Tony Curtis (born Bernard Schwartz; 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 more than 100 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 later 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 could arguably be called his best performance: three interrelated roles in the comedy Some Like It Hot (1959). Thomson called it an “outrageous film,” and a survey carried out by the American Film Institute voted it the funniest American film ever made. The film co-starred Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, and was directed by Billy Wilder. That was followed by Blake Edwards’s comedy Operation Petticoat (1959) with Cary Grant. They were both frantic comedies, and displayed his impeccable comic timing. He often collaborated with Edwards on later films. In 1960, Curtis co-starred in Spartacus, which became another major hit for him.
His stardom and film career declined considerably after the early 1960s. His most significant dramatic 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 DeSalvo.
Curtis was the father of actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis by his first wife, actress Janet Leigh.
Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, in the Bronx, New York, to Helen (née Klein) and Emanuel Schwartz. His parents were Slovak and Hungarian Jewish immigrants: his father was born in Ópályi, near Mátészalka, and his mother was a native of Nagymihály (contemporary Michalovce, Slovakia); she later said she arrived in the US from Losonc (Lu?enec). He did not learn English until he was five or six, postponing his schooling. His father was a tailor and the family lived in the back of the shop–his parents in one corner and Curtis and his brothers Julius and Robert in another. His mother 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. His brother Robert was institutionalized with the same mental illness.
When Curtis was eight, he and his 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 and minor pilfering at the local dime store. When Curtis was 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 work off his energy and settle down. He attended Seward Park High School. At 16, he had his first small acting part in a school stage play.
Curtis enlisted in the United States Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor and war was declared. Inspired by Cary Grant’s role in Destination Tokyo and Tyrone Power’s in Crash Dive (1943), he joined the Pacific submarine force. Curtis served aboard a submarine tender, the USS Proteus, until the end of the Second World War. On September 2, 1945, Curtis witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay from his ship’s signal bridge about a mile away.
Following his discharge from the Navy, Curtis attended City College of New York on the G.I. Bill. He then studied acting at The New School in Greenwich Village under the influential German stage director Erwin Piscator. His contemporaries included Elaine Stritch, Walter Matthau, Beatrice Arthur, and Rod Steiger. While still at college, Curtis was discovered by Joyce Selznick, the notable talent agent, casting director, and niece of film producer David O. Selznick.
In 1948, Curtis arrived in Hollywood at age 23. When he was placed under contract at Universal Pictures, he changed his name from Bernard Schwartz to Tony Curtis. It is also the same studio where he met unknown actors Rock Hudson, Julie Adams and Piper Laurie. The first name was from the novel Anthony Adverse and “Curtis” was from Kurtz. a surname in his mother’s family. Although Universal Pictures taught him fencing and riding, in keeping with the cinematic themes of the era, Curtis admitted he was at first only interested in girls and money. Neither was he hopeful of his chances of becoming a major star. Curtis’s biggest fear was having to return home to the Bronx as a failure:
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.
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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 Curtis”. Later, as “Tony Curtis”, he cemented his reputation with breakthrough performances such as scheming press agent Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) with Burt Lancaster (who also starred in Criss Cross). Curtis gave an Oscar-nominated performance as a bigoted white escaped convict chained to the black Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones(1958).
He performed 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). His dramas include the role of slave Antoninus in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), co-starring Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier; The Outsider (1961), the true story of WW II veteran Ira Hayes; Taras Bulba (1962), loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s short novel, starring Yul Brynner in the title role and Tony Curtis as his son Andrei; and The Boston Strangler (1968), in which he played the self-confessed murderer of the film’s title, Albert DeSalvo. He was also part of the all-star ensemble in Elia Kazan’s 1976 drama The Last Tycoon. Curtis was nominated for a Golden Globe for Supporting Actor for his performance in Spartacus (1960), alongside co-star Kirk Douglas.
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 a voice-over guest star on The Flintstones as “Stoney Curtis”.
