Tony Curtis, leading man of the 1950s and ’60s who gave impressive perfs in comedies such as “Some Like It Hot” and “The Great Race” as well as dramas including “Sweet Smell of Success” and “The Defiant Ones,” died Wednesday at his home near Las Vegas of cardiac arrest. He was 85.
His daughter, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, said in a statement to the Associated Press: “My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages. He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him and a wife and in-laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world.”
Curtis’ life was a series of peaks and valleys. At his height in the 1950s, he was receiving 10,000 pieces of fan mail a week. He also suffered from periodic depression-induced alcohol and drug problems but always managed to resurface in films or television or as a painter and writer.
Though his popularity stemmed in part from his dark-haired, blue-eyed good looks; his slightly asthmatic voice breathing romance; and his “storybook” marriage to actress Janet Leigh, he never traveled very far from being Bernie Schwartz, a poor boy from the Bronx born to Hungarian immigrant parents. The son of a tailor, he flirted with juvenile delinquency before entering the Navy during WWII. He took advantage of the GI bill to enroll in the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research.
While understudying in a revival of “Golden Boy,” he was spotted by a Universal-Intl. Pictures talent scout. He signed a long-term contract and was sent to Hollywood for voice and gymnastics classes, where his classmates included Rock Hudson and Jeff Chandler. The studio also had him take riding and fencing lessons.
A brief role in 1949’s “Criss Cross” elicited a deluge of fan mail, and soon Anthony Curtis (as he was now called) was playing hoodlums and swarthy swashbucklers.
“I was the male Yvonne De Carlo,” he said of the studio’s proclivity for putting him in earrings and pantaloons. He was paired with starlet Piper Laurie in several films including “The Prince Who Was a Thief” and “Son of Ali Baba.”
Against the studio’s wishes, he married MGM star Leigh in 1951. But fans still wrote in asking for locks of his curly hair and, by 1953, he was earning $1,500 a week on loan-out to play opposite Leigh in “Houdini.” The dreary costume epics like “The Black Shield of Falworth” and “The Purple Mask” alternated with roles as juvenile delinquent types in “Forbidden” and “Six Bridges to Cross.” Though the roles weren’t challenging, Curtis remained popular.
Helmer-thesp Tony Goldwyn told the Huffington Post: “He’s one of those actors who in the ’50s was a beautiful, charismatic leading man, who became sort of iconic as a sex symbol. Not somebody who you originally thought had a lot of depth. He was charming and funny, and yet he revealed himself to be quite complex and gave some great performances.”
In 1957, he was cast with Burt Lancaster in “Trapeze,” a major hit. It was followed by another Lancaster co-starrer, “Sweet Smell of Success,” in which Curtis played slimy press agent Sidney Falco in a performance still regarded as one of his best, though the film was a box office failure at the time.
In 1958, Curtis copped his only actor Oscar nomination for racial drama “The Defiant Ones,” in which he portrays a bigoted prisoner manacled to Sidney Poitier (who was also nominated). Variety’s review said, “As ‘Joker’ Jackson, the arrogant white man chained to a fellow convict whom he hates, Curtis delivers a true surprise performance.”
That same year he had box office success in major studio productions such as “The Vikings” and “Kings Go Forth,” co-starring with Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra, respectively.
The high point of his career was Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot,” one of Hollywood’s finest comedies ever. Curtis (who was “topnotch,” according to Variety’s review) appeared in drag with Jack Lemmon and also got to do a dead-on imitation of his idol, Cary Grant, while attempting to seduce Marilyn Monroe (he compared his love scenes with her to “kissing Hitler,” although in later years he softened in his recollections of the co-star who would keep him and Lemmon waiting for their scenes).
He later played the Joe E. Brown role in the legit version in 2002. He told Variety columnist Army Archerd at the time that the backend from that film and ancillary revenues would bring him $100,000 a week. In fact, Lew Wasserman’s profitable participation pacts gave him money from other films such as “The Defiant Ones.”
Curtis backed up the success up of “Some Like It Hot” with a co-starring assignment opposite Grant in “Operation Petticoat,” which became Universal’s then biggest grosser ever.
The comedies kept coming (“Captain Newman M.D.,” “The Rat Race,” “The Great Race”) as did the costume epics (“Taras Bulba,” “Spartacus”). Overlooked was “The Outsider,” in which he played a Native American hero. Of his work in “Spartacus,” Variety said, “As the Italian slave, Antoninus, who serves as houseboy to Laurence Olivier before running away to join Spartacus, Curtis gives a nicely balanced performance.”
He showed an unerring timing for comedy in pics like “The Great Race.”
In the late ’60s, he fought for a change-of-pace role as the serial killer in “The Boston Strangler,” garnering his best reviews in a decade. Later films included “The Last Tycoon” and “Naked in New York.”
On TV he starred with Roger Moore in “The Persuaders,” which lasted two years, then stepped into “McCoy” and “Vegas.” He also appeared in telepics such “The Third Girl From the Left” with Kim Novak, “The Scarlett O’Hara War” and “Portrait of a Showgirl.” He did some stage work and wrote a novel (“Kid Andrew Cody and Julie Sparrow”), devoting most of his time to painting. His works were displayed in London and elsewhere.
He fell ill with pneumonia in 2006 and was in a coma for some time. But when he recovered, he told Variety’s Army Archerd in 2007 that he was looking for an agent and ready to return to showbiz.After divorcing Leigh in the early ’60s, he remarried four times.
Survivors include his wife, Jill; four daughters; one son (another died in 1994); and seven grandchildren.
(Timothy M. Gray contributed
to this report.)