Remembering Tony Curtis: The Best of Everything

The slick, sophisticated star of Sweet Smell of Success and Some Like It Hot was a driven actor who never gave up the game

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Actor Tony Curtis

Sidney Falco, Broadway publicist, is telling his secretary Sam how far he wants his ambitions to take him: "Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, 'Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!' Or, 'Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts.' I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players. My experience I can give you in a nutshell, and I didn't dream it in a dream, either. Dog Eat Dog. In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me."

An actor doesn't often get a role that upends his Hollywood image and reveals his inner demons. Tony Curtis, who died Wednesday at 85 of cardiac arrest at his home near Las Vegas, found that dream-nightmare part in the 1957 Sweet Smell of Success. Sidney Falco, a name that replaced Sammy Glick as the slick nogoodnik par excellence, is a pretty boy on the make — all hustle, no morals, and with a line of patter like petty larceny. Then, two years later, he was cast as a stud saxophone player, with Jack Lemmon as his partner and Marilyn Monroe as the bait, in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot. Twice he got the best of everything: two all-time classics, two defining roles. He sold those characters like a salesman with nonstop charm and his foot in your door, on your neck, up your butt. Some would call it chutzpah; we think it was acting.

As Eddie Fisher was to the pop music of the early 1950s, Curtis was to that period's movies: a handsome Jewish prince for American girls to fall in love with. Like Fisher with Debbie Reynolds (and later Elizabeth Taylor), Curtis also found a gentile princess: in 1951 he married actress Janet Leigh, she of the sensible freshness and intoxicating allure. (They had two actress daughters, Jamie Lee and Kelly, and divorced in 1962.) But Curtis also possessed a Sidney Falconian drive, drive, drive, an acute sense of his attributes and the brains and balls to use them. He had long idolized Cary Grant — who didn't? — and for his Some Like It Hot character, who wants to convince Monroe he's a rich yachtsman, Curtis spoke in a broad parody of Grant's voice. The actor's reward? In his next film, Operation Petticoat, his costar was Cary Grant.

Curtis, born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925, could easily have been defeated by the poverty and misery of his youth. As he relates in the 1994 Tony Curtis: The Autobiography (written with Barry Paris), his tailor father Emmanuel and abusive, schizophrenic mother Helen were so poor that, in 1933, they placed two of their three sons, Bernie and his brother Julius, in a state institution. Five years later, Julius died after being hit by a truck; the third child, Robert, also suffered from schizophrenia. Bernie escaped his tough neighborhood, where fights were common and Jews frequent victims, for high school in Manhattan, then served in the Navy and was present at the Japanese surrender to the U.S. Postwar acting classes and rep work in the Catskills got Bernie attention. Universal-International Pictures signed him and gave him the screen name Anthony Curtis — later Tony Curtis.

He made his Hollywood debut in the 1949 City Across the River, a softening of novelist Irving Shulman's gritty The Amboy Dukes, and flitted through a much better crime drama, Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (as "Gigolo" — early type casting). Universal quickly identified Curtis as leading-man material but didn't quite know what to do with him. He was gorgeous, no doubt, especially in the eyeliner and long lashes he sported on screen, but not easily assimilated into standard roles; he looked like Tony Curtis but came on like Bernie Schwartz.

His urban intensity and dark good looks were deemed inappropriate for Westerns, the dominant genre of the day; he was one of the few '50s Hollywood actors who didn't star as a cowboy. Instead the studio cast him in pretty-boy roles in B-minus Arabian adventures like The Prince Who Was a Thief and Son of Ali Baba. Curtis' performance in the medieval-Britain saber-rattler The Black Shield of Falworth was the occasion for widespread mockery. Who doesn't remember his Bronxian diction while intoning, "Yondah lies da castle of my foddah"? Who knows that, in fact, he didn't say it?

Curtis slipped more smoothly into the role of Harry Houdini, the Jewish magician and escape artist, in the 1953 bio-pic Houdini; it was the first of five films in which he costarred with Leigh. (The others: Falworth, The Vikings, The Perfect Furlough and Who Was That Lady?) Still, his career seemed mired in mediocrity. Universal couldn't find projects that would show off their young star to his best advantage — as the studio did for another of its contract-player hunks, Rock Hudson.

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