Tony Curtis dies at 85; actor was star of ‘Some Like It Hot’ and ‘Sweet Smell of Success’

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Tony Curtis was a strikingly handsome 23-year-old native New Yorker playing the lead in an off-Broadway production of “Golden Boy” in 1948 when he was spotted by a Universal Pictures talent scout. Sent west for a screen test, he signed a seven-year contract at $75 a week.

“I got into movies so easy it was scary,” Curtis told the Denver Post in 1996.

The former Bernie Schwartz went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1950s and ‘60s, one whose early reputation as a “pretty boy” tended to blur recognition of his growth and range as an actor who starred in some of his era’s landmark films.

Curtis, who died of cardiopulmonary arrest Wednesday night at his home in Henderson, Nev., at age 85, delivered memorable performances in films such as Billy Wilder’s classic comedy “Some Like It Hot” and dramatic roles in “The Defiant Ones” and “Sweet Smell of Success.”

And in 1959, he received an Academy Award nomination for best actor in “The Defiant Ones,” the convict-escape film in which he was chained to costar Sidney Poitier.

He also lived like a movie star and was married five times, most notably to actress Janet Leigh, a union that produced another movie star, Jamie Lee Curtis.

“My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages,” Jamie Lee Curtis said in a statement. “He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him and a wife and in-laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world.”

Describing Curtis’ death as “a personal loss for me,” actor Kirk Douglas said in a statement Thursday: “Tony and I were two Jewish kids from poverty-level families who could not believe our luck in making it as big Hollywood stars.... I did three movies with him, and he was a much better actor than people realize: Look at ‘Some Like It Hot’ or ‘The Defiant Ones.’”

Poitier told The Times Thursday: “Tony Curtis loved life and life loved him. That’s as I found him throughout the shoot and across all the years that followed.

“I think he left a mark as a presence and a person. And I’m sure that many males around the world saw him as kind of like a model for themselves. He was young and he was handsome and he was full of life. And he was available to people. But that was a part of the man’s nature.”

Curtis failed to receive an Oscar nomination for another strong role, one that he felt sure would finally win him an Academy Award: Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler.That 1968 film of the same name provided Curtis with the last of his major roles.

“After that, the pictures that I got were not particularly intriguing,” he told the Seattle Times in 2000, “but I had lots of child-support payments.”

For many film fans, Curtis’ most memorable role was in “Some Like It Hot,” the 1959 film in which he and Jack Lemmon played small-time jazz musicians who witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago and, pursued by gangsters, posed as women to escape with an all-female jazz band bound for Miami.

In 2000, the American Film Institute named “Some Like It Hot” the best comedy of the 20th century.

“I feel that he’s the great farceur of his generation,” said former Times movie reviewer Kevin Thomas, citing Curtis’ many comedy roles. But, Thomas said, “he developed tremendous range” as an actor.

Curtis made more than 60 feature and TV films after “The Boston Strangler,” including “The Mirror Crack’d” in 1980 with Angela Lansbury and a string of forgettable movies, such as “Lobster Man From Mars” and “The Mummy Lives.”

He also frequently appeared on television shows and talk shows. Regardless of the role, “Tony always gave his absolute, total best,” Thomas said.

Starting out in 1949 as a contract player at Universal, Curtis broke out as a leading Hollywood actor in 1952 with “Son of Ali Baba.”

The actor made the well-regarded “Houdini” in 1953 and from 1956 to 1959 starred in a string of critical and popular hits: “Trapeze,” “Mister Cory,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “The Vikings,” “Kings Go Forth,” “The Defiant Ones,” “The Perfect Furlough,” “Some Like It Hot” and “Operation Petticoat.”

His characters varied, with swashbuckling heroes as well as a smarmy press agent, and showed, when the role called for it, genuine comic talent.

And his costars were the biggest names in Hollywood: Burt Lancaster, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Poitier, Lemmon, Natalie Wood and — in “The Vikings,” “Houdini” and other films — his first wife, Janet Leigh.

In his later years, Curtis was mainly reduced to being a celebrity without serious portfolio and this, combined with his early teen-idol image and a raft of mediocre films he did while under studio contract, left him with a reputation that was lighter than many of his earlier roles would otherwise inspire.

But Thomas noted: “He was just as terrific an actor at the end as he was at the height of his career.”

Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, in New York City, the oldest son of Jewish Hungarian immigrants. His father was a tailor, and his mother raised their three boys. But the family was marked by tragedy: One of Curtis’ brothers was hit by a truck and died at 9, while the other suffered from schizophrenia and was in and out of institutions throughout his life.

Curtis’ early life was a series of struggles — he said he was constantly taunted for being young, Jewish and handsome. He grew up defending himself on whatever turf his parents lived on at the time: the East 80s in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue.

At 17, he enlisted in the Navy, serving in the Pacific during World War II. After leaving the service, he used the GI Bill for acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research in Manhattan.

That led to some work in the Borscht Belt in the Catskills and later to Yiddish theater in Chicago. He ended up back in New York doing “Golden Boy” at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Then it was on to Hollywood.

