The Last Take: Hollywood Legend Tony Curtis Dead At Age 85

tony curtis

Tony Curtis thought that he had two professions; the profession of being an actor and the profession of being famous. (Photo & artwork: Nalle Westman)

By NALLE WESTMAN

Hollywood screen legend and one of the biggest box-office stars of the 1950s and 1960s, Tony Curtis, died Wednesday night at his home in Nevada at age 85. The handsome leading man starred in over 100 films including “Some Like It Hot”, “Spartacus,” and he received an Academy Award nomination for 1958’s “The Defiant Ones.”

Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3rd 1925, the eldest of three children to immigrant parents, Emanuel and Helen Schwartz. He served in the navy during World War II. In 1945 Curtis was honorably discharged from the navy and when he realized that the GI Bill would allow him to go to acting school he auditioned for the New York Dramatic Workshop and was accepted.

In the late spring of 1948 theatrical agent Joyce Selznick saw Tony in a play “Golden Boy” and within a couple of weeks she managed to sell him to the Universal Pictures. After changing his name, Tony began making small roles in films. His first screen appearance, a total of 2 minutes, was in a Burt Lancaster Film Noir vehicle “Criss Cross”.  His second movie “City Across the River”, from Irving Schulberg’s topical hit novel “The Amboy Dukes”, a small-budget juvenal delinquent quickie, caught some critics eye and Tony yielded a mention in the papers.

Within a two year period and ten mediocre pictures under his belt, Curtis was now the star of his pictures – mainly swashbuckle and GI-painting-the-town-red-on-furlough -type of flicks aimed to the teenage market, like “Son Of Ali Baba”, “No Room For The Groom” and “Houdini” (co-starring his first wife, Janet Leigh).

As his career developed, Tony steadily moved to more substantial roles, starting in 1957 in the harrowing show business tale “Sweet Smell of Success”, co-starring Burt Lancaster. In 1958, “The Defiant Ones” brought him an Academy Award nomination as best actor for his portrayal of a white racist escaped convict handcuffed to a black escapee, Sidney Poitier. The following year, he co-starred in one of the most acclaimed film comedies ever, Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot”, sharing the spotlight with Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon.

In the mid-1960s Curtis’ career began to take a dive. With jobs harder to find, he fell into drug and alcohol addiction. During the 1970s he made only a handful of forgettable films, but appeared together with Roger Moore in a British hit tv-series “The Persuaders”, and went on to land roles in US tv-shows “McCoy” and “Vega$”.

In the early 1980s Curtis recovered from his drug and alcohol problems and found a new passion in painting, creating Matisse-like still lifes with astonishing speed. In 1989 he sold more than $1 million worth of his art in the first day of a Los Angeles exhibition. His painting “The Red Table” went on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007. He also turned to writing, producing a 1977 novel “Kid Cody and Julie Sparrow” and in 1993 he wrote “Tony Curtis: The Autobiography.”

Curtis continued to make occasional films, but none of them were even close to be Academy Award winners; “Lobster Man From Mars” and “The Mummy Lives”, to name a few. His final role as an actor was in 2008 romantic war drama “David & Fatima”, in which he starred with Martin Landau.

Curtis was married to actress Janet Leigh for 11 years and they had two children together, Jamie Lee and Kelly Curtis, who both followed their parents into show business. In 1962 he married Christine Kaufmann, his then-17-year-old German co-star in “Taras Bulba”. He fathered two kids with her but his second marriage lasted just four years. He was married a further three times and had two more children with third wife Leslie Allen.

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