Tony Curtis (Szwarc) - biography
Tony Curtis (June 3, 1925 – September 29, 2010) was an American film actor whose career spanned six decades, but had his greatest popularity during the 1950s and early 1960s. He acted in over 60 films in roles covering a wide range of genres, from light comedy to serious drama. In his later years, Curtis made numerous television appearances.
Although his early film roles were partly the result of his good looks, by the latter half of the 1950s he became a notable and strong screen presence. He began proving himself to be a “fine dramatic actor,” having the range to act in numerous dramatic and comedy roles. In his earliest parts he acted in a string of "mediocre" films, including swashbucklers, westerns, light comedies, sports films, and a musical. However, by the time he starred in Houdini (1953) with his wife Janet Leigh, "his first clear success," notes critic David Thomson, his acting had progressed immensely.
He won his first serious recognition as a skilled dramatic actor in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) with co-star Burt Lancaster. The following year he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in another drama, The Defiant Ones (1958). Curtis then gave what many believe was his best acting, in a completely different role, the comedy Some Like it Hot (1959). Thomson calls it an "outrageous film," and it was voted the number 1 funniest film in history from a survey done by the American Film Institute.It costarred Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, and was directed by Billy Wilder. That was followed by Blake Edwards’ comedy Operation Petticoat (1959) with Cary Grant. They were both “frantic comedies,” and displayed “his impeccable comic timing.” He would collaborate with Edwards often on later films.
His most significant serious part came in 1968 when he starred in the true-life drama The Boston Strangler, which some consider his “last major film role.” The part reinforced his reputation as a serious actor with his "chilling portrayal" of serial killer Albert de Salvo. He gained 30 pounds and had his face “rebuilt” with a false nose to look like the real de Salvo.
Curtis was the father of actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis who he fathered with his wife, actress Janet Leigh.
Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx, New York, the son of Emanuel Schwartz and Helen Klein. His parents were Hungarian Jewish immigrants from Mátészalka, Hungary. Hungarian was Curtis' only language until he was five or six, postponing his schooling.His father was a tailor and the family lived in the back of the shop — the parents in one corner and Curtis and his brothers Julius and Robert in another. His mother had once made an appearance as a participant on the television show You Bet Your Life, hosted by Groucho Marx. Curtis said, "When I was a child, Mom beat me up and was very aggressive and antagonistic." His mother was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, a mental illness which also affected his brother Robert and led to Robert's institutionalization.
When Curtis was eight, he and his younger brother Julius were placed in an orphanage for a month because their parents could not afford to feed them. Four years later, Julius was struck and killed by a truck. Curtis joined a neighborhood gang whose main crimes were playing hooky from school or minor pilfering at the local dime store. When he turned 11, a friendly neighbor saved him from what he felt would have led to a life of delinquency, by sending him to a Boy Scout camp, where he was able to settle down and work off his energy. He attended Seward Park High School and received his first bit part in a stage play at age 16.
He enlisted in the United States Navy after Pearl Harbor was bombed and war was declared. Having been inspired by Cary Grant's role in Destination Tokyo and Tyrone Power in Crash Dive (1943), he chose submarine duty and served aboard USS Proteus, a submarine tender. From his sub tender's signal bridge, he witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay from about a mile away. Following his discharge, Curtis attended City College of New York under the G.I. Bill and studied acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York with the influential German stage director Erwin Piscator, along with Elaine Stritch, Walter Matthau, and Rod Steiger. He was discovered by a talent agent and casting director Joyce Selznick. Curtis claims it was because he "was the handsomest of the boys." Arriving in Hollywood in 1948 at age 23, he was placed under contract at Universal Pictures and changed his name to Tony Curtis, taking his first name from the novel Anthony Adverse and his last name from "Kurtz", a surname from his mother's family. Although the studio taught him fencing and riding, Curtis admitted he was at first only interested in girls and money. Nonetheless, he was not hopeful of his chances in becoming a major actor, and feared having to return to the Bronx, a failure. He writes, I was a million-to-one shot, the least likely to succeed. I wasn't low man on the totem pole, I was under the totem pole, in a sewer, tied to a sack.
Curtis's uncredited screen debut came in Criss Cross (1949) playing a rumba dancer. In his second film, City Across the River (also in 1949), he was credited as "Anthony Cross".Later, as "Tony Curtis", he cemented his reputation with breakthrough performances such as in the role of the scheming press agent Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) with Burt Lancaster (who also starred in Criss Cross) and an Oscar-nominated performance as a bigoted escaped convict chained to Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones.
He did both screen comedy and drama, and became one of the most sought after stars in Hollywood. Curtis' comedies include Some Like It Hot (1959), Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and The Great Race (1965), and his dramas included playing the slave Antoninus in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960) co-starring Kirk Douglas and Sir Laurence Olivier, The Outsider (1961), the true story of WW II veteran Ira Hayes, and The Boston Strangler (1968), in which he played the self-confessed murderer of the film's title, Albert DeSalvo. The latter film was praised for Curtis' performance. He was also part of the all-star ensemble in Elia Kazan's 1976 drama The Last Tycoon. Curtis appeared frequently on television; he co-starred with Roger Moore in the TV series The Persuaders!. Later, he co-starred in McCoy and Vega$. In the early 1960s, he was immortalized as "Stony Curtis," a voice-over guest star on The Flintstones. Throughout his life, Curtis enjoyed painting, and since the early 1980s, painted as a second career. His work commands more than $25,000 a canvas now. In the last years of his life, he concentrated on painting rather than movies. A surrealist, Curtis claimed "Van Gogh, [Paul] Matisse, Picasso, Magritte" as influences. "I still make movies but I'm not that interested in them any more. But I paint all the time." In 2007, his painting The Red Table was on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. His paintings can also be seen at the Tony Vanderploeg Gallery in Carmel, California.
