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Curtis, Tony
Written by James Colt Harrison   

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Date of Birth: June 3,1925

Place of Birth: Bronx, New York

Date of Death: September 29, 2010

Place of Death: Henderson, Nevada

Cause of Death: Cardiac arrest

 

EARLY YEARS

Bernard Schwartz didn't become Tony Curtis until he moved to Hollywood at the age of 23. He was born in the Bronx, New York as one of three boys of his parents Helen and Emanuel Schwartz. His mother suffered from schizophrenia as did his brother Robert.

The family was poor and the elder Schwartz ran a small tailor shop. The entire family lived in the back of the crowded shop in separated areas. Things were so dire for the family during the Depression in the 1930s that two of the boys had to be given up to a state institution. Finances were difficult and Curtis' parents could not take care of the children. Tragically, little brother Julius was struck by a truck in 1938 and killed. Curtis was a handful and kept getting into trouble until a kindly neighbor took him aside and saved him from becoming a delinquent. He settled down at 16 and attended Seward Park High School where he began an interest in school plays.

After doing a stint in the Navy beginning in 1941, Curtis was honorably discharged from his post on a submarine tender at the end of World War II. Using his G.I. Bill money, he attended City College of New York. He transferred to The New School in Greenwich Village to study acting. 


HOLLYWOOD YEARS

Usually actors don't make it to Hollywood without some influential person giving them a helping hand. For Curtis, that person was talent agent Joyce Selznick, the niece of the man behind Gone With The Wind, producer David O. Selznick. She saw something in Bernard Schwartz, a very handsome young man, indeed. She was instrumental in getting him a film career.

By 1948, Schwartz was in Hollywood and was introduced to the right people at Universal Studios. He was signed to a standard player's contract and immediately changed his name to Tony Curtis. He was 23.

Curtis always told the story about how he got his first (un-billed) part in a movie. When asked by a director if he could rumba, he said, "Of course!" as though he had grown up in Cuban heels dancing Latin sambas and rumbas in the Bronx. He got the part in Criss Cross (1949) as a swarthy and sexy nightclub roué. This led to a better part in City Across the River. As they did with all their contract players, Universal thrust Curtis into many ridiculous films, potboilers and "sand" pictures. One famous film was Son of Ali Baba (1952) in which he uttered the famously hilarious line in his full Bronx accent, "Yonda lies da castle of my faddah." 

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Curtis, Leigh in Houdini

 

 

Things started to improve with his career when he was cast in the "A" picture, Houdini in1953 with co-star Janet Leigh, his then-wife. Curtis became highly popular with young movie-goers and became a heart-throb. He alternated his films by making westerns (Winchester '73), Middle Eastern adventure films (The Prince Who Was A Thief, 1951), swashbucklers (The Purple Mask, 1955), circus thrillers (Trapeze, 1956) and comedies (Mr.Corey, 1957). 

 

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Curtis, Poitier, in Defiant Ones
His big dramatic break came in 1958 when he co-starred with Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success. Accolades poured in for Curtis, and this led to being cast as a fugitive chained to Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones in 1958. Getting the best reviews of his career, he was nominated for an Oscar® as Best Actor for his role as an escaped convict.

 

Curtis' biggest box-office hit was the hilarious comedy Some Like It Hot in 1959. In it, he and Jack Lemmon play musicians who are running away from the mob. They hide out by dressing in drag and playing in an all-girl band. Marilyn Monroe was the ukulele player who lures Curtis to his fate. Director Billy Wilder's film was voted by the American Film Institute as "the funniest film of all time." 

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Some Like It Hot

 

As he grew older, his career somewhat slowed by the early 1960s.  He made a string of fun comedies throughout the early 60s  (40 Pounds of Trouble, Goodbye, Charlie). He did have another dramatic hit with The Boston Strangler in 1968, but then his career started to nosedive in the 1980s and 90s with such potboilers as Lobster Man From Mars (1989) and The Mummy Lives (1993).

 

 

PERSONAL LIFE

When Curtis first arrived in Hollywood, he was a strapping young man with dark good looks and jet black wavy hair. He was catnip to all the starlets on the Universal lot. He had his pick, but in 1951 he met and fell in love with actress Janet Leigh (Psycho). They married and produced daughters Jamie Lee and Kelly. Jamie Lee Curtis became a movie star in her own right. Tony Curtis' first marriage ended in 1962, whereupon he married German actress Christine Kaufman, age 17, in 1963.They met on the set of the film Taras Bulba. They also had two daughters, Alexandra and Allegra, born in 1964 and 1966 respectively. His marriage to Kaufman ended in 1968.

Next in line at the altar was Leslie Allen, whom Curtis married in 1968. They had two sons, Nicholas (1970-1994) and Benjamin, born in 1973. Leslie and Tony divorced in 1982.

Ms. Andrea Savio lasted from 1984 to 1992, and she was replaced by Lisa Deutsch in a short interim marriage from 1993 to 1994.

Curtis' longest marriage was 12 years to Jill Vandenberg, from 1998 until 2010. She is 42 years his junior.

 

FINAL YEARS

As a second career Curtis took up painting beginning in the 1980s. He enjoyed painting more than he did making movies at that time. His canvases became quite valuable and always sold for top money.

Back in 1974 the iconic film star became addicted to cocaine. Alcoholism caught him as well and wreaked havoc on his liver and caused him to develop cirrhosis. Treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs got him back on his feet.

He suffered a heart attack in 1994 and needed a by-pass operation. In 2006 he contracted pneumonia, and that put him into a coma for more than a month. He was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

His autobiography American Prince: A Memoir was published in 2008 to great acclaim and big book sales. The following year he wrote Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie.

Plagued by a variety of illnesses in his final years, he developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and died of cardiac arrest on September 29, 2010, age 85, at his Henderson, Nevada home.

 

Editor Diana Saenger's Note:  In September, 2009, James, myself and Betty Jo Tucker did a radio show with Tony about his book on the Some Like It Hot. It was an hilarious time. Here's the link to the show on Betty's great Blogtalkradio show Movie Addict Hheadquarters - http://www.blogtalkradio.com/movieaddictheadquarters/2009/09/15/tony-curtis-some-like-it-hot

 

 



                       

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