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Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis

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Also Known As: Anthony Curtis,Bernard Schwartz,James Curtis,Anthony Curtis Died: September 29, 2010
Born: June 3, 1925 Cause of Death: cardiac arrest
Birth Place: Bronx, New York, USA Profession: Cast ... actor producer
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BIOGRAPHY

Dismissed in the early stages of his career for his "pretty boy" features, Hollywood heartthrob Tony Curtis soon developed into one of the most versatile leading men in movies of the 1950s and 1960s. He brought tremendous charisma and energy to both his comic and dramatic projects, including "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957), "The Defiant Ones" (1958) - which earned him an Oscar nomination - "Some Like It Hot" (1959), "Spartacus" (1960), "Captain Newman, M.D." (1963), and "The Great Race" (1965). As with any sex symbol, the time in the sun is fleeting, so by the late 1960s, Curtis' profile began to fade, but he maintained a busy schedule in European features and on television, playing against type as the title role in "The Boston Strangler" (1968). In later years, he enjoyed a successful second career as an artist, while lending his comments and experience to television shows and documentaries about the Golden Age of Hollywood - particularly when it came to remembering his "Some Like it Hot" co-star, Marilyn Monroe. Having been one-half of one of the most beloved off-screen couplings of the 1950s - the other half being actress Janet Leigh - Curtis enjoyed watching his daughter Jamie Lee Curtis blossom into an actress of great skill herself, proving the apple did not fall from the Curtis/Leigh family tree.

Born Bernard Schwartz in The Bronx, NY on June 3, 1925, Curtis was born to a Hungarian immigrant family and endured a miserable childhood that would affect future relationships with both his wives and his own children. His mother was schizophrenic and frequently beat him and his brothers Julius and Robert (who was later diagnosed with the same disease). Sadly, at the age of eight, Curtis was placed in an orphanage because of his parents' extreme poverty, and later, after his brother Julius was killed in a traffic accident in 1938, Curtis was sent to identify the body. He finally got a whiff of a better life when he landed his first acting role (as a girl) in a neighborhood play about King Arthur's adventures. After serving in the Navy during World War II - where he witnessed the surrender of Japan in Tokyo Bay in 1945 - Curtis returned to civilian life and studied acting at New York's Dramatic Workshop, while practicing his craft in the "Borscht Belt" circuit in the Catskills. He was discovered by casting director and talent agent Joyce Selznick (the niece of famed "Gone with the Wind" producer David O. Selznick), and headed for Hollywood in 1948. Billed initially as James Curtis and later as Anthony Curtis, he was signed to a contract with Universal and began appearing in bit and supporting roles in a string of largely forgettable dramas and genre pictures - save for the Western classic "Winchester '73" (1950) - which capitalized on his darkly handsome features.

In 1951, he married Janet Leigh, an attractive starlet on the rise, and their photogenic qualities made them popular news items in the Hollywood gossip magazines. With Leigh, Curtis scored his first success as a leading man in "Houdini" (1953), a fictionalized biopic of the famed magician; he also became a father to two daughters, Kelly Curtis (born 1956) and Jamie Lee Curtis (born 1958), both of whom would go on to enjoy acting careers of their own. Though Curtis and Leigh appeared the idyllic picture of an attractive married couple, the gossip columns frequently whispered about or hinted at the true nature of his sexuality.

Curtis had become exceptionally popular by the mid-1950s - so much so, in fact, that Elvis Presley borrowed his signature ducktail hairstyle from him, but he yearned for more substantial work than lightweight fare and costume dramas like "The Black Shield of Farnsworth" (1954). It was this film which was erroneously credited as the one in which he said, "Yonder lies the castle of my father" in his thick New York accent; Curtis, in fact, never uttered any such line of dialogue. Despite posing shirtless for pin-ups and being regarded by studio suits as their resident dark-haired pretty boy, his determination began to pay off by the late 1950s; first with the circus drama "Trapeze" (1956) and later with "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957), an acidic take on the vagaries of show business life which cast Curtis as a desperate and morally questionable press agent. Both pictures starred and were produced by Burt Lancaster, who shared production credit with Curtis on "Sweet Smell." Critics took notice of Curtis' burst of dramatic talent, and began affording him greater respect.