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. In March 2006, Curtis received 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 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. “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 he was under contract with, Universal-International, generally stayed out of their stars’ love lives. However, when they chose to get married, studio executives spent three 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 Leigh’s third marriage. They divorced in 1962 and, in 1963, Curtis 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”. Curtis and Kaufmann 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 (1970-1994) and Benjamin Curtis (born May 2, 1973)
- Andrea Savio (1984-1992); divorced
- 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. On his son’s death, Curtis remarked, “You never get over that. The death of a child. No. Can’t talk about it,” and that it was “a terrible thing when a father loses his son.”
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Curtis, who had a problem with alcoholism and drug abuse, went through the treatment center of the Betty Ford Clinic in the mid-1980s, which was successful 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 chairman. 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.
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Books and appearances
In 1965, Tony Curtis was animated in an episode of The Flintstones; he also voiced his character Stoney Curtis. 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. The mural was relocated to Hollywood Boulevard and Bronson Avenue in September 2011.
Also in 1994, the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation awarded its Lone Sailor Award for his naval service and his subsequent acting career.
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.
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Later years and death
Curtis was a lifelong Democrat and attended the 1960 Democratic National Convention alongside such liberal performers as Edward G. Robinson, Shelley Winters, Ralph Bellamy, and Lee Marvin.
Curtis developed a heavy cocaine addiction in 1974 while filming Lepke, at a time when his stardom had declined considerably and he was being offered few film roles. In 1984, Curtis was rushed to the 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, after suffering a heart attack.
Curtis nearly died when he contracted pneumonia in December 2006 and was in a coma for more than a month. As a result, he used a wheelchair afterwards and could walk only 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, where he lived.
Curtis died at his Henderson home on September 29, 2010, of a cardiac arrest. He left behind 5 children and 7 grandchildren. His widow Jill told the press that Curtis had suffered from various lung problems for years as a result of cigarette smoking, although he had quit smoking about thirty years earlier. 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.”
His remains were interred at Palm Memorial Park Cemetery in Henderson, Nevada, on October 4, 2010. His memorial service was attended by his daughters, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis; Arnold Schwarzenegger; Rich Little; and Vera Goulet, Robert Goulet’s widow. Investor Kirk Kerkorian, actor Kirk Douglas and singer Phyllis McGuire were among the honorary pallbearers.
- Curtis, Tony; Barry Paris (1993). Tony Curtis: The Autobiography. New York: William Morrow & Company. ISBN 978-0-688-09759-2.
- Ayres, Ian (2006). Van Gogh’s Ear: The Celebrity Edition. Paris: French Connection. ISBN 978-2-914853-07-1. The book includes Tony Curtis’s prose, poetry, and artwork.
- Curtis, Tony; Peter Golenbock (2008). Tony Curtis: American Prince: My Autobiography. New York: Harmony Books. ISBN 978-0-307-40849-5.
- Curtis, Tony (2009). Some Like it Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Making of the Classic Movie. New York: John Wiley & Sons. p. 240. ISBN 978-0-470-53721-3.
- Wise, James. Stars in Blue: Movie Actors in America’s Sea Services. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997. ISBN 1557509379 OCLC 36824724
- Tony Curtis at the Internet Movie Database
- Remembering Tony Curtis  Bronx News, 2012
- Tony Curtis, 1925-2010 on YouTube
- Tony Curtis at the TCM Movie Database
- Tony Curtis at Find a Grave
- Biography and naval service from the California Center for Military History website
- Tony Curtis’ Famous Friends – slideshow by Life magazine
- 2009 interview with Dodd Vickers for the Magic Newswire
- John Patterson, “Some like it very hot”, The Guardian, 18 April 2008
- Alison Jackson, Some tormented Hollywood souls still like their gossip hot, Profile: Tony Curtis, Sunday Times, 20 April 2008
- Documentary film, The Jill & Tony Curtis Story
- Photographs and literature
- Tony Curtis: Life and Times – slideshow by Life magazine
- The Telegraph obituary
- Interview by Michael Hainey for GQ Magazine