Oscar Actors: Curtis, Tony–Background, Career, Awards

Research in Progress (July 6, 2020)
Tony Curtis Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: NA

Social Class: lower; poor

Race/Ethnicity/Religion: Hungarian Jewish immigrants

Family: poor; father struck in accident; mother schizophrenic

Education: City College

Training: New School (Erwin Piscator)

Teacher/Inspirational Figure:

Radio Debut:

TV Debut:

Stage Debut:

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut: 1949; age 24

Breakthrough Role: Houdini, 1953; age 28

Oscar Role: “The Defiant Ones,” 1958; age 33

Other Noms: No

Other Awards:

Frequent Collaborator: directed by Blake Edwards; movies with wife-actress Janet Leigh

Screen Image: lead actor

Last Film:

Career Output: over 100 films

Film Career Span: 1949-

Marriage: 6 marriages; several actresses

Politics: Democrat

Death: age 85

 

Anthony “Tony” Curtis (born Bernard Schwartz; June 3, 1925 – September 29, 2010) enjoyed an acting career that spanned six decades, achieving the height of his popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s.

He acted in more than 100 films in roles covering a wide range of genres, from light comedy to serious drama. In his later years, Curtis made numerous TV appearances.

His early roles relied on his good looks, but by the late 1950s he had demonstrated range and depth in numerous dramatic and comedy roles. In his earliest parts he acted in a string of mediocre films, swashbucklers, westerns, light comedies, sports films and a musical. However, by the time he starred in “Houdini” (1953) with his wife Janet Leigh, his first clear success, his acting had improved.

He achieved his first recognition as a dramatic actor in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) with co-star Burt Lancaster. The following year he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in The Defiant Ones (1958) alongside Sidney Poitier (who was also nominated in the same category). Curtis then gave his best performance: three interrelated roles in the funny comedy Some Like It Hot (1959). The film co-starred Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, and was directed by Billy Wilder.

That was followed by Blake Edwards’s “Operation Petticoat” (1959) with Cary Grant. They were both frantic comedies, and displayed his impeccable comic timing. He often collaborated with Edwards on later films.

In 1960, Curtis played a supporting role in Spartacus, which became another major hit for him.

His stardom and career declined considerably after 1960. His most significant dramatic part came in 1968 when he starred in the biopic “The Boston Strangler,” perhaps his last major film role. The part reinforced his reputation as a serious actor with his chilling portrayal of serial killer Albert DeSalvo.

In 1962, Curtis also played the role of the Ukrainian Cossack Andrei in historical action romance epic Taras Bulba in which the lead was Yul Brynner.

He later starred alongside Roger Moore in the ITC TV series “The Persuaders!” with Curtis as American millionaire Danny Wilde. The series ran 24 episodes.

Curtis is the father of actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis by his first wife, actress Janet Leigh.

Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, at the Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital on 105th Street in Manhattan, the first of three boys born to Helen (née Klein) and Emanuel Schwartz. His parents were Hungarian-Jewish emigrants from Czechoslovakia and Hungary: his father was born in Ópályi, near Mátészalka, and his mother was a native of Nagymihály (now Michalovce, Slovakia). He spoke Hungarian until the age of six, delaying his schooling. His father was a tailor and the family lived in the back of the shop—his parents in one corner and Curtis and his brothers Julius and Robert in another. His mother once participated on the TV show “You Bet Your Life,” hosted by Groucho Marx. His mother was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, and  brother Robert was institutionalized with the same mental illness.

When Curtis was 8, he and his brother Julius were placed in an orphanage for a month because their parents could not afford to feed them. Four years later, Julius was struck and killed by a truck. Curtis joined a neighborhood gang whose main crimes were playing truant from school and minor pilfering at the local dime store. When Curtis was 11, a neighbor saved him from a life of delinquency by sending him to a Boy Scout camp, where he worked off his energy and settled down. He attended Seward Park High School. At 16, he had his first small acting part in a school stage play.

Inspired by Cary Grant

Curtis enlisted in the US Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Inspired by Cary Grant’s role in Destination Tokyo and Tyrone Power’s in Crash Dive (1943), he joined the Pacific submarine force. Curtis served aboard a submarine tender, the USS Proteus, until the end of WWII. On September 2, 1945, Curtis witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay from his ship’s signal bridge.

