They tell me Tony Curtis is dead. I don’t believe it. We interviewed Mr. Curtis not long ago where we found him vigorous, humorous - no different than when I saw him in 1958, when he was the most popular actor in the world, after he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar©.
Too striking and charming in person to be, well, mortal. When I saw him 50 years later, I knew any future announced death would be a stunt.
Born Bernie Schwartz 85 years ago in the Bronx, Tony Curtis grew up in the back corner of his immigrant father’s tailor shop with his two brothers. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, his angry mother beat him capriciously, then kept him from school where the family only spoke Hungarian.
At age eight, Curtis and his brothers were sent to an orphanage when their parents could no longer feed them. One brother was later institutionalized with his mother’s illness and Curtis’ other brother was struck and killed by a truck.
While his creepy childhood sounds more like a press agent’s rags to Xanadu potboiler, Curtis actually lived through Hell’s Kitchen, taught himself English, didn’t turn to crime and found a chance to escape into the frying pan with the war in the Pacific. Inspired by Cary Grant in a submarine film, Curtis joined the Marines in 1942.
On the G.I. bill, Curtis entered a drama workshop where a talent agent (they actually had those then) got him to Hollywood (because he was the handsomest of the boys, Curtis later said) where things finally moved fast in the right way. Swiftly signed by Universal at 23, Curtis worked hard (he said) because of the money and the girls. And because of his morbid sense of poverty.
Curtis made such an impact on young Elvis Presley, seeing him in City Across the River in 1949, that the future king fashioned a duck-tail and died his blond hair dark ever after. It made an impression on others who saw that the handsomest boy on the screen could also act.
He married Janet Leigh two years later (for his career, he said, “had to be connected to the right woman…What better way to get famous?”), worked often and well enough to become a household name, and by the time he made Trapeze in 1956 with Gina Lollobrigida and Burt Lancaster, he was a major star.
The critics acknowledged that Curtis was a watchable screen presence but hardly a serious actor. Curtis said that his acting secret was his passionate desire for women that the camera could feel. “There wasn’t anything deeper or less deep than that.” Lancaster was so impressed with Curtis in Trapeze that he cast him next year in his Sweet Smell of Success. Whatever Curtis‘ acting motivation, the critics were finally won over (or fooled) and he began his new life as the most popular actor in the world.
Curtis admitted that chasing women was a serious hobby and hurt his marriage, but it did nothing to slow his acting stature or his film career. He next made The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier where the Academy nominated him for a Best Actor award. The next year he hit the top with the hugely popular comedy, Some Like It Hot.
Curtis‘ decline was gradual and kind, and he made the most of his image for a very comfortable life. After six marriages, several famous episodes with pills and powders, estrangement from all his many progeny and a tell-all book that was more critical of himself than any agenda critic, Curtis never apologized but continued to have fun explaining.
Curtis said of his daughter Jamie Lee Curtis that “…I wish her the best. If she can’t forgive me, then get another father.” But Jamie Lee said today, “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. He will be greatly missed..”
You tell me Tony Curtis is dead? Don’t believe it. Too tough, talented, smart, selfish. He’ll show up when he wants to. Just like Elvis.