Tony Curtis: The Hollywood Hunk Who Became an Actor

Sweet Smell of Success
United Artists/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Many Hollywood sex symbols have struggled to be taken seriously, but the list is usually women, ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Jane Fonda to Halle Berry. Fewer men had that same battle, but one primo example is Tony Curtis, who was born June 3, 1925.

As a young hunk, Curtis was put under contract to Universal, where he starred in such films as “The Prince Who Was a Thief,” “The Black Shield of Falworth,” and “No Room for the Groom.” He was charismatic and looked great, but there were few demands on his acting skills. He was considered more star than actor, receiving 10,000 fan letters a week.

One enduring Hollywood myth is that Curtis’ Bronx accent gave an unintended comic spin to the line “Yonder lies the castle of my father,” pronouncing it as “Yondah” and “faddah.” It’s funny, but it’s not true. The closest he came was in “Son of Ali Baba,” where he tells Piper Laurie (another starlet who eventually was taken seriously), “This is my father’s palace, and yonder lies the Valley of the Sun,” without a trace of an accent.

Curtis fought for better roles and began to hit his stride in the late 1950s, with “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), “The Defiant Ones” (1958, as a prisoner chained to Sidney Poitier, which landed them both Oscar nominations), and the 1959 Billy Wilder classic “Some Like It Hot.”

Variety in 1960 said he was one of the best paid actors in Hollywood, and he did something unorthodox for movie stars of that era: He worked in television.

As an actor and a fledgling producer, he embraced TV for the things he could learn. TV was a helpful “training ground” for a producer, he told Variety. “I’d rather do my learning in television. It’s cheaper, quicker.” After his string of A-list movie hits, he appeared in a March 22, 1960 “Ford Startime” telefilm “The Young Juggler,” the story of St. Barnaby.

Ford paid for the show and owned rights to its first airing. “After that, I own it outright and I’m free to sell it again as many times as I’d like,” he said, adding that he’d similarly made nice money by arranging for six airings of his recent appearances on TV’s “General Electric Theatre.”

He fought to get the title role in Fox’s 1968 “The Boston Strangler,” and Curtis continued to balance TV and films, including his series with Roger Moore, “The Persuaders” (1971-72). He continued to pick some surefire material (e.g., TV’s “Mafia Princess”) and experimental work (Nicolas Roeg’s “Insignificance,” 1985).

Curtis died on Sept. 29, 1010. In a statement, his daughter Jamie Lee Curtis (from his 11-year marriage to Janet Leigh) said, “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 and respected him and a wife and in-laws who were also devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world.”

Actor-director Tony Goldwyn recalled that Curtis in the 1950s had been a sex symbol, “Not somebody who you originally thought had a lot of depth. He was just charming and funny, and yet he revealed himself to be quite complex and gave some great performances.”