After discharge from the Navy, Curtis attended City College of New York on the G.I. Bill. He then studied acting at The New School under the influential German stage director Erwin Piscator. His contemporaries included Elaine Stritch, Harry Belafonte, Walter Matthau, Beatrice Arthur, and Rod Steiger. While still at college, Curtis was discovered by Joyce Selznick, the talent agent, casting director, and niece of film producer David O. Selznick.

In 1948, Curtis arrived in Hollywood at age 23.  By chance he met Jack Warner on the plane to California, and also how he briefly dated Marilyn Monroe before either was famous.

Under contract at Universal Pictures, he changed his name from Bernard Schwartz to Anthony Curtis and met unknown actors Rock Hudson, James Best, Julie Adams and Piper Laurie. The first name was from the novel Anthony Adverse and “Curtis” was from Kurtz, a surname in his mother’s family. Universal taught him fencing and riding, but Curtis admitted he was at first interested only in girls and money. Curtis’s biggest fear was returning home to the Bronx as a failure: I was a million-to-one shot, the least likely to succeed. I wasn’t low man on the totem pole, I was under the totem pole, in a sewer, tied to a sack.

Curtis’s uncredited screen debut came in Criss Cross (1949) playing a rumba dancer, dancing with Yvonne de Carlo. The male star was Burt Lancaster who would make several films with Curtis.

In his second film, City Across the River (also in 1949), he was credited as “Anthony Curtis.” He had four lines in The Lady Gambles (1949) and a bigger part in Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949). He could also be spotted in Francis (1950), Woman in Hiding (1950), and I Was a Shoplifter (1950).

He was in 3 Westerns, Sierra (1950), starring Audie Murphy, one of many names he worked with (including fellow Universal Rock Hudson), Winchester ’73 (1950), starring James Stewart and Shelley Winters. He supported Murphy in another Western, Kansas Raiders (1951), playing Kit Dalton; this time he was billed as “Tony Curtis”.

Curtis was receiving numerous fan letters, so Universal awarded him the starring role in The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951), a swashbuckler with Piper Laurie. It was a hit at the box office and Curtis was now established.

He followed it up with Flesh and Fury (1952), a boxing movie; No Room for the Groom (1952), a comedy with Laurie directed by Douglas Sirk; and Son of Ali Baba (1952), another film set in the Arab world with Laurie.

Curtis then teamed up with then-wife Janet Leigh in Houdini (1953), in which Curtis played the title role. His next movies were more “B” fare: All American (1953), as a footballer; Forbidden (1953), as a criminal; Beachhead (1954), a war film; Johnny Dark (1954), with Laurie, as a racing car driver; and The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), a medieval swashbuckler with Leigh. The success of these films were solid, and Curtis was growing in popularity.

For a change of pace he did a musical, So This Is Paris (1955), then back to more typical fare: Six Bridges to Cross (1955), as a bank robber; The Purple Mask (1955), a swashbuckler; The Square Jungle (1955), a boxing film.

Curtis graduated to more prestigious projects when he was cast in support of Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida in Trapeze (1956), one of the year’s biggest hits.

Curtis made a Western, The Rawhide Years (1957); was a gambler in Mister Cory (1957); and was a cop in The Midnight Story (1957). Lancaster asked him to play scheming press agent Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), starring and co-produced by Lancaster. The film was a box office disappointment, but Curtis received strong reviews.

Best Years: 1958-1960

Kirk Douglas cast him in The Vikings (1958). Janet Leigh also starred, and the resulting movie was a box office hit. Curtis then co-starred with Frank Sinatra and Natalie Wood in Kings Go Forth (1958), a war story that was mildly popular. The Defiant Ones (1958), was a bigger success. Curtis gave an Oscar-nominated performance as a bigoted white escaped convict chained to a black man, Sidney Poitier.

Curtis and Janet Leigh then made a popular comedy for Blake Edwards at Universal, The Perfect Furlough (1958). He co-starred with Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). It was a huge success and became a classic; equally popular was Operation Petticoat (1959), a military comedy which Curtis made for Edwards alongside Cary Grant.

Curtis and Leigh made one more film together Who Was That Lady? (1960), a comedy with Dean Martin. He and Debbie Reynolds then starred in The Rat Race (1960).

Douglas offering Curtis a key role in the epic production Spartacus (1960), which was a huge hit and earned Curtis a Golden Globe nomination.

