His career spanned six decades however he was very popular 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.
City Across the River
The Lady Gambles
Take One False Step
Johnny Stool Pigeon
How to Smuggle a Hernia Across the Border
Woman in Hiding
I Was a Shoplifter
The Prince Who Was a Thief
Flesh and Fury
No Room for the Groom
Son of Ali Baba
Meet Danny Wilson
The Black Shield of Falworth
So This Is Paris
Six Bridges to Cross
The Purple Mask
The Square Jungle
The Rawhide Years
The Midnight Story
Kings Go Forth
The Defiant Ones
The Perfect Furlough
Who Was That Lady?
The Rat Race
The Great Impostor
40 Pounds of Trouble
The List of Adrian Messenger
Captain Newman, M.D.
Paris When It Sizzles
Wild and Wonderful
Sex and the Single Girl
The Great Race
Chamber of Horrors
Not with My Wife, You Don’t!
Don’t Make Waves
On My Way to the Crusades, I Met a Girl Who…
The Boston Strangler
Monte Carlo or Bust!
You Can’t Win ‘Em All
Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came
The Last Tycoon
Casanova & Co.
The Bad News Bears Go to Japan
It Rained All Night the Day I Left
Little Miss Marker
The Mirror Crack’d
Othello, the Black Commando
Bambo & Dex
Where Is Parsifal?
The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal
The Passenger – Welcome to Germany
Lobster Man from Mars
Walter & Carlo In America
Center of the Web
Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time
Naked in New York
The Mummy Lives
A Century of Cinema
The Celluloid Closet
Elvis Meets Nixon
Alien X Factor
Louis & Frank
Play It to the Bone
Reflections of Evil
The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary
The Blacksmith and the Carpenter
David & Fatima
The Jill & Tony Curtis Story
Tony Curtis: Driven to Stardom
Tony Curtis was nominated for one Best Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award for his role in The Defiant Ones (1958).
Painting is more meaningful to me than any performance I’ve ever given. ~ Tony Curtis
Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, in Manhattan, New York, to Helen (née Klein) and Emanuel Schwartz. He did not learn English until he was five or 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 was diagnosed with schizophrenia. His brother Robert was institutionalized with the same mental illness.
When Curtis was eight, 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 hooky from school and minor pilfering at the local dime store. When Curtis was 11, a friendly neighbor saved him from what he felt would have led to a life of delinquency by sending him to a Boy Scout camp, where he was able to work off his energy and settle down. He attended Seward Park High School. At 16, he had his first small acting part in a school stage play.
Curtis enlisted in the United States Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor and war was declared. 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 the Second World War. On September 2, 1945, Curtis witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay from his ship’s signal bridge about a mile away.
Following his discharge from the Navy, Curtis attended City College of New York on the G.I. Bill. He then studied acting at The New School in Greenwich Village 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 notable talent agent, casting director, and niece of film producer David O. Selznick.
In 1948, Curtis arrived in Hollywood at age 23.
When he was placed under contract at Universal Pictures, he changed his name from Bernard Schwartz to Tony Curtis. It is also the same studio where he met unknown actors Rock Hudson, 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. Although Universal Pictures taught him fencing and riding, in keeping with the cinematic themes of the era, Curtis admitted he was at first interested only in girls and money. Neither was he hopeful of his chances of becoming a major star.
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 a number of 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 three Westerns, Sierra (1950), starring Audie Murphy, one of many names he worked with (including 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 a lot of fan mail so Universal decided to give him the starring role in The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951), a Near-Eastern swashbuckler with Piper Laurie. It was a hit at the box office and Curtis was now established.
He followed it 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 “Near-Eastern” with Laurie.
Curtis’ career stepped up another notch when he teamed with then-wife Janet Leigh in Houdini (1953), where 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 box office performances 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 it was 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). It was one of the biggest hits of the year.
Curtis made a Western, The Rawhide Years (1957), was a gambler in Mister Cory (1957) and a cop in The Midnight Story (1957). Lancaster asked for him again, to play scheming press agent Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), starring and co-produced by Lancaster. It was a box office disappointment but Curtis, for the first time in his career, received sensational reviews.
Another star-producer was interested in Curtis supporting him – Kirk Douglas for The Vikings (1958). Janet Leigh also starred, and the resulting movie was a massive hit. Curtis then co-starred with Frank Sinatra and Natalie Wood in Kings Go Forth (1958), a war story. It was mildly popular but The Defiant Ones (1958), was a big success. Curtis gave an Oscar-nominated performance as a bigoted white escaped convict chained to a black man, Sidney Poitier.
Curtis and Leigh 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, as was Operation Petticoat (1959), a military comedy which Curtis made for Edwards alongside Cary Grant.
Douglas came calling again, offering Curtis a key role in the former’s epic production Spartacus (1960). It was a huge hit and earned Curtis a Golden Globe nomination.
Curtis then made his first movies in a while without a significant “name” costar. 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), costarring Yul Brynner and Christine Kaufmann, who soon became Curtis’ second wife.
He and Kaufmann were reunited on 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 made a cameo 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”.
Curtis made his first dramatic film in several years with The Boston Strangler (1968) playing the title role and 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).
Throughout his life, Curtis enjoyed painting and, since the early 1980s, painted as a second career. His work commands more than $25,000 a canvas now. In the last years of his life, he concentrated on painting rather than movies. A surrealist, Curtis claimed “Van Gogh, [Paul] Matisse, Picasso, Magritte” as influences. “I still make movies but I’m not that interested in them anymore. 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 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.
The studio he was under contract with, Universal-International, generally stayed out of their stars’ love lives. However, 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. In response, Curtis and Leigh decided to defy the studio heads and instead eloped and were married by a local judge in Greenwich, Connecticut. Comedian 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. He stated that his marriage with Leigh had effectively ended “a year earlier”. 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 (December 31, 1970 – April 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 only 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
In 1994, his son Nicholas died of a heroin overdose at the age of 23.
Beginning 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 chairman. The organization works for the restoration and preservation of synagogues and 1300 Jewish cemeteries in Hungary. He dedicated this to the 600,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Hungary and lands occupied by the Hungarian Army. He also helped promote Hungary’s national image in commercials.
Curtis developed a heavy cocaine addiction in 1974 while filming Lepke, at a time when his stardom had declined considerably 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 a heart attack.
Curtis nearly died when he contracted pneumonia in December 2006 and was in a coma for more than a month. As a result, he used a wheelchair afterwards and could walk only short distances.
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 at his Henderson home on September 29, 2010, of cardiac arrest. He left behind five children and seven grandchildren.
His remains were interred at Palm Memorial Park Cemetery in Henderson, Nevada, on October 4, 2010. His memorial service was attended by his daughters, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis; Arnold Schwarzenegger; Rich Little; and Vera Goulet, Robert Goulet’s widow. Investor Kirk Kerkorian, actor Kirk Douglas and singer Phyllis McGuire were among the honorary pallbearers.
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