Tony Curtis Profile
* Films in Bold Type air on 8/26
Star Sign: Gemini
Star Qualities: Striking masculine beauty, curly black locks, killer smile, sharp timing.
Star Definition: "A fantastic vanity, but no ego. He could act Burt [Lancaster] off the screen." - Director Alexander MacKendrick
Galaxy of Characters: Tino Orsini in Trapeze (1956), Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), John "Joker" Jackson in The Defiant Ones (1958), Joe/Josephine/Junior in Some Like It Hot (1959).
Tony Curtis has been in the movies for nearly sixty years. With his dark hair and good looks set off with piercing blue eyes, he has played a myriad of roles: Arabian prince, Houdini, escaped convict, and one of the most notorious serial killers of all time, the Boston Strangler. Today at the age of 82 Tony Curtis has just completed another film, David and Fatima (2008) which is currently in post-production; and recently guest starred on an episode of CSI. His career and his life were as dramatic as any film script, one where the protagonist overcomes great odds and survives.
While publicity magazines in the 1950s painted Hollywood life as a fairy tale, it was no truer then than it is now; and Tony Curtis' life was anything but. He was born Bernard Schwartz in New York on June 3, 1925 to Emmanuel and Helen Schwartz, Jewish immigrants from Hungary who were so poor that Curtis would later remember living in the back of his father's tailor shop; his parents sleeping in one corner and he and his two brothers, Julius and Robert, in another. As a very young boy, he would help with the family business, "My father was a tailor. I used to deliver for him. I'd have to hold the clothes up high to keep them from dragging on the ground."
Both Curtis' mother and his brother Robert were later diagnosed as schizophrenic, with Robert eventually being institutionalized. Home life was very difficult with an abusive mother who was prone to physical violence, and he once spent a short period of time in an orphanage at the age of eight because his parents could not afford to feed him and his brother Julius. One of the greatest tragedies in Tony Curtis' life occurred when he was thirteen. His nine-year-old brother Julius was hit by a truck and killed and Curtis had to identify the body. To this day, he still has his brother's cap and schoolbooks as a reminder.
To escape from this environment, the young boy went to the cinema. "When I was a child, I used to go to the movies and became enthralled by all the fencing, horseback riding, kissing the girls. I said to myself 'Why can't I do that?". His chance would come indirectly from World War II.
In 1942, he joined the Navy. "I enlisted when I was a boy. The Navy looked after me like my mother. It fed me, took care of me and gave me wonderful opportunities...The Navy opened doors for me that would not have been possible any other way, and for that I am forever grateful. The service meant so much to me. You don't know how privileged I feel and how lucky I am to have served...At 17, I dreamed of seeing the world. At 19, I had been around the world and back...My whole world before I joined the Navy was my neighborhood in the Bronx...I joined the Navy hoping to be a submariner and ended up in the sub service aboard a tender in the Pacific." Curtis served aboard the USS Proteus and was a witness to history in September 1945, when he watched the Japanese sign the articles of surrender in Tokyo Bay.
After the war, Curtis used the G.I. Bill to take acting lessons, saying "The government gave me enough money to go to acting school." He enrolled in classes with the great theater director Erwin Piscator at the Dramatic Workshop at the New York School of Social Research where his classmates included Walter Matthau, Harry Belafonte, Bea Arthur, and Rod Steiger.
His studies paid off very quickly. Only two years later, in 1948, he was discovered by Hollywood agent Joyce Selznick (cousin of producer David O. Selznick) while performing in a production of Golden Boy at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village. He was signed to a seven-year contract with Universal Pictures beginning at $50 a week. His name was changed to "Anthony Curtis" and he was given riding, fencing, and acting lessons as was customary during the studio system. Being, as he himself admitted "the handsomest of boys" he was noticed by audiences almost immediately in his brief scene as a bellboy in the Barbara Stanwyck film The Lady Gambles (1949). He only had one line as he gave Stanwyck a telegram, but mail poured in to the studio from women wanting to know who he was. Bit parts in films such as Criss Cross (1949), Winchester '73 (1950) and Francis the Talking Mule (1950) led to his first starring role as Julna in The Prince Who Was a Thief (1952), opposite Piper Laurie. The following year saw his break-out role in the 1953 film Houdini co-starring the woman who would become his first wife: Janet Leigh.
Of his marriage to Leigh, which produced two daughters, actresses Jamie Lee and Kelly Curtis, he has said "For a while, we were Hollywood's golden couple. I was very dedicated and devoted to Janet. I was on top of my trade, but in her eyes that goldenness had 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 marriage, which filled fan magazines and tabloids, ended when Curtis fell in love with seventeen year-old Christine Kaufmann on the set of Taras Bulba (1962). Curtis would eventually marry six times and have six children.
The 1950's proved to be Tony Curtis' decade. His career took him from bit player to superstar in just a few years. His looks, and in particular his hair, made him a sensation. Frank W. Hofmann and William G. Bailey wrote in their book Fashion and Merchandising Fads, "The Tony Curtis haircut consisted primarily of a curled coif on the forehead, a semi-crew-cut top and a full nape - all accented with a heavy dollop of grease. His hair was first noticed in his second film City Across the River (1949) and his popularity continued growing with each successive release. Although Curtis professed to feel trapped by the work of Hollywood publicity agents, he continued to maintain the Italian cut that had first brought him fame throughout the 1950s, even in historical epics such as The Vikings (1958) and Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960). Pieces of his locks were sent off to fans by the studio. Curtis, born into a Jewish Orthodox family in the Bronx, considered his haircut to be phony: "It all began because I couldn't afford a haircut. Then I thought my very gift was something so mystical and magical that by cutting my hair I thought it would be gone. I could understand what Samson felt. I was afraid if they cut my hair too much they would cut my talent." Nevertheless the cut influenced an entire generation of juvenile delinquents, and provided the impetus for Elvis Presley's style."
