Tony Curtis, the 1950s matinee idol who developed into an acclaimed actor in such classics as “Some Like It Hot,” “Sweet Smell of Success” and “The Defiant Ones,” was in a reflective mood recently.
“I’m just a lucky guy,” said Curtis over the phone from his home in Las Vegas. “I am having such a wonderful life.”
Perhaps it was his birthday on June 3 that sparked this mellow feeling. “I’m 84 years old and still kicking sand,” he said with a laugh in his still-hearty Bronx-tinged accent. “I’m feeling good.”
That wasn’t the case a few years ago when Curtis had a near-fatal bout with pneumonia.
“That’s over and now I am on the road to recovery,” he said.
The onetime playboy and bon vivant now spends most of his time painting. “I make assemblages and collages,” he said. “I am constantly involved in my artistic life.”
He and his fifth wife, Jill Vandenberg, also operate the Shiloh Horse Rescue in Sandy Valley, Nev. “She goes out in the morning and maintains the ranch every day.”
Curtis is leaving Las Vegas this week and visiting Los Angeles for “The Magic of Tony Curtis” Saturday at the venerable Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Presented by the Jules Verne Festival and the Los Angeles Historical Theater Foundation, the festivities include a matinee screening of Curtis’ 1953 hit “Houdini,” with escape artist Curtis Love II attempting the legendary magician’s water torture stunt, and a 50th anniversary screening that evening of “Some Like It Hot.”
Directed by Billy Wilder and widely considered one of the greatest American comedies, the film stars Curtis and Jack Lemmon as two Chicago musicians during the Roaring ‘20s on the lam in Florida after witnessing a gangland murder. Dressed as women, they find sanctuary in an all-girl orchestra where they also encounter the va-va-voom leading singer, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe).
Curtis also will be signing copies of his 2008 autobiography, “American Prince: A Memoir,” at a special dinner in between the screenings at the Los Angeles Athletic Club in downtown L.A.
Curtis recalled he first came to Los Angeles from New York in July 1948, to begin work in movies at Universal.
“What a time that was,” he said wistfully. “I had never been to California except for when I was in the Navy, and here I was coming out with a movie contract.”
Curtis credits his agent -- the legendary Lew Wasserman -- for “creating” and helping him.
“He saw in me something,” said Curtis. “I became under contract to him at MCA and he would help me with those early movies. He never missed anything with me. He kept watching me, help me improve and watch me develop as an actor. I had the most important and wonderful people helping me.”
Curtis had been in town five years when he landed the role of Harry Houdini. “I started learning magic to play the part in the picture,” said Curtis. “What an experience that was. I remember some [of the magic], but I haven’t fooled around with it since then.”
“Houdini” also starred his first wife, Janet Leigh, the mother of actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis.
“We were just married and this was our first picture together,” he said, adding that it wasn’t easy doing the movie with his spouse.
“But we got through it. We were living in an apartment on Wilshire Boulevard down near UCLA.” Curtis paused. “These things come bouncing at me, there are so many memories, so many images,” he reflected.
When he first met Wilder about “Some Like It Hot,” the Lemmon role was to be played by Frank Sinatra.
“Then a week later, Wilder said, ‘I’m going to have to change that because I think Frank would be too much trouble.’ Then he called back and said Jack Lemmon would do it. He said to me, ‘I want the handsomest man in town and you are that.’ And he put me in the movie.”
An avid art collector, Wilder was more than a director to Curtis -- he was a great inspiration to him as a painter.
“He encouraged me to maintain myself as a painter,” said Curtis. “Here we were working, making this movie, and he was helping me build an art collection and looked at the paintings I was doing. I was blessed.”
Wilder, though, was a tough task master. “But in that toughness, he showed me things I wanted to learn and he was there for me always,” said Curtis. It was like going to art school.”
For more information on “The Magic of Tony Curtis” events go to www.julesverne.org
Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt (of “Star Wars” and “Wall-E” fame) and Academy Award-winning visual effects artist Craig Barron (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) examine the “1939 state-of-the-art” sound and visual effects of the classic 1939 George Stevens adventure “Gunga Din,” Friday evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Their presentation precedes the screening of the film, which stars Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen. www.oscars.org