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Actor Tony Curtis

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Actor Tony Curtis
by Claudia Luther, Special to the Times

Actor Tony Curtis

LAS VEGAS, Nevada – Tony Curtis, the dashingly handsome film star of the 1950s and '60s who is best remembered for his hilarious turn in drag in Billy Wilder's classic comedy, "Some Like It Hot" and for his dramatic roles in "The Defiant Ones" and "Sweet Smell of Success," died Wednesday, September 29. Curtis died at his Las Vegas home at midnight, ABC News reported, quoting his business manager and family spokesman, Preston Ahearn. He was 85.

One of Hollywood's most durable actors, Curtis appeared in more than 100 movies and was nominated for a best actor Oscar for the "The Defiant Ones," the 1958 convict escape film in which he was chained to his co-star, Sidney Poitier.

But Curtis failed to receive a nomination for another strong role, one that he felt sure would finally win him an Academy Award: Albert DeSalvo, the Boston strangler. That 1968 film with the same name was the last of Curtis' major starring roles.

"After that, the pictures that I got were not particularly intriguing," he told the Seattle Times in 2000, "but I had lots of child-support payments."

For many film fans, Curtis' most memorable role was in "Some Like It Hot," the 1959 film in which he and Jack Lemmon played small-time jazz musicians who witness the St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago and, pursued by gangsters who want to kill them too, pose as women in order to escape with an all-female jazz band bound for Miami.

In 2000, the American Film Institute named "Some Like It Hot" the best comedy of the 20th century.

"I feel that he's the great farceur of his generation," said former Times movie reviewer Kevin Thomas in 2007, citing Curtis' many comedy roles. But, Thomas said, "he developed tremendous range" as an actor.

Curtis made more than 60 feature and TV films after "The Boston Strangler," including "The Mirror Crack'd" in 1980 with Angela Lansbury and a string of forgettable movies such as "The Lobster Man from Mars" and "The Mummy Lives."

He also appeared numerous times on television sit-coms or dramatic series or as a talk-show guest. In the late 1960s, he frequently appeared on shows as "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."

"I reviewed many of the minor films of his later career," said Thomas, "and what I came to respect so profoundly was that Tony always gave his absolute, total best."

Starting out in 1949 as a contract player at Universal, Curtis broke out as a leading Hollywood actor in 1952 with "Son of Ali Baba." It was, however, a mixed blessing because the film also made Curtis the lifelong butt of a joke about his New York accent when he said: "Yonder lies the castle of my faddah." Rarely did his delivery of this line not come up during press interviews, but Curtis never saw the humor, saying it was "not just a put-down of New Yorkers but of Jews."

The actor made the well-regarded "Houdini" in 1953 and from 1956 to 1959 starred in a string of critical and popular hits: "Trapeze," "Mister Cory," "Sweet Smell of Success," "The Vikings," "Kings Go Forth," "The Defiant Ones," "The Perfect Furlough," "Some Like It Hot" and "Operation Petticoat."

His characters varied from swashbuckling heroes to smarmy press agents and showed, when the role called for it, a genuine comic talent. And his co-stars were the biggest names in Hollywood: Burt Lancaster, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Poitier, Lemmon, Natalie Wood and — in "The Vikings," "Houdini" and other films — his first wife, Janet Leigh.

In his later years, Curtis was mostly reduced to being a celebrity without serious portfolio and this, combined with his early teen-idol image and a raft of mediocre films he was obligated to do under studio contract, left him with a reputation that was lighter than many of his substantial roles during his prime would otherwise support.

But not to Thomas who noted: "He was just as terrific an actor at the end as he was at the height of his career. I think he loved being a movie star, and I think he was appreciative of the chance he had to have the career that he did have; I think that's reflected in the very high level of his work."

Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, in New York City, the oldest son of Jewish Hungarian immigrants. His father was a tailor and his mother raised their three boys. But the family was marked by tragedy: One of Curtis' brothers was killed at the age of 9 when he was hit by a truck, and the other, who was 15 years Curtis' junior, suffered from schizophrenia and was in and out of institutions throughout his life.

Curtis' early life was a series of struggles — he said he was constantly taunted for being young, Jewish and handsome. He grew up defending himself on whatever turf his parents lived on at the time: the East 80s in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan's Lexington Avenue.

At 17, he enlisted in the Navy, serving in the Pacific during World War II. After leaving the service, he used the GI Bill for acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research in Manhattan.

That led to some work in the Borscht Belt in the Catskills and later to the Yiddish theater in Chicago. He ended up back in New York doing "The Golden Boy" at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

It was there that he was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout and, by age 23, was under contract with Universal for $75 a week.

"I got into movies so easy it was scary," he told the Denver Post in 1996.

He changed his first name to Anthony and his last to Curtis — an Anglicized version of a Hungarian family name, Kertιsz. But before long, he was known simply as Tony Curtis.

One of the first things Curtis did on arriving in Hollywood was to learn to drive and then buy a convertible.

