He was the stereotypical Hollywood “hunk,” the dark-haired, blue-eyed leading man who became an industry icon playing sitcoms and romantic comedies despite several impressive depictions of legendary tough guys. He earned an Oscar nomination as an escaped convict in The Defiant Ones (1958) but is probably best remembered for his full-drag impersonation of a female jazz musician in Some Like It Hot (1959). I’m speaking of the great Tony Curtis, who passed away last night in his Las Vegas area home of cardiac arrest. He was 85.
As a performer, most fans immediately were taken in by his good looks. He was a sex symbol in the Hollywood era of the 1950s. Strangely, despite his much publicized heterosexual lifestyle, producers routinely cast him in roles that were … shall we say … ambiguous? But have no doubt, the general movie-going public loved Tony Curtis, as his tremendous box office success for more than 20 years attests.
Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, to Jewish Hungarian immigrants. Growing up in abject poverty and frequent abuse (his mother suffered from schizophrenia), he was placed in a state institution at the height of the Great Depression of 1933. Like his future co-star Kirk Douglas, he frequently found himself caught up in gang warfare and the target of anti-Semitic hostility. His gentle exterior hid the reality of growing up on the mean streets of the Bronx in difficult times.
During World War II he served in the Navy aboard a submarine, the USS Proteus. That sub was present in Tokyo Bay for the formal surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. Signalman Schwartz watched through a pair of binoculars. He later wrote that it “was one of the great moments in my life.” No kidding!
Returning to New York after the war, he enrolled in acting classes and began working in the theater. He quickly caught the eye of a casting agent and signed with Universal Pictures (my favorite studio) in 1948. After experimenting with James Curtis, he settled on Anthony Curtis as his stage name. Through diligence and dedication, he was able to overcome his thick Bronx accent.
As “Tony Curtis,” he made several films over the next couple of years to moderate success, but his marriage to MGM beauty queen Janet Leigh in 1951 proved to be highly successful for both actors. The amazingly photogenic couple soon became a favorite of fan magazines. Their first movie together, Houdini (1953) became his first critical and financial hit. Like the real Houdini (also of Jewish Hungarian ancestry), Curtis drew from the common bond he shared with the legendary magician … a struggling immigrant seeking rebirth through show business. As they say in Hollywood … a star is born!
Soon afterward, another superstar, Burt Lancaster, cast Curtis as his protégé, a circus performer who becomes his romantic rival, in Lancaster’s 1956 production, Trapeze. Another successful pairing with Lancaster followed in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Curtis was now on the “A List,” a spot he’d hold for more than a decade.
The next fifteen years belonged to Curtis, who made hit after hit. He starred in some of my all-time favorite epics of the era. Here’s a look at some of them:
- The Vikings, one of my top ten favorites of all time. He gets to play a Viking, survives having his hand cut off, kills tough-guy Kirk Douglas, saves the kingdom, gets the girl (Janet Leigh) and shares screen time with another of my all-time favorites, Ernest Borgnine. What’s NOT to like about this movie?
- The Defiant Ones. He plays a prisoner who escapes from a Southern chain gang while chained to a black convict played by Sidney Poitier. While the film may look dated today, it was a powerful piece which spoke to civil rights at a time when our nation was rocked with racial violence. The Defiant Ones received nine Oscar nominations, including one for Curtis as best actor.
- Operation Petticoat, co-starring Cary Grant and Janet Leigh.
- Some Like It Hot, Curtis’ best-known performance. This Billy Wilder classic, co-starring Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, let Curtis unleash his comedic talents with Lemmon as they flee to Florida in women’s clothing disguised as an all-girl dance band. While in London in 2003, one of my classmates in the Royal College of Defence Studies hailed from the Ukraine. He was an avid movie buff. His all-time favorite film? Some Like It Hot. Way to go, Tony!
- Spartacus, the Roman epic starring Kirk Douglas as the gladiator slave who challenged the empire (step aside, Russell Crowe). In his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas joked that since Curtis killed him in The Vikings, he returned the favor in Spartacus. This film offers the classic scene where Curtis, in an effort to protect the rebel leader of the rebellion, proclaims, “I am Spartacus!” Dozens of others follow suit. It’s a great moment in Hollywood history!
- Taras Bulba, Yul Brynner’s epic look at the rise and fall of the Cossacks during the end of the Czar era in early 20th century Russia, gave Curtis another stab at historical drama that was still big in the 60s. It’s an underappreciated gem that deserves better acclaim than it received.
While comedy would remain his primary attribute, Curtis made one final leap into drama in 1968, taking the lead role in the controversial film, The Boston Strangler. Playing the horrific serial killer Albert DeSalvo, the drama was panned by critics and fans alike. No one wanted to see the glamorous Curtis play such a despicable role, especially in a film that bordered on, according to the NY Times, “an incredible collapse of taste, judgment, decency, prose, insight, journalism and movie technique.” I think that covers them all, don’t you?
While Curtis may have lost his star power by 1970, he continued working in low budget films, stage plays, and television. His daughter with Janet Leigh, Jamie Leigh Curtis, became a star in her own right following her debut in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). He published Tony Curtis: The Autobiography in 1994 and a second autobiography, American Prince: A Memoir, in 2008. He enjoyed great acclaim and critical success as a painter, displaying his work in galleries across the world.
In 2002 he toured in a musical adaptation of Some Like It Hot, in which he played the role of the love-addled millionaire originated by Joe E. Brown in the film. This time, the curtain line was his:
Indeed, no one is perfect. But his screen success came pretty close. Thanks for the years and the memories, Mr. Curtis. Struggling through humble beginnings, serving in the military during time of war, and rising to the heights of success in your profession, you were the epitome of the American dream.
In a 2008 interview, Curtis lamented on his state in life:
“They are all dead now. Cary, Jack Lemmon, Sinatra, all my Hollywood friends. Sometimes I feel so lonely.”
He’s not lonely anymore. Enjoy time with your friends now, Tony. Rest in peace.