Curtis then made his first movie without a significant “name” as co-star. Both were biopics: The Great Impostor (1961), directed by Robert Mulligan, playing Ferdinand Waldo Demara; and The Outsider (1961), where he played war hero Ira Hayes. He went back to epics with Taras Bulba (1962), co starring Yul Brynner and Christine Kaufmann, who soon became Curtis’ second wife.

He starred with Suzanne Pleshette in the comedy 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), which was a mild hit.

Curtis was one of many stars who had small roles in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963). He supported Gregory Peck in Captain Newman, M.D. (1963) and had uncredited dual role in Paris When It Sizzles (1964). He and Kaufman made their third movie together, the comedy Wild and Wonderful (1964). His focus remained on comedies: Goodbye Charlie (1964), with Debbie Reynolds; Sex and the Single Girl (1964), with Natalie Wood; The Great Race (1965), with Wood and Lemmon for Blake Edwards — the most expensive comedy film up till that time, but popular; Boeing Boeing (1965) a sex farce with Jerry Lewis; Not with My Wife, You Don’t! (1966) with George C. Scott; Drop Dead Darling (1966), a British comedy; Don’t Make Waves (1967), a satire of beach life from director Alexander Mackendrick, with Claudia Cardinale; and On My Way to the Crusades, I Met a Girl Who… (1967), an Italian comedy with Monica Vitti. In the early 1960s, he was a voice-over guest star on The Flintstones as “Stoney Curtis”.

The Boston Strangler
Due to the poor performance of a series of comedies, Curtis fired his agent and took a pay cut to $100,000 to play the title role in The Boston Strangler (1968), his first dramatic film for a number of years.[18] Response from the critics and public was excellent. He returned to comedy for Monte Carlo or Bust! (1969), an all-star car race film in the vein of The Great Race.

He made some comic adventure tales: You Can’t Win ‘Em All (1970) with Charles Bronson and Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came (1970).

Curtis decided it was time to turn to television and co-starred with Roger Moore in the TV series The Persuaders!.

He was one of the villains in The Count of Monte Cristo (1975) and had the title role in the gangster film Lepke (1975). Curtis had the lead in a TV series that did not last, McCoy (1975–76). He was one of many names in The Last Tycoon (1976) and had the title role in an Italian comedy Casanova & Co. (1977). Later, he co-starred in Vega$ and was in The Users (1978).

Curtis supported Mae West in Sextette (1978) and starred in The Manitou (1978), a horror film, and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978), a comedy. He had good roles in It Rained All Night the Day I Left (1980), Little Miss Marker (1980) and The Scarlett O’Hara War (1980) and was one of many stars in The Mirror Crack’d (1980). On television, he continued to make occasional guest appearances (sometimes playing fictional versions of himself) into the mid-2000s. His final TV series was as host of the documentary-retrospective series (adapting Kenneth Anger’s book series) in 1992–1993; each episode would include Curtis recalling some anecdotes from his own career.

Curtis enjoyed painting and, since the early 1980s, painted as a second career.  In the last years of his life, he concentrated on painting rather than movies. A surrealist, Curtis claimed Van Gogh, [Paul] Matisse, Picasso, and Magritte as influences. “I still make movies but I’m not that interested in them any more. But I paint all the time.” In 2007, his painting The Red Table was on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. His paintings can also be seen at the Tony Vanderploeg Gallery in Carmel, California.

Curtis spoke of his disappointment at never being awarded an Oscar. In March 2006, Curtis received the Sony Ericsson Empire Lifetime Achievement Award. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame inducted in 1960, and received the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France in 1995.

Six Marriages

Curtis was married six times. His first wife was actress Janet Leigh, to whom he was married from 1951 to 1962, and with whom he fathered actresses Kelly and Jamie Lee. “For a while, we were Hollywood’s golden couple. I was very dedicated and devoted to Janet, and on top of my trade, but in her eyes that goldenness started to wear off. I realized that whatever I was, I wasn’t enough for Janet. That hurt me a lot and broke my heart.”

When they chose to get married, studio executives spent three days trying to talk him out of it, telling him he would be “poisoning himself at the box office.” They threatened “banishment” back to the Bronx and the end of his budding career.  But Curtis and Leigh decided to defy the studio heads and instead eloped and were married by a local judge in Greenwich, Connecticut. Actor and close friend Jerry Lewis was present as a witness.