"Those days were great," he told the Daily Telegraph of London in 2001 about his early years in Hollywood. "The top down, the car door open.

"At these parties thrown by the studio, there'd always be a brand new sweetie for me. I was the king of the hill then. And I didn't leave a skirt unmoved."

He reveled in his "pretty boy" image regularly being mobbed by teenage fans.

His acting career got its first boost with a bit part as a gigolo in the 1949 movie "Criss Cross," in which he did a brief dancing scene with the star, Yvonne de Carlo, that brought in a rash of fan letters. Soon Curtis had a bigger role in "City Across the River."

He made standard studio fare for many years for Universal, finally getting better roles when he linked up with powerhouse agent Lew Wasserman. After that he starred with Lancaster in two well regarded films, "Sweet Smell of Success" and "Trapeze."

In "Sweet Smell of Success," he played slimy publicist Sidney Falco to Lancaster's evil and all-powerful gossip columnist, J.J. Hunsecker.

"Curtis makes Sidney's naked ambition so tangible you can almost feel his clammy palms, and it's Curtis' unsentimental, caffeinated study in amorality that gives 'Sweet Smell' its potent, bitter aftertaste," Entertainment Weekly said in a 2002 listing of the 100 best performances not nominated for an Oscar.

Ernest Lehman, who wrote the story on which the movie was based and later wrote the screenplays for many notable films, said in 2001 that he viewed Curtis' performance in "Sweet Smell" to be "one of the best performances by a male actor in the movies. Still gets me."

In 1959, Curtis starred in two of his best films, "The Defiant Ones" and "Some Like It Hot."

Curtis got fully into the role of Josephine in "Some Like It Hot." While Lemmon in female makeup conceded he looked a lot like his own mother, Curtis went for glamour, perfecting a sexy pout.

"I was more like Grace Kelly than like my mother," he said of Josephine.

Director Wilder gave Curtis credit for one of the film's funniest scenes: the one in which Josephine reverts to being Joe and pretends to be a wealthy playboy in order to woo Sugar Kane (Monroe), the sultry singer in the women's jazz band. The scene takes place aboard a borrowed yacht.

In an interview for Curtis' autobiography, Wilder said he told Curtis that after his character had stolen the yachtsman's clothes in order to romance Monroe, he had to talk differently, "not the English of a Brooklyn musician."

Curtis offered to do Cary Grant, which he had learned from repeatedly watching "Gunga Din," the only movie aboard ship for a time while he was in the Navy.

"And it was a huge, wonderful plus for the picture," Wilder said. "I did not know he could do such a perfect imitation."

In 1960, Curtis starred with Douglas in the swashbuckling "Spartacus," a box-office hit that was also notable for the bathtub scene that didn't appear in the original but was restored in the 1991 re-release. In the scene, Laurence Olivier, playing a Roman general, tries to seduce Curtis, the young slave, in dialogue alluding to one's preference for oysters or snails. (Because the original scene had not been properly recorded, Anthony Hopkins dubbed the dialogue for Olivier, who died in 1989. "I did me," Curtis said of the restoration.)

Also during the '60s, Curtis played multiple roles in "The Great Impostor" and he had to choose between the love of the Cossacks and the love of his life in "Taras Bulba." He played a neurotic orderly in "Captain Newman, M.D.," was the white-suited daredevil in "The Great Race" and a killer in "The Boston Strangler."

Unlike many who rose to his heights only to decry having to live their lives in a fishbowl, Curtis enjoyed fame and its accouterments.

Writing in his autobiography, Curtis said he was able to handle the adulation of fans because, "I'd had that all my life, even before I got into movies; in school, in the neighborhoods where I lived, always a lot of furor. Everybody liked the way I looked, including myself."

Norman Jewison, who directed Curtis in the 1962 film, "40 Pounds of Trouble," said that Curtis' simple belief that the camera loved him "gave his work a distinctive quality."

"He never got uptight, never lost control," Jewison wrote in his 2005 autobiography, "This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me." "He was always totally cool."

Movies, Curtis once said, gave him "the privilege to be an aristocrat, to be a prince."

Throughout Curtis' life, women loved him, and he loved women. He was reportedly married six times, most famously to actress Janet Leigh in 1951, in the Hollywood marriage of their era — bigger than Debbie and Eddie and long before Liz and Dick. The Curtises were married 11 years.

In 1984, after family and friends intervened to talk about his drug problem, he admitted himself to the Betty Ford Center at Eisenhower Memorial Center in Rancho Mirage, Ca.

Curtis had the foresight to get a percentage of his movies when that wasn't common practice, and he later said that he had 34 movies that he collected on. He said he had made $2.5 million on "Some Like It Hot" alone.

"I'm telling you, I'm lucky to be me," the former Bernie Schwartz told a Buffalo News reporter in 1993. "When I was a kid, I wanted to be Tony Curtis, and that's exactly who I am."

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