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

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."

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.

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).

He began to attract female fan letters, and Universal gave him his first starring role, in 1951, with "The Prince Who Was a Thief" opposite Piper Laurie. The film was immensely profitable and confirmed to studio executives Mr. Curtis's sexual appeal.

He went to race cars in "Johnny Dark" (1954), boxed in "Flesh and Fury" (1952) and showed his comic potential in Douglas Sirk's underrated "No Room for the Groom" (1952). He also was in a musical, "So This Is Paris" (1955), and played the title role in the movie biography "Houdini" (1953), about the escape artist Harry Houdini, with Janet Leigh as his screen wife.

Mr. Curtis was continually at the top of popularity polls, but he became increasingly unsparing in his comments about Hollywood. To a reporter who asked what it was like making love to Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot," he said, in a much-repeated line, that it was "like kissing Hitler."

He later said the comment was meant flippantly and partly in frustration to Monroe's inconsiderate behavior on the set, but it came to symbolize Mr. Curtis's unpredictability. His 1970 arrest at London's Heathrow Airport for marijuana possession, while making the British television series "The Persuaders!" with Roger Moore, was seen as further evidence of why his bankability plummeted.

Mr. Curtis began a long career in secondary roles -- among them, the impotent star in "The Last Tycoon" (1976), a Joe McCarthy-like senator in Nicolas Roeg's 1985 film "Insignificance" and gangster Sam Giancana in the 1986 TV film "Mafia Princess."

Doubleday published his Hollywood-based novel, "Kid Andrew Cody and Julie Sparrow" in 1977 but sued him over what the company considered an unacceptably bad second work of fiction. After losing an appeal, Mr. Curtis was ordered to repay the $50,000 advance.

Despite such setbacks, he was always accessible to the media and bared most of the strains and pleasures of his life in a 1993 memoir written with Barry Paris. His marriages to Janet Leigh, Christine Kaufmann, Leslie Allen, Andrea Savio and Lisa Deutsch ended in divorce.

Survivors include his sixth wife, Jill VandenBerg, who is 45 years his junior; two daughters from the first marriage, Kelly and Jamie Lee Curtis; two daughters from the second marriage, Alexandra and Allegra; a son from the third marriage, Benjamin.

Mr. Curtis told the London Independent in 1996: "Movies have given me the privilege to be an aristocrat, to be the prince. It gets me great tables at restaurants, beautiful cars to drive around in, a lovely woman to take out to dinner, to sit around and talk with some of the most intelligent brains that are around, to be recognized everywhere, to be loved by so many people, to lie here in bed, turn on the television, and there I am."

bernsteina@washpost.com

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