He changed his first name to Anthony and his last to Curtis — an Anglicized version of a Hungarian family name, Kertész. But before long, he was known simply as Tony Curtis.

One of the first things Curtis did on arriving in Hollywood was to learn to drive and then buy a convertible.

“Those days were great,” he told the Daily Telegraph of London in 2001 about his early years in Hollywood. “The top down, the car door open.

“At these parties thrown by the studio, there’d always be a brand-new sweetie for me. I was the king of the hill then. And I didn’t leave a skirt unmoved.”

He reveled in his pretty-boy image and was regularly mobbed by teenage fans.

His acting career got its first boost with a bit part as a gigolo in the 1949 movie “Criss Cross,” in which he had a brief dancing scene with the star, Yvonne De Carlo, that brought in a rash of fan letters. Soon Curtis had a bigger role in “City Across the River.”

He made standard studio fare for many years for Universal, finally getting better roles when he linked up with powerhouse agent Lew Wasserman. After that, he starred with Lancaster in two well-regarded films, “Sweet Smell of Success” and “Trapeze.”

In “Sweet Smell of Success,” he played slimy publicist Sidney Falco to Lancaster’s evil and all-powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker.

“Curtis makes Sidney’s naked ambition so tangible, you can almost feel his clammy palms, and it’s Curtis’ unsentimental, caffeinated study in amorality that gives ‘Sweet Smell’ its potent, bitter aftertaste,” Entertainment Weekly said in a 2002 listing of the 100 best performances that were not nominated for an Oscar.

Ernest Lehman, the noted screenwriter who wrote the story on which the movie was based, said in 2001 that he viewed Curtis’ performance in “Sweet Smell” as “one of the best performances by a male actor in the movies. Still gets me.”

In 1959, Curtis starred in two of his best films, “The Defiant Ones” and “Some Like It Hot.”

In the latter, director Wilder gave Curtis credit for one of the film’s funniest scenes, aboard a yacht. The actor’s character, Josephine, reverts to being Joe and pretends to be a wealthy playboy to woo Sugar Kane (Monroe), the sultry singer in the women’s jazz band.

In an interview for Curtis’ 1993 autobiography, Wilder said he told Curtis that after his character had stolen the yachtsman’s clothes to romance Monroe, he had to talk differently, “not the English of a Brooklyn musician.”

Curtis offered to do Cary Grant, which he had learned from repeatedly watching “Gunga Din,” the only movie aboard ship for a time while he was in the Navy.

“And it was a huge, wonderful plus for the picture,” Wilder said. “I did not know he could do such a perfect imitation.”

In 1960, Curtis starred with Douglas in the swashbuckling “Spartacus,” a box-office hit that was also notable for the bathtub scene that didn’t appear in the original but was restored in the 1991 re-release.

In the scene, Laurence Olivier, playing a Roman general, tries to seduce Curtis, the young slave, in dialogue alluding to one’s preference for oysters or snails. (Because the original scene had not been properly recorded, Anthony Hopkins dubbed the dialogue for Olivier, who died in 1989. “I did me,” Curtis said of the restoration.)

Also during the ‘60s, Curtis played multiple roles in “The Great Impostor,” and he had to choose between the love of the Cossacks and the love of his life in “Taras Bulba.” He played a neurotic orderly in “Captain Newman, M.D.,” was the white-suited daredevil in “The Great Race” and a killer in “The Boston Strangler.”

Unlike many who rose to his heights only to decry having to live their lives in a fishbowl, Curtis enjoyed fame and its accoutrements.

Writing in his 1993 autobiography, Curtis said he was able to handle the adulation of fans because, “I’d had that all my life, even before I got into movies; in school, in the neighborhoods where I lived, always a lot of furor. Everybody liked the way I looked, including myself.”

Norman Jewison, who directed Curtis in the 1962 film “40 Pounds of Trouble,” said that Curtis’ simple belief that the camera loved him “gave his work a distinctive quality.”

“He never got uptight, never lost control,” Jewison wrote in his 2005 autobiography. “He was always totally cool.”

Movies, Curtis once said, gave him “the privilege to be an aristocrat, to be a prince.”

Throughout Curtis’ life, women loved him, and he loved women. He was married five times, most famously to Leigh, for 11 years beginning in 1951. Theirs was the Hollywood marriage of their era — bigger than Debbie and Eddie and long before Liz and Dick.

In 1984, after family and friends intervened to talk about his drug problem, he admitted himself to the Betty Ford Center at Eisenhower Memorial Center in Rancho Mirage.

Before it was common practice, Curtis cut a deal to earn a percentage of the box office income on his films. He later said he had received income this way from 34 movies, collecting $2.5 million on “Some Like it Hot” alone.

“I’m telling you, I’m lucky to be me,” he told the Buffalo News in 1993. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be Tony Curtis, and that’s exactly who I am.”

Besides his daughter Jamie Lee, Curtis is survived by his wife, Jill; three other daughters, Kelly Curtis, Alexandra Curtis Boyer and Allegra Curtis; a son, Benjamin; and seven grandchildren. A son, Nicholas, died in 1994.

Luther is a former Times staff writer.