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

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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.

Lancaster, who produced the movie, hired him again for "Sweet Smell of Success," which bombed with the public but was later regarded as an acid masterpiece. Mr. Curtis was Sidney Falco, a publicist who sheds all dignity to ingratiate himself with a powerful columnist modeled on Walter Winchell and played by Lancaster.

In 1959, Mr. Curtis received his only Academy Award nomination, in Stanley Kramer's "The Defiant Ones" (1958), a powerfully provocative film at the time. He portrayed a Southern bigot who escapes from prison chained to a black convict (played by Sidney Poitier). Poitier always credited Mr. Curtis for insisting that the black actor get his first star billing.

Mr. Curtis gave a chilling performance as convicted rapist and serial killer Albert DeSalvo in the documentary-style "The Boston Strangler" (1968). Mr. Curtis considered this his most demanding part -- he put on 30 pounds, wore heavy boots that slowed his walk and used other prosthetics to give him the creepy gaze of a murderer.

He was deeply upset when he was overlooked for an Oscar nomination. He said he was not respected among many of his peers, calling himself a "stepson in my profession."

Earlier, he had expressed anger after being denied an Oscar nomination for Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot." He and Jack Lemmon (who was Oscar-nominated for his part), played 1920s jazz musicians who disguise themselves as women in an all-girl band after witnessing a mob slaying.

Mr. Curtis had a triple role: a womanizing jazz saxophonist named Joe, who rechristens himself "Josephine" in the female orchestra and also pretends to be a sexually unresponsive oil heir in order to entice a golddigging singer (played by Marilyn Monroe).

Mr. Curtis rendered the millionaire as an affectionate parody of Cary Grant, whom he had idolized since childhood. He received some of the best reviews of his career. Movie critic David Thomson called Mr. Curtis "the subtlest thing in that outrageous film" and "more cunningly feminine than Lemmon."

Film historian Robert Osborne said Mr. Curtis's performance in "Some Like It Hot" was "so wonderful and such a surprise" and the movie is held in such high regard that it overcomes a later downward spiral of his career.

Over the years, Mr. Curtis had some isolated moments of distinction. He played a wheeler-dealer in the Blake Edwards comedy "Operation Petticoat" (1959) with Grant and in "Captain Newman, M.D." (1963) with Gregory Peck. He also was memorable as American Indian war hero Ira Hayes in "The Outsider" (1961) and the nubile "singer of songs" in "Spartacus" (1960), appearing in the sexually tinged bathtub scene with Laurence Olivier.

However, reviewers considered Mr. Curtis greatly out of place as Yul Brynner's Cossack son in "Taras Bulba" (1962), set in 16th-century Ukraine. He further squandered much of the 1960s in comedies like "Boeing-Boeing" with Jerry Lewis, "Not With My Wife, You Don't!" and "Arrivederci, Baby!" (also known as "Drop Dead, Darling").

In the 1970s, he turned to television and film projects such as "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan" (1978) and "The Manitou" (1978), a thriller about which he later wrote, "some 400-year-old evil spirit decides to reincarnate itself on Susan Strasberg's neck."

He also had a minor role in Mae West's final movie, "Sextette" (1978), and played "Col. Iago" in "Othello, el comando negro" (1982), a film very loosely based on the Shakespeare play.


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