Curtis surpassed these successes with "The Defiant Ones" (1958), a poignant drama about two chain gang escapees (Curtis and Sidney Poitier) who must overcome their own prejudices while evading the law. The film received several Academy Award nominations, including one for Curtis as Best Actor; also receiving nods from the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes. And he scored again a year later in Billy Wilder's sparkling comedy, "Some Like It Hot" (1959), starring opposite Jack Lemmon as Depression-era jazz musicians who masquerade as members of an all-female band (led by Marilyn Monroe) to evade Chicago-land gangsters after they witness the fabled Valentine's Day Massacre. Because of the troubles she stirred up on set - mainly causing delays for seemingly endless takes - Curtis was widely quoted as stating that kissing Monroe was like "kissing Hitler," but refuted the statement in a 2001 interview, possibly realizing it seemed callous in light of what later happened to the troubled star. He was definitely on a roll, and Curtis' string of hits led him to be cast in the small but significant role of Antoninus, slave to Roman general Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and eventual soldier under Kirk Douglas' Spartacus in the Stanley Kubrick epic of the same name (1960). A scene in which Crassus attempts to seduce Antoninus was cut from the original release, but restored for its 1991 reissue. Curtis was enlisted to re-record his dialogue - the original track had gone missing - and Anthony Hopkins was tapped to provide a note-perfect imitation of Olivier.

After 1960, Curtis divided his time between dramas and light comic fare, both of which yielded a string of solid hits for the actor. Among his better films during this period were "The Outsider" (1961), about Ira Hayes, the Native American who helped to raise the Iwo Jima flag during World War II; "The Great Imposter" (1961), about the real-life imposter Fred De Mara; the Oscar-nominated "Captain Newman, M.D." (1963), as a streetwise officer who makes life difficult for military doctor Gregory Peck); and Blake Edwards' Oscar-winning slapstick comedy "The Great Race" (1965), which later became a cult hit, thanks to repeated TV airings. There was also the surreal sight of an animated, Stone Age version of Curtis - named, naturally enough, Stony Curtis - in a 1965 episode of "The Flintstones" (ABC, 1960-66). But by the mid-sixties, Curtis' career was beginning to show signs of a slowdown. Now entering his forties, Curtis' matinee idol looks were changing - most notably, his lush head of hair - and he was losing ground as a leading man to younger actors. His personal life was undergoing changes as well; after carrying on an affair with 17-year-old German actress Christina Kauffman, his co-star in the costume drama "Taras Bulba" (1962), he split from Leigh and married Kauffman in 1963. The union produced two daughters, Alexandra (born 1966) and Allegra (born 1968) before they divorced in 1968.

Curtis fell back on his comic chops to essay middle-aged cads and the like in lightweight comedies like "Don't Make Waves" (1967) with Sharon Tate and "Not with My Wife, You Don't" (1966). He also began turning up in European features - mostly forgettable fare like "Monte Carlo or Bust" (1969) - and even on episodic television. Curtis did, however, manage to remind moviegoers of his talent with a chilling performance as real-life killer Albert De Salvo in Richard Fleischer's bleak police procedural "The Boston Stranger" (1968). He was widely praised for his performance as the psychologically damaged De Salvo, and for his efforts, earned a Golden Globe nomination, but the film did not prevent his career from continuing its slow descent from the limelight. In 1968, Curtis married for the third time to Leslie Allen, who later gave him his first sons, Benjamin and Nicholas.