In 1957, Curtis began a switch to more serious roles when he took on a part which allowed him to prove himself as an actor - Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), a very cynical look at the world of the New York entertainment journalists and one man's desperate need to succeed. It won Curtis a BAFTA award for Best Foreign Actor by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. The following year he made The Defiant Ones. Aram Goudsouzian wrote of director Stanley Kramer choosing Curtis in his book Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon: "Kramer cast Tony Curtis, a decision that amused the industry establishment. Stuck playing fluff parts in comedies Curtis yearned for respect as a legitimate actor. With characteristic manic energy, he later joked that Kramer hired him only because Brando wanted to play the black part, and Kirk Douglas wanted to play both parts. Actually, he overcame Kramer's doubts during their interview when he passionately discussed his craft. After winning the job, he even forsook his pretty-boy image by donning a misshapen plastic nose...Curtis asked to share top billing with Poitier, even though their contracts specified that only Curtis' name appear above the title. With that generous gesture, Poitier officially became a star. They filmed The Defiant Ones in just one month in March 1958. Kramer closed the set to avoid distractions or controversies over the film's racial theme. He shot 80 percent on exterior locations throughout Southern California, often in arduous conditions. Poitier and Curtis rarely used stunt doubles. Bound by a twenty-nine-inch chain, they sloshed out of a sloppy clay pit, brawled down the side of a hill, and crossed a swollen river. During the river crossing, they wore skintight diving suits under their prison uniforms to endure the thirty-eight-degree water, and they struggled from rock to rock until midstream, where the current pushed them into rapids, Luckily, stunt men downriver saved them, and the scene became a memorable one."
The Defiant Ones earned Curtis an Academy Award Best Actor, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations. Having firmly established him as a serious actor, his next films were comedies such as Operation Petticoat (1959) with his childhood idol, Cary Grant; and Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959) with Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe. In Billy Wilder: Interviews by Billy Wilder and Robert Horton, Wilder remarked later that Curtis was "all actor. His schtick (an old burlesque word for a personal idiosyncrasy or bit of business) is wearing tight, Continental-style clothes, some of which he designs himself ("Tony's pants look as though someone dipped him in India ink up to his waist," Wilder once said.) One day on the set of Some, there arose a question of billing which involved Curtis' not having his name in the big type size called for in his contract. He went to Wilder and squawked. Wilder listened to him patiently, then said, "The trouble with you, Tony, is that you're only interested in little pants and big billing." Curtis telling this, roars and says "I kvel when I think of that. Do you know what kvel is? It's a Yiddish word meaning I like flipped. I feel about that man the way I feel about my poor dead father, rest his soul."
During the 1960s, despite his success in films such as The Defiant Ones and Spartacus he found himself cast once more in light comedies like 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962),Goodbye Charlie (1964), and The Great Race (1965). The Boston Strangler (1968), however, brought Curtis another Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of suspected serial killer Albert De Salvo. Wearing prosthetic make-up, Curtis gave a tour-de-force performance which surprisingly did not earn him an Oscar®.
In 1970 he was arrested at Heathrow Airport for possession of marijuana, and later developed a serious drug addiction. In an interview with Jewish Television Network, he said, "I was freebasing, smoking cocaine, all the prescription drugs and a lot of alcohol." Two stints at the Betty Ford Clinic in the 1980s helped him get clean and he has always been forthright about his struggle, telling Larry King, "I cured an incurable disease with Betty Ford's help and slowly, my time of staying sober was longer than the time I was getting high and slowly that disappeared." While fighting his various addictions throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Curtis still managed to work, mostly in television like his 1972 series The Persuaders, a recurring role on Vega$, and made-for-TV films such as The Count of Monte-Cristo (1975). His theatrical work included Mae West's ill-advised return to the screen Sextette (1978) and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978). In 1980, he was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of David O. Selznick in The Scarlett O'Hara War.
In the 1990s he appeared on television shows such as Roseanne, Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman and Suddenly Susan, and in the current decade has appeared on Hope and Faith, and provided the "Voice of God" in the comedy film, The Blacksmith and the Carpenter (2007).
While he does continue to work as an actor, Tony Curtis has taken up another career for which he is equally passionate: painting, producing excellent work which has been featured in galleries around the world. "That was another opportunity I was able to pursue, I've been painting all my life, now it's become a second career because of my success in the movies." With a new film coming out, David & Fatima by Egyptian director Alain Zaloum, and the Museum of Modern Art having accepted one of his paintings, Tony Curtis continues his extraordinary and full life.
by Lorraine LoBianco
The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Wilson by Robert Hofler
Billy Wilder: Interviews by Billy Wilder and Robert Horton
Fashion and Merchandising Fads by Frank W. Hofmann and William G. Bailey
Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon by Aram Goudsouzian
The Internet Movie Database