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American prince: Tony Curtis (1925-2010)

October 1, 2010

The prince and the showgirl: Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe on the set of Some Like It Hot in 1959 – despite the difficulty of the shoot, this classic comedy would define both their careers

He romanced Marilyn Monroe on and off the screen, led that crowd of slaves in delivering the immortal line ‘I’m Spartacus!’ and, it could be said, defined Hollywood living for six decades, but two days ago his dramatic story came to an end. Tony Curtis, perhaps the longest, last survivor of Hollywood’s Golden Age, has died at home in Nevada. He was 85 years old.

Born on June 3 1925 as Bernard Schwartz to Hungarian Jewish imigrants in The Bronx, New York (explaining the trademark accent he’d never really be able to hide), he suffered a troubled childhood owing primarily to his schizophrenic mother’s physical abuse. Her mental illness would lead to his older brother Robert being institutionalised, while he and his younger brother Julius were placed in an orphanage for a month – Julius was killed when hit by a truck just a month later.

However, Curtis put his upbringing behind him when, as World War Two raged, he joined the US Navy. Stationed aboard a submarine tender, his service included witnessing from a mile away Japan’s surrender to the United States in Tokyo Bay on September 2 1945. Upon discharge, he attended college in New York and studied acting, his fellow students numbering Rod Steiger and Walter Matthau. Then, on arrival in Hollywood in 1948, he secured a contract as a player with Universal Studios, even though he later admitted that at this stage he was only interested in acting for the girls and money.

“The age gap doesn’t bother us. We laugh a lot. My body is functioning and everything is good. She’s the sexiest woman I’ve ever known. We don’t think about time. I don’t use Viagra either. There are 50 ways to please your lover.” ~ Tony Curtis on his final wife, Jill Vandenburg Curtis, who was 42 years his junior

Over the next few years he appeared in roles for many and various pictures, building up a young female fanbase owing to his undeniable good looks. By the mid-’50s he was something of a heart-throb, and he perhaps made his first real big splash in circus-based high-wire flick Trapeze (1956) opposite Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida. A year later he made his genuine, unmistakeable breakthrough, starring with Lancaster again but against type as a corrupted press agent in the scathing drama The Sweet Smell Of Success. Having now proved to audiences he could definitely act, his work became yet more high-profile and better, among it a leading – and Oscar-nominated  – role alongside Sidney Poitier in the chain-gang escape-themed The Defiant Ones (1958) and co-starring with Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe as Joe/ Josephine in the classic cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot (1959).

As the ’50s slid into the ’60s, Curtis featured most prominently in more comedy roles, no doubt owing to his success in Some Like It Hot (of the two man-dressed-as-a-woman acts, his is the more subtle and arguably more accomplished, while his additional Cary Grant impersonation is flawlessly brilliant). There were the big box-office hits Operation Petticoat (1959), Sex And The Single Girl (1964), and the car-based capers The Great Race (1965) and Monte Carlo Or Bust (1969). All the same, he was able to mix it up in the ’60s as well, starring as he did as learned slave Antoninus in Spartacus (1960) – in which he shared a controversially sexually ambivalent bath scene with Laurence Olivier – and as the title character in the dark, hard-hitting The Boston Strangler (1968).

As culture, mores and tastes changed at the end of the ’60s though, Curtis found the roles were beginning to dry up. So, turning his back on Hollywood, he looked to television and agreed to star opposite Roger Moore in light-hearted adventure series The Persuaders! (1971). It’s fair to say that his sometimes eccentric, other times erratic, but always entertaining performance as New York banker-turned-globetrotting-vigilante Danny Wilde is this blog’s favourite of his repertoire (after all, you may recall that George’s Journal featured an image of Sir Rog and Tone from this very series as its original page banner). Sadly though, despite popularity of The Persuaders! in its native UK and – more unexpected – in France and Germany, the series didn’t transfer successfully to the US and only one series was ever made.

Undaunted, Curtis continued to act, even if the quality was middling to non-existent – admittedly, by now he had also suffered drink and drug problems. Yet, in the early ’80s he discovered and established a second career for himself as an Impressionist painter; nowadays his works often reach up to $250,000 at auction. He also went on to make a name for himself as a popular raconteur, but his loose tongue belied a cruel streak when remembering past colleagues and acquaintances – he once said that kissing Marilyn Monroe (with whom he had enjoyed an affair in 1949) while making Some Like It Hot was ‘like kissing Hitler’.

Cartoon immortalisation: Fred, Wilma and ‘Stony Curtis’ in a 1965 episode of The Flintsones – the latter character’s appearance and voice bore an uncanny resemblance to Curtis’s own 

Famously, he was married to Psycho star Janet Leigh, with whom he had two actress daughters Kelly and Jamie Lee – the latter, of course, went on to become a Hollywood star in her own right. The break-up of this marriage hurt him deeply, but didn’t prevent him from marrying again… and again and again and again and again. Aside from a four-year gap in the ’90s, he was married for the entire rest of his life – admittedly to five separate wives, pretty much one directly after the other.

Curtis never won an Oscar, but rightfully has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and received an Empire magazine Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Around this time, it became apparent that his health wasn’t what it once was and it would probably be fair to say it deteriorated up until the end. All the same, around this time too, he took the surprising decision no longer to wear wigs, but instead boldly show off the fact that he was now a proudly bald, elderly man.

Undoubtedly then, star of over a hundred films, utterly loveable and something of an outspoken, non-conformist American legend that always eluded easy categorisation, the late, great Tony Curtis was a defiant one to the last.

Further reading:

American Prince: A Memoir ~ Tony Curtis, with Peter Golenbock

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2010 10:10 am

    What an absolute legend.

    Tony was utterly brilliant. His performance in Some Like It Hot is still, to my mind, one of the best in comedy. The lampooning of Cary Grant gets me every time. When he says “hello my darling” in his Cary voice I can never suppress a chuckle.

    Thank you for this article, George.

    A true Hollywood legend and bon vivant. Rest in peace, Tony.


    • October 1, 2010 11:46 pm

      Yup, Tone was a truly talented, but down-to-earth Hollywood legend. An actor too who loved mixing it up like his idol Cary Grant (whom, as you pointed out, dubster, he so terrifically sent up).

      RIP, Mr Curtis, indeed…

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