Despite the fact that he no longer commanded box office respect as he once did, Curtis was exceptionally busy in the 1970s, starring in the breezy British adventure drama "The Persuaders!" (ITC, 1971-72), which cast him alongside Roger Moore as two roguish millionaires who enjoyed hijinks and expensive fun across Europe. An American attempt to recreate its charm came with "McCoy" (ABC, 1975-76), with Curtis as a good-natured con man, but the series failed to earn a viewership. Curtis was also fairly active in film during the 1970s, most notably in Elia Kazan's "The Last Tycoon" (1976), an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel about 1930s-era Hollywood, which gave him second billing opposite Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson. But for the most part, Curtis floundered in second-rate productions (or worse) like the ill-advised Mae West comeback vehicle "Sextette" (1978) or the unnecessary "Bad News Bears Go to Japan" (1978). In 1977, Curtis published a novel, Kid Andrew Cody and Julie Sparrow.

Curtis launched the 1980s with an Emmy-nominated turn with a touch of nostalgia, in which he played David O. Selznick, whose niece had discovered him some three decades prior, in "The Scarlett O'Hara War" (1980). He also enjoyed a choice role as Kim Novak's producer husband in a camped-up film adaptation of Agatha Christie's "The Mirror Crack'd" (1980), and appeared on stage in a production of Neil Simon's "I Oughta Be in Pictures" that same year. Like many older stars, Curtis remained a regular presence on television as well, most notably in a recurring role as Robert Urich's casino owner boss on "Vega$" (ABC, 1978-1981), and later as real-life mobster Sam Giancana in the Susan Lucci starrer, "Mafia Princess" (1986). But Curtis began to develop interests outside of acting during this decade. After a stint at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1984 for drug and alcohol dependency, he began experimenting with painting, and displayed a particular knack for portraits, including those of his former co-stars, like Marilyn Monroe. Eventually, his artwork began fetching top prices among collectors, and was featured in major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Curtis' personal life remained tumultuous; he divorced Leslie Allen in 1983, and married his fourth wife, Lisa Deutsch, in 1993. The marriage lasted only a year.

Eventually, art replaced movies as Curtis' primary creative outlet, though he remained active in features throughout the 1990s. Few were consequential, and his last projects of any substance came in 1986 as a Joseph McCarthy-esque senator in Nicolas Roeg's experimental comedy-drama "Insignificance," and later in a cameo for the indie-minded romance "Naked in New York" (1993). Otherwise, he could be seen in countless low-budget action and comedy features, as well on television in episodes of "Roseanne" (ABC, 1988-1997) and "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" (ABC, 1993-97). He also dished the dirt about many of his famous co-stars on the tawdry documentary series "Hollywood Babylon" (syndicated, 1992). But Curtis was best utilized as the voice of experience in several quality documentaries about the movie business, including "The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal" (1985), "Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time" (1992), and "The Celluloid Closet" (1995), which explored homosexuality in Hollywood. Curtis was also the subject of television biographies, including a 1999 retrospective on Turner Classic Movies' "Private Screenings" (TCM, 1996- ), and a 2001 episode of "Biography" (A&E, 1987- ), as well as penning an eponymous autobiography (with Barry Paris) in 1993. Curtis' long and storied career received several significant awards during the late 1990s and early 2000s, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and recognition for lifetime achievement from the Empire Awards UK, but Curtis was vocal about his disappointment at never receiving an Oscar for his efforts.

The peace and success afforded to him by his art career and the celebration of his movie work by the international filmmaking community was shattered by the 1994 death of his son Nicholas from a drug overdose. In interviews, Curtis commented that he had suffered terribly after the loss. In 1998, he married his fifth wife, horse trainer Jill Vanderburg, who was some 42 years younger than him. In 2002, Curtis revisited one of his most enduring features in a musical version of "Some Like It Hot" at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, GA. In the play, he played eccentric millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown's role in the film), who delivers the picture's memorable closing line: "Nobody's perfect." The actor passed away on Sept. 29, 2010 of cardiac arrest.

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