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Tony Curtis dies at 85

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By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / September 30, 2010

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Tony Curtis, whose brash charm and matinee-idol looks helped make him one of Hollywood's biggest stars in the 1950s and early '60s, died at his home in Las Vegas. He was 85. The cause of death was cardiac arrest.

Mr. Curtis, who appeared in more than 120 movies, was best-known for his roles as a cross-dressing musician in "Some Like It Hot"(1959), an amoral publicist in "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957), a chain-gang escapee in "The Defiant Ones" (1958), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and a rebellious slave in "Spartacus"(1960).

In 1958, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assocation named Mr. Curtis "the world's favorite movie actor." He was Hollywood royalty, married to a fellow movie star, Janet Leigh (they would divorce in 1962), and the father of a future movie star, Jamie Lee Curtis.

Mr. Curtis was, in many ways, a bridge between the Studio Age of the '30s and '40s and the eruption of youth culture in the '60s. He was signed to a long-term studio contract and groomed for stardom in the traditional way. Yet he proved especially appealing to the young (Elvis Presley dyed his hair black in homage to Mr. Curtis, his favorite movie star). The distinctive sound of his speech --like a man with a head cold sipping an egg cream -- gave a naturalistic underpinning to his almost preternaturally good looks. He possessed both Studio Age glamour and streetwise attitude.

Many of Mr. Curtis' early films were costume epics, such as "The Prince Who Was a Thief" (1951), "Son of Ali Baba" (1952), and "The Black Shield of Falworth"(1954). Comics took to reciting the line "Yondah lies the castle of my faddah" in Mr. Curtis' unmistakable accent. But the athletic demands of such roles he met with ease. "I was a very physical actor," he said of his boyhood in a 2003 Globe interview. "I'd been always jumping over cars, down fire escapes."

That physicality was an essential ingredient in Mr. Curtis' appeal. So was a fundamental insouciance. Early on in "Sweet Smell of Success," his character's girlfriend asks if he is listening to her. "Avidly, avidly," Mr. Curtis says, continuing to ignore her. Dazzlingly disingenous, that delivery captures Mr. Curtis screen persona. Always there's an avidity to his characters, a hunger. It's the eagerness of a man so clearly on the make he disarms you with the transparency of his ambition. Yet there's also a certain detachment, a sense of being in on a big, ongoing joke.

Asked in that Globe interview to describe his screen image, Mr. Curtis said, "I was an attractive lad, very handsome, you know. Very disarming in my behavior. Somewhat gregarious -- and funny. I always tried to be funny with the girls because I knew to get close to a girl you got to make her laugh.

Mr. Curtis' looks won him female hearts both onscreen and off. The self-appointed "kissing coach" as an aspiring actor at Universal-International Pictures in the late '40s, he married five times. As he wrote in his 1993 autobiography, "One of the the few leading ladies I didn't have an affair with was Jack Lemmon", who played Mr. Curtis' fellow cross-dressing musician in "Some Like It Hot."

Bernard Schwartz was born on June 3, 1925, in the Bronx, N.Y. His father, Manuel Schwartz, was a tailor. His mother, Helen (Klein) Schwartz, was a housewife. Mr. Curtis, who spoke Hungarian at home, didn't learn to speak English until 5.

A self-described "near-delinquent," Mr. Curtis was an indifferent student, less interested school than in gang life and going to movies. After seeing Cary Grant play a submarine commander in "Destination Tokyo" (1943), he enlisted in the Navy, hoping to become a submariner. He ended up as a signalman on a tender. (Mr. Curtis would famously parody Grant in his "Some Like It Hot"love scenes with Marilyn Monroe; the two later costarred, playing submarine officers, in the 1959 comedy "Operation Petticoat."

With his GI Bill benefits, Mr. Curtis studied acting with Erwin Piscator at the New School for Social Research. Classmates included Walter Matthau and Harry Belafonte. He acted in several plays and, appearing in the title role in a small revival of "Golden Boy," was seen by a Universal talent scout, who signed him to a $75-a-week contract.

A brief appearance dancing with Yvonne De Carlo in "Criss Cross" (1949), his first movie, drew fan letters, and Mr. Curtis was on his way. He took the name "Curtis" in honor of Hungarian ancestors named "Kertesz."

With growing popularity, Mr. Curtis began to star in better pictures: "Houdini" (1953), with Leigh as costar; "Six Bridges to Cross" (1955), based on the 1950 Brink's robbery in the North End; "Trapeze" (1956)."

Mr. Curtis appeared in numerous comedies -- among them, "Mister Cory" (1957), "The Perfect Furlough" (1958), "Forty Pounds of Trouble" (1962), and "The Great Race" (1965) -- but none had the impact of "Some Like It Hot."

"I was very nervous about getting dressed up as a girl," Mr. Curtis recalled in 2003, whereas Lemmon "had no problems with it. . . . We realized it was the perfect symmetry for the two of us. Let him be the flaunty one, let me be the more quiet one, which fit our characters perfectly."

As the '60s heated up, Mr. Curtis' career cooled. He began to specialize in lamely risque comedies with such titles as "Sex and the Single Girl" (1964), "Not With My Wife You Don't" (1966), "Don't Make Waves"and "The Chastity Belt" (both 1967). Yet he also gave what he considered his most rewarding performance, playing the title role in "The Boston Strangler"(1968).

"It gave me an opportunity to do something in films I hadn't had a chance to," Mr. Curtis later recalled. "I was never considered a good actor. I was considered popular, certainly, but I never had parts that really asked me to do anything... When I was in the "Strangler," there was nothing like it.. . . For me it was the ultimate acting experience."

Although Mr. Curtis gave strong performances in such notable films as "The Last Tycoon" (1976), playing an aging romantic lead battling impotence, and "Insignificance" (1985), as Sen. Joe McCarthy, he spent more and more time appearing on television and in low-budget features like "Casanova and Co." (1977) "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan" (1978), and "Brainwaves" (1982).

Mr. Curtis spent the '70s and early '80s battling drug abuse. "I couldn't face the realities of being married," he said in that Globe interview, "the kind of movies I was making, the environment I was in."

After overcoming his various dependencies, Mr. Curtis devoted most of his time to painting and constructions. The Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio, gave him a one-man exhibition in 1992.

Mr. Curtis returned to the stage in 2002 to appear in a musical version of "Some Like It Hot," as the millionaire playboy Osgood (the part played by Joe E. Brown in the movie). He garnered uneven reviews, though almost all commented on the enthusiasm he brought to performing. Clearly, he relished the attention. "I've never been able to understand how other actors could not appreciate it," he said. "It's a glorifying feeling, the way people look at you."

In addition to his daughter Jamie Lee, Mr. Curtis leaves his wife, Jill; three other daughters, Kelly, also from his marriage to Leigh, and Alexandra and Allegra, both from his marriage to Christine Kaufmann; a son, Benjamin; and six grandchildren. A son, Nicholas, died in 1994.