Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon + Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot (1959)As reported by the Associated Press, legendary Hollywood actor Tony Curtis died yesterday (Sept 29th) of cardiac arrest at his home in the Las Vegas area. He was 85. Curtis, who made over a hundred films between the years 1949 and 2008, will be best remembered for comic roles he played such as his full-drag impersonation of a female jazz musician ("Josephine") in 1959's Some Like It Hot and for serious roles such as an escaped chain gang prisoner in The Defiant Ones.
The son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary, he was born Bernard Schwartz and had a tough childhood with his parents. They were so broke and desperate during the Depression years that they had to place him, along with his brother, in a state institution. After serving in the Navy during WWII he turned his focus to acting and at first chose James Curtis as his stage name. He then eventually settled on Anthony Curtis. He was billed as Tony Curtis for the first time in the 1950 western Kansas Raiders.
Curtis' movie career officially began in 1948 when he won a contract with Universal Pictures, which initially resulted in several small roles in movies such as the 1949 Robert Siodmak directed Criss Cross and the 1950 Arthur Lubin directed Francis. In 1951 he would receive top billing for the first time when he starred in the Rudolph Maté directed The Prince Who Was a Thief. Up to this point his parts were serious dramatic ones, but in 1952 he got to unveil his comic talents for the first time in Douglas Sirk’s No Room for the Groom. His first role of considerable importance was in 1953's George Marshall directed Houdini, in which he played opposite his wife Janet Leigh. Married in 1951, the equally attractive couple were the equivalent of Brangelina in the movie fan magazines of the day.
Curtis' true acting talent fully got a chance to shine and be widely noticed in 1957 when he played the role of scheming Broadway press agent Sidney Falco opposite Burt Lancaster in the Alexander Mackendrick- directed Sweet Smell of Success. The peak years of Curtis' career followed; between the late ’50s and early ’60s he made his most noteworthy & popular movies, including the 1958 Stanley Kramer directed The Defiant Ones. In this great film (profound in its portrayal of race relations for its time), Curtis played an escaped prisoner from a Southern chain gang who is chained to a fellow convict (who happens to be black) played by Sidney Poitier. Curtis was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role. He didn't win and oddly would receive little love during his long career from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Tony Curtis and Sidney Potier in The Defiant Ones (1958)
The prolific Curtis' comedies around this same time included 1959's The Perfect Furlough and Operation Petticoat -- both co-starring Janet Leigh. That same year Curtis starred in Billy Wilder’s five-star Some Like It Hot, alongside Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon, in the role that he will always be best known for. Curtis and Leigh's well publicized 1962 divorce, which followed his affair with 17-year-old German actress Christine Kaufmann, tarnished Curtis' public persona and consequently damaged his acting career. But he kept up a rigorous regime, acting in numerous films through the 60's, playing both comic and serious roles in Spartacus, The Outsider. 40 Pounds of Trouble, Captain Newman M.D., The Great Race, Don’t Make Waves, and 1968's Richard Fleischer directed, critically dismissed The Boston Strangler, in which he played suspected serial killer Albert DeSalvo.
While he did act in both television and film (many low budget productions) from the 70's onwards, Curtis had clearly passed his Hollywood star peak. But a being a truly dedicated actor, Curtis continued making movies up until just two years ago, when, at age 83, he appeared in a minor role in the little seen small indie film David & Fatima.
For more on Tony Curtis, look for of his movies on DVD at Amoeba Music. There are also two autobiographies on the actor: Tony Curtis: The Autobiography, co-written with Barry Paris, and American Prince: A Memoir, co-written with Peter Golenbock. There are several TV documentaries that feature Curtis, and while not strictly a bio-doc, the 2008 Ian Ayre directed feature length documentary The Jill & Tony Curtis Story about efforts to rescue horses from slaughterhouses is well worth seeking out on DVD. Below is one of the last televised interviews with Tony Curtis, care of GMTV, from two years ago, when he was 83. Rest in peace, Bernard "Anthony Curtis" Schwartz!
Tony Curtis interview on GMTV (2008)