Curtis spoke of his disappointment at never being awarded an Oscar. But in March 2006, Curtis did receive the Sony Ericsson Empire Lifetime Achievement Award. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and received the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) from France in 1995.
Marriages and children
Curtis was married six times. His first wife was actress Janet Leigh, to whom he was married from 1951 to 1962, and with whom he fathered actresses Kelly and Jamie Lee Curtis. "For a while, we were Hollywood's golden couple," he said. "I was very dedicated and devoted to Janet, and on top of my trade, but in her eyes that goldenness started to wear off. I realized that whatever I was, I wasn't enough for Janet. That hurt me a lot and broke my heart."
The studio they were both under contract with, Universal-International, generally stayed out of their stars' love lives. However, when they chose to get married, the studio executives spent 3 days trying to talk him out of it, telling him he would be "poisoning himself at the box office." They threatened "banishment" back to the Bronx and the end of his budding career. In response, Curtis and Leigh decided to defy the studio heads and instead eloped and were married by a local judge in Greenwich Connecticut. Comedian and close friend Jerry Lewis came as a witness.
It was Janet Leigh's third marriage. They divorced in 1962, and Curtis soon married Christine Kaufmann, the 17-year-old German co-star of his latest film, Taras Bulba. He stated that his marriage with Leigh had effectively ended "a year earlier". In 1963 Curtis married Kaufmann. They had two daughters, Alexandra (born July 19, 1964) and Allegra (born July 11, 1966). They divorced in 1968. Kaufmann resumed her career, which she had interrupted during her marriage.
Curtis was also married to:
- Leslie Allen (April 20, 1968 – 1982); divorced, two sons: Nicholas Curtis and Benjamin Curtis (born May 2, 1973)
- Lisa Deutsch (February 28, 1993 – 1994); divorced
- Jill Vandenberg Curtis (November 6, 1998 – September 29, 2010; his death)
His last wife was 42 years his junior. They met in a restaurant in 1993 and married in 1998. "The age gap doesn't bother us. We laugh a lot. My body is functioning and everything is good. She's the sexiest woman I've ever known. We don't think about time. I don't use Viagra either. There are 50 ways to please your lover."
His son Nicholas (December 31, 1970 — April 2, 1994, with Leslie Allen) died of a heroin overdose at the age of 23. Of this Curtis said, "As a father you don't recover from that. There isn't a moment at night that I don't remember him."
According to the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, Curtis, who had a problem with alcoholism and drug abuse, went though the treatment center of the Betty Ford Clinic in the mid 1980s, which did work for him.
Beginning in 1990, Curtis and his daughter Jamie Lee Curtis took a renewed interest in their family's Hungarian-Jewish heritage, and helped finance the rebuilding of the "Great Synagogue" in Budapest, Hungary. The largest synagogue in Europe today, it was originally built in 1859 and suffered damage during World War II. In 1998, he also founded the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, and served as honorary chairperson. The organization works for the restoration and preservation of synagogues and 1300 Jewish cemeteries in Hungary. He dedicated this to the 600,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Hungary and lands occupied by the Hungarian Army. He also helped promote Hungary's national image in commercials.
Books and appearances
- In 1994, a mural featuring his likeness, painted by the artist George Sportelli, was unveiled on the Sunset Boulevard overpass of the Hollywood Freeway Highway 101 in California.
- In 2004, he was inducted into the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Hall of Fame. A street is named after him in the Sun City Anthem development in Henderson, Nevada.
- In 2008, he was featured in the documentary The Jill & Tony Curtis Story about his efforts with his wife to rescue horses from slaughterhouses.
- In October 2008, Curtis's autobiography American Prince: A Memoir, was published.[In it, he describes his encounters with other Hollywood legends of the time including Frank Sinatra and James Dean, as well as his hard-knock childhood and path to success.
- It was followed by the publication of his next book, The Making of Some Like it Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie (2009). Curtis shared his memories of the making of the movie, in particular about Marilyn Monroe, whose antics and attitude on the set made everyone miserable.
- On May 22, 2009, Curtis apologized to the BBC radio audience after he used three profanities in a six-minute interview with BBC presenter William Crawley. The presenter also apologized to the audience for Curtis's "Hollywood realism". Curtis explained that he thought the interview was being taped, when it was in fact live.
Illnesses and death
In 1984 Curtis was rushed to hospital suffering from advanced cirrhosis as a result of his alcoholism and cocaine addiction. He then entered the Betty Ford Clinic and vowed to overcome his "various illnesses". He underwent heart bypass surgery in 1994.
Curtis nearly died when he contracted pneumonia in December 2006 and was in a coma for several days. As a result he used a wheelchair and could only walk short distances.
On July 8, 2010, Curtis, who suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), was hospitalized in Las Vegas after suffering an asthma attack during a book signing engagement in Henderson, Nevada at Costco.
Curtis died at his Henderson, Nevada home on September 29, 2010, of cardiac arrest. In a release to the Associated Press, his daughter, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, stated:
"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."
He was interred at Palm Memorial Park Cemetery in Green Valley, Nevada on October 4, 2010. His memorial service was attended by his daughters, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ron Jeremy, and Vera Goulet. Investor Kirk Kerkorian, actor Kirk Douglas and singer Phyllis McGuire were among the honorary pallbearers.