis embraced the changing business climate and began an active freelancing career. It was at this time that his ambition for better film roles became clear.

His first movie part of widely acknowledged distinction was "Trapeze" (1956), which allowed him to combine his athleticism with emotional depth. He played the protege of circus acrobat Burt Lancaster, who is also his rival for the attentions of Gina Lollobrigida.

"The surprise is the depth and force of Tony Curtis," reviewer Alton Cook wrote in the New York World-Telegram and Sun. "The snarling frenzy with which he meets misfortune is both pathetic and ruthless."

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