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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.

Mr. Curtis attributed his long career slump to alcohol and cocaine addictions spurred by alimony payments to his ex-wives and anger toward his peers, whom he felt never accepted him as an actor.

In 1980, his erratic behavior led to his firing during stage tryouts of Neil Simon's "I Ought to Be in Pictures." A stay at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., reportedly helped him wean off drugs in the mid-1980s. In 1994, his son Nicholas, from his third marriage, died of a heroin overdose.

Mr. Curtis attributed his own recovery to the energy that he put into drawing and painting. He continued acting and remained an earthy presence on the talk-show circuit.

He openly discussed his bedroom prowess and once moved into the Playboy Mansion. "The only leading lady I didn't have an affair with was Jack Lemmon," he once joked.

Mr. Curtis, the son of Jewish-Hungarian immigrants, was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, in Manhattan. He was the oldest of three sons, one of whom was fatally struck by a truck. His other brother was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"My mother abused me a lot, slapped me around," Mr. Curtis once said. He added that his father, a tailor, "was a depressed man, always sewing."

An undistinguished student, he left high school in 1943 and served in a noncombat Navy role on Guam during World War II.

He said he knew as a teenager that his looks could help him escape an otherwise bleak life. He joined a theater group at a local YMCA at 15, and on the G.I. Bill after the war, he enrolled at the Dramatic Workshop run by Erwin Piscator in New York.

His classmates included Walter Matthau, Harry Belafonte and Bea Arthur, but Mr. Curtis had the most immediate good fortune. Within months, a Universal-International talent scout, struck by Mr. Curtis's appearance, signed him to a seven-year contract.

Universal was not among the most prestigious of studios, but it did have one advantage. "You could be good-looking but not much else and could get a job immediately," film historian Osborne said. "It was really perfect for Curtis."

Bernard Schwartz changed his name to Tony Curtis because of a Hungarian ancestor with the last name Kertesz. He was put through dramatic and physical training and became a skilled fencer. He also made a point of approaching starlets with the line, "I've been assigned by Universal to teach you how to kiss."

At first, Mr. Curtis appeared in small roles, such as a gigolo who dances "Brazilian Rhapsody" with Yvonne De Carlo in "Criss Cross" (1948).


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