The couple divorced in 1962, and the following year Curtis married Christine Kaufmann, the 18-year-old German co-star of his latest film, Taras Bulba. Curtis and Kaufmann had two daughters, Alexandra (born July 19, 1964) and Allegra (born July 11, 1966). They divorced in 1968. Kaufmann resumed her career, which she had interrupted during her marriage.

On April 20, 1968, Curtis married Leslie Allen, with whom he had two sons: Nicholas Bernard (December 31, 1970 – July 2, 1994) and Benjamin Curtis (born May 2, 1973). The couple divorced in 1982.

Two years later, in 1984, Curtis married Andrea Savio; they divorced in 1992.

The following year, on February 28, 1993, he married Lisa Deutsch. They divorced a year later in 1994.

His sixth and last wife, Jill Vandenberg, was 45 years his junior. They met in a restaurant in 1993 and married on November 6, 1998. “The age gap doesn’t bother us. We laugh a lot. My body is functioning and everything is good. She’s the sexiest woman I’ve ever known. We don’t think about time. I don’t use Viagra either. There are 50 ways to please your lover.”

In 1994, his son Nicholas died of a heroin overdose at the age of 23. After his son’s death, Curtis remarked that it was “a terrible thing when a father loses his son.” Curtis, who had a problem with alcoholism and drug abuse, went through the treatment center of the Betty Ford Clinic in the mid-1980s, which was successf

In 1990, Curtis and his daughter Jamie Lee Curtis took a renewed interest in their family’s Hungarian Jewish heritage, and helped finance the rebuilding of the Great Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary. The largest synagogue in Europe today, it was originally built in 1859 and suffered damage during World War II. In 1998, he also founded the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, and served as honorary chair. The organization works for the restoration and preservation of synagogues and the 1300 Jewish cemeteries in Hungary and is dedicated to the 600,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Hungary and lands occupied by the Hungarian Army. Curtis also helped promote Hungary’s national image in commercials.

In 1965, Tony Curtis was animated in an episode of The Flintstones; he also voiced his character Stoney Curtis. In 1994, a mural featuring his likeness, painted by the artist George Sportelli, was unveiled on the Sunset Boulevard overpass of the Hollywood Freeway Highway 101 in Los Angeles. The mural was relocated to Hollywood Boulevard and Bronson Avenue in September 2011. His face is featured among the celebrities on the cover of the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album by The Beatles.

Also in 1994, the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation awarded its Lone Sailor Award for his naval service and his subsequent acting career.

In 2004, he was inducted into the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Hall of Fame. A street is named after him in the Sun City Anthem development of his adopted hometown, Henderson, Nevada.

In 2008, he was featured in the documentary The Jill & Tony Curtis Story about his efforts with his wife to rescue horses from slaughterhouses.

In October 2008, Curtis’s autobiography American Prince: A Memoir, was published.  His next book, The Making of Some Like it Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie (2009). Curtis shared his memories of the making of the movie, in particular about Marilyn, whose antics and attitude on the set made everyone miserable.

On May 22, 2009, Curtis apologized to the BBC radio audience after he used three profanities in a six-minute interview with BBC presenter William Crawley. The presenter also apologized to the audience for Curtis’s “Hollywood realism.” Curtis explained that he thought the interview was being taped.

Curtis was a lifelong Democrat and attended the 1960 Democratic National Convention alongside such liberal performers as Edward G. Robinson, Shelley Winters, Ralph Bellamy, and Lee Marvin.

During the 1971 filming of The Persuaders!, Curtis developed a reputation among his costars and crew as marijuana smoker.  Curtis developed cocaine addiction in 1974 while filming Lepke, at a time when his stardom had declined and he was being offered few film roles. In 1984, Curtis was rushed to the hospital suffering from advanced cirrhosis as a result of his alcoholism and cocaine addiction. He then entered the Betty Ford Clinic and vowed to overcome his various illnesses. He underwent heart bypass surgery in 1994, after suffering heart attack. On July 8, 2010, Curtis, who suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), was hospitalized in Las Vegas after suffering an asthma attack during a book-signing engagement in Henderson, Nevada, where he lived.

Curtis died on September 29, 2010, of cardiac arrest, leaving behind five children and seven grandchildren. His widow Jill told the press that Curtis had suffered from lung problems for years as a result of cigarette smoking, although he had quit smoking about 30 years earlier. In fact, during the 1960s Curtis served as the president of the American ‘I Quit Smoking’ Club.