Remembering Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis, the robustly heterosexual Hollywood bad boy and insatiable roué, died earlier this week. Tony Earnshaw remembers his rollercoaster life and times.

There was something of the eternal teenager to Tony Curtis. A charismatic twinkle in the eye, that sneaky smile and a knowing look that said “If I can do it, so can you”.

Curtis died on Wednesday, aged 85. In ten decades he had travelled light years from his humble beginnings as the son of poor Jewish-Hungarian immigrants growing up in the Bronx.

It was the classic miracle journey of ghetto kid to Hollywood heart-throb filled with childhood trauma, grim poverty and vicious anti-Semitism. Back then he had been Bernie Schwartz. When his easy good looks provided an entrée into Hollywood in the late ‘40s he was persuaded to change his name. Thus Tony Curtis was born.

Curtis himself never stopped being grateful for his amazing luck. He once said “Beauty is America’s lottery and celebrity is America’s royalty. Listen, everyone gets into the movies because of their looks. I can never get over the fact that I’m in the movies. It was hard to hide my enthusiasm, even if I played a killer.”

And, indeed, Curtis did play killers. In his most memorable, challenging and compelling role he played schizophrenic mass murderer Albert De Salvo in The Boston Strangler, a part he fought for. It was his best performance but after it his career declined.

By the 1970s he was appearing on British television as playboy Danny Wilde in The Persuaders! with-star Roger Moore as aristocrat Lord Brett Sinclair.

Curtis became a star in the early 1950s and was hot enough for the studios to offer him as a prize: “Win Tony Curtis for a Weekend”. The Indiana woman who won quipped she would rather have had the second prize, a new refrigerator. Fame is a fickle mistress…

There was a succession of movies good, bad and indifferent. The one that followed him around for his entire career was 1954’s The Black Shield of Falworth, with Curtis as a mediaeval knight alongside Robert Taylor.

“Yonda lies da castle of my Fadda, de caliph”, he sonorously intones at one point. You can take the boy out of the Bronx…

It was easy to scorn Tony Curtis as just another movie star. But, like Robert Mitchum before him and Steve McQueen after, he was a much better actor than he gave himself credit for.

He enjoyed his most creative period from 1956 to 1960. At his height he was voted biggest box-office star four years in a row.

In those few years he worked for Stanley Kramer on the ground-breaking mixed-race pot-boiler The Defiant Ones, co-starring with Sidney Poitier and Oscar nominated as a white trash convict; for Stanley Kubrick in Spartacus (opposite a stellar cast that included Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov) and for Alexander Mackendrick in the gloriously sour Sweet Smell of Success, giving a chillingly accurate depiction of an unscrupulous press agent.

Perhaps the stand-out picture of the lot was Some Like it Hot, Billy Wilder’s sparkling comedy in which he played three roles and perfectly mocked his idol Cary Grant’s accent.

Naturally he enjoyed a brief affair with co-star Marilyn Monroe. Later he was to describe their intimate scenes on the film as like “kissing Hitler”. After her death he called her “unmanageable, unpleasant, dirty”.

He packed a solid carnal punch and throughout his wayward life enjoyed the ladies. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands. “I was the king of the hill then,” he recalled “and I didn’t leave a skirt unmoved.” Years after one memorable tryst he bragged from a moving cab to Walter Matthau: “Hey, Walter, I ****ed Yvonne De Carlo!”

His second marriage to Janet Leigh foundered because of his profligate philandering. He lived for fame and the rewards it gave him. His was a life of fantasy. He was volatile, cocksure, moody, erratic, paranoid, possessive, obsessively jealous and terribly insecure.

He behaved badly and was a lousy father to his six children – four daughters (including Jamie Leigh Curtis) and two sons, one of whom died from a heroin overdose. It was something he knew about. As he turned 50 he crashed, disappearing into a blizzard of cocaine.

By his own admission he “drank a little too much and got into drug problems”. A spell in the Betty Ford Clinic sorted him out but by then the glory days were over.

As he entered his 70s he refused to play patrician roles – doctors, lawyers, grandfathers – and until recently kept up a hectic pace of life. “You are looking at a machine made for the movies. I will never play old men on the screen – there is always a little energy that you can see. ‘Old’ to me is giving up on life. You can be any age you want.”

The day before his 77th birthday he opened in a coast-to-coast tour of a musical version of Some Like it Hot, singing and dancing as eccentric millionaire Osgood Fielding.

Friends told him to slow down. Curtis’s response was to be expected: “To do what? To go where?”

He was an immensely popular star with an indestructible enthusiasm for life. If he walked through a casino in Las Vegas, the gamblers would stop playing and applaud. “I’ve done 120 movies,” he said, “travelled everywhere, worked with the finest people – loved by everyone. Everywhere I go in the world, everybody knows me. I’m a happy guy.”

He died with his sixth wife, voluptuous, 6ft 2ins lingerie model Jill Vanden Berg, by his side. Married for 12 years, they met when he was 67 and she was 23. Curtis was asked by one astonished paparazzo: “Isn’t it dangerous having sex at that age?”

Curtis gazed at his Amazonian spouse and said he wasn’t worried.

“If she dies, she dies…”

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