CURTIS: LEVELING OFF FROM A CAREER TAILSPIN
His hair is silver now; his face a complete map of his life’s journeys, too many of them wrong turnings. But the walk is still jaunty and, at 60, Tony Curtis’ voice still echoes optimism.
He is one of those actors who seems to have been around forever, whose beginnings are wrapped up in our beginnings. For it is 38 years and half a hundred movies ago since he took his first faltering steps in acting.
It’s extraordinary that he survived. Few actors were so mocked in their early years. “Yonda lies da castle of my fodda"--a line from an early movie--was mimicked at numerous Beverly Hills cocktail parties.
But he outlived the trash and went on to make films like “Sweet Smell of Success,” “The Defiant Ones” and “Some Like It Hot.”
“And if you see those movies again,” says Nicolas Roeg, in whose film “Insignificance” Curtis is starred, “you’ll see just what a damn good actor he really was.”
But things began to go sour five years ago. And in 1980, when he quit Neil Simon’s Broadway-bound play “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” the rumors started. At the time, Curtis said to me, “People began saying I was on drugs. That’s criminal, man, saying a thing like that. . . .”
But apparently he was. And last year he finally admitted it and checked into the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs.
Now he says he is “clean.”
“All that’s behind me now,” he said the other day in Beverly Hills. “It’s another part of my life.”
His house outside Palm Springs is occupied by his daughter Alexandra (from his marriage to Christine Kaufmann), her husband Mark Sargent. Curtis, meanwhile, and his 12-year-old son Benjamin (by his marriage to Leslie Allen) have moved into the Playboy Mansion.
Curtis is enjoying it.
“Hef (Playboy boss Hugh Hefner) is such a generous and wonderful friend,” he said. “A quality friend. When he saw I was trying to sort out my life, he immediately asked me to stay.
“Benjamin loves it at the mansion. There’s a game room and there are monkeys and birds in the grounds and a great swimming pool. And, of course, there are lots of pretty girls. But we stay out of everyone’s way. We keep pretty much to ourselves.”
He thinks he may take a small pied-a-terre in town while he decides upon a new agent and considers some offers.
“There’s talk of my doing ‘Dynasty’ and there’s a film in Spain. And NBC has asked me to play the role of Mafia chief Sam Giancana in a new film. That could be interesting.”
The place he takes in town will be modest, he says, though he is not strapped for funds. Curtis has invested wisely over the years and put his money into land and property. Even his novel published in 1977, “Kid Andrew Cody and Julie Sparrow,” brought him in more than a quarter of a million dollars.
“But I don’t need anything fancy. You remember that big house in Bel-Air (the $3-million mansion where he lived with Leslie Allen until their 1982 divorce)? Everyone used to go on about what a great house that was. Maybe it was to them, but to me it wasn’t a home; just a place to be. I don’t need that anymore. I plan to live simply.
“I’ll be honest. I do get lonely. But I’ve finally learned to live on my own, which is a big step. What I’d like now is to find a nice girl and start enjoying my life again. Notice I don’t say anything about settling down and having babies.” He smiled wryly. “I’ve done all that.” (Curtis has six children, the best-known being Jamie Lee Curtis, from his marriage to Janet Leigh.)
But last year he introduced a young woman, Andrea Savio, as his wife. Had he not married her?
“Of course not.”
Curtis does not volunteer information about the battle with drugs that has bedeviled his recent years. Nor does he want to talk about his time at the Betty Ford Clinic. In a recent interview given in London, he said he had been taking drugs for years, starting with sleeping pills and ending with cocaine and heroin.
“Look, if others are so interested, let them go out and try it themselves. I’m not a research center. It’s a disease which affects a lot of people and it affected me but, having beaten it, I don’t want it to become my banner.
“There are a lot of big users in this town and some are dying of it, but I’m over it now. Completely. I stopped because I knew if I didn’t I’d go straight down the drain. Now I find I can face up to the issues confronting me instead of postponing them. I come to grips with things.
“Maybe one of my problems was that I was always intimidated by my career. So I kept trying to be Mr. Nice Guy--saying the right things, giving clever quotes during interviews. I don’t do that anymore.”
Curtis has never made a secret of the fact that he feels much of his best work as an actor has been overlooked.
“I never got any respect back from the profession. Never,” he told me some years ago.
“I had one Oscar nomination for ‘The Defiant Ones,’ which I made with Sidney Poitier (in it they played prisoners chained together). We were both up for best actor, but there was no way either of us could possibly win unless they cut the Oscar down the middle and gave us each half.”
But much of Curtis’ bitterness now seems to have evaporated. And the man who always seemed to be in a hurry, rushing through life like the White Rabbit, has quieted down a lot.
“I no longer feel I have to do things just to please other people,” he said. “I’m through with all that.”
Encouraged by the success of “Kid Andrew Cody . . .,” Curtis wrote a second novel, “Star Struck.” But the book was turned down by Doubleday and Curtis was ordered to repay the advances.
“I had some trouble with that book,” he said. “And they didn’t give me the editorial help I needed. So I’ve put that to one side for the moment. I still want to do more writing, but at the moment I’m concentrating on my boxes (these are intricate artistic arrangements of photographs, drawings and gee-gaws in glass-fronted boxes. Curtis has made dozens over the years). Now I’ve been offered an exhibition in London next year.”
He is clearly pleased to have been picked by Roeg, a director he admires, to be in “Insignificance.” In this, he plays the Senator, a character based on the late Joe McCarthy. The lives of four characters--McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein--intertwine in the story. Curtis calls the movie “a wonderul experience.” Of late he has not had great luck with his movies. “Where is Parsifal?,” a film he made in Europe a couple of years ago with Orson Welles and Peter Lawford, was called “ludicrous beyond belief” in a Variety review last year. Directed by Henry Helman, the script was by Berta Dominguez, the fiery wife of producer Alexander Salkind.
“But there are now some interesting things on offer,” he said. “Still, I’m going to take my time.”
Determined to put the bad times behind him, optimistic about the future and hopeful that the wheel of fortune will once more swing in his direction, Tony Curtis says he has never felt better.
“For the first time in many years, my system is clean,” he said. “Free of toxins. I’m 60 years of age and I feel wonderful. There’s lots to look forward to.”