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Tony Curtis dies at 85; actor was star of 'Some Like It Hot' and 'Sweet Smell of Success'

Curtis may be best known for his role in the Billy Wilder comedy 'Some Like It Hot,' but he appeared in more than 100 films and was nominated for an Oscar for 'The Defiant Ones.'

October 01, 2010|By Claudia Luther, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Pretty-boy actor Tony Curtis became even prettier when starring opposite Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot."
Pretty-boy actor Tony Curtis became even prettier when starring opposite… (Associated Press )

Tony Curtis was a strikingly handsome 23-year-old native New Yorker playing the lead in an off-Broadway production of "Golden Boy" in 1948 when he was spotted by a Universal Pictures talent scout. Sent west for a screen test, he signed a seven-year contract at $75 a week.

"I got into movies so easy it was scary," Curtis told the Denver Post in 1996.

The former Bernie Schwartz went on to become one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the 1950s and '60s, one whose early reputation as a "pretty boy" tended to blur recognition of his growth and range as an actor who starred in some of his era's landmark films.

Curtis, who died of cardiopulmonary arrest Wednesday night at his home in Henderson, Nev., at age 85, delivered memorable performances in films such as Billy Wilder's classic comedy "Some Like It Hot" and dramatic roles in "The Defiant Ones" and "Sweet Smell of Success."

And in 1959, he received an Academy Award nomination for best actor in "The Defiant Ones," the convict-escape film in which he was chained to costar Sidney Poitier.

He also lived like a movie star and was married five times, most notably to actress Janet Leigh, a union that produced another movie star, Jamie Lee Curtis.

"My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages," Jamie Lee Curtis said in a statement. "He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him and a wife and in-laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world."

Describing Curtis' death as "a personal loss for me," actor Kirk Douglas said in a statement Thursday: "Tony and I were two Jewish kids from poverty-level families who could not believe our luck in making it as big Hollywood stars.... I did three movies with him, and he was a much better actor than people realize: Look at 'Some Like It Hot' or 'The Defiant Ones.'"

Poitier told The Times Thursday: "Tony Curtis loved life and life loved him. That's as I found him throughout the shoot and across all the years that followed.

"I think he left a mark as a presence and a person. And I'm sure that many males around the world saw him as kind of like a model for themselves. He was young and he was handsome and he was full of life. And he was available to people. But that was a part of the man's nature."

Curtis failed to receive an Oscar nomination for another strong role, one that he felt sure would finally win him an Academy Award: Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler. That 1968 film of the same name provided Curtis with the last of his major roles.

"After that, the pictures that I got were not particularly intriguing," he told the Seattle Times in 2000, "but I had lots of child-support payments."

For many film fans, Curtis' most memorable role was in "Some Like It Hot," the 1959 film in which he and Jack Lemmon played small-time jazz musicians who witnessed the St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago and, pursued by gangsters, posed as women to escape with an all-female jazz band bound for Miami.

In 2000, the American Film Institute named "Some Like It Hot" the best comedy of the 20th century.

"I feel that he's the great farceur of his generation," said former Times movie reviewer Kevin Thomas, citing Curtis' many comedy roles. But, Thomas said, "he developed tremendous range" as an actor.

Curtis made more than 60 feature and TV films after "The Boston Strangler," including "The Mirror Crack'd" in 1980 with Angela Lansbury and a string of forgettable movies, such as "Lobster Man From Mars" and "The Mummy Lives."

He also frequently appeared on television shows and talk shows. Regardless of the role, "Tony always gave his absolute, total best," Thomas said.

Starting out in 1949 as a contract player at Universal, Curtis broke out as a leading Hollywood actor in 1952 with "Son of Ali Baba."

The actor made the well-regarded "Houdini" in 1953 and from 1956 to 1959 starred in a string of critical and popular hits: "Trapeze," "Mister Cory," "Sweet Smell of Success," "The Vikings," "Kings Go Forth," "The Defiant Ones," "The Perfect Furlough," "Some Like It Hot" and "Operation Petticoat."

His characters varied, with swashbuckling heroes as well as a smarmy press agent, and showed, when the role called for it, genuine comic talent.

And his costars were the biggest names in Hollywood: Burt Lancaster, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Poitier, Lemmon, Natalie Wood and — in "The Vikings," "Houdini" and other films — his first wife, Janet Leigh.

In his later years, Curtis was mainly reduced to being a celebrity without serious portfolio and this, combined with his early teen-idol image and a raft of mediocre films he did while under studio contract, left him with a reputation that was lighter than many of his earlier roles would otherwise inspire.

But Thomas noted: "He was just as terrific an actor at the end as he was at the height of his career."

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