There has been much said on the passing of screen legend Tony Curtis (1925-2010). The man was idolized and adored by fans all over the world. I am certainly one of those fans and I wasn’t even born when he was at the height of his fame in 1959. He was a movie star of a different era that was the 1950’s. He landed a contract with Universal studios when he was just 23 years old. Tony knew what he wanted to be and that was a Hollywood movie star. It served him well. He gave his fans the ultimate life on screen and off.
I only knew Curtis through Hollywood biographies and the gossip memorabilia I found when in college. I collected those kinds of things because I liked studying film stars. I wanted to know what made them special, how they worked and where they got that “star” quality. I received as a birthday gift Tony Curtis: The Autobiography in 1993. I read that book ten times over. What an incredible life that brought Tony fame, fortune and an abundance of living.
Curtis grew up dirt poor who lived in Brooklyn, New York. He was hated because he was a Jew. His father was a quiet man while his mother physically abused him. Tony knew beyond poverty that his handsome look’s was his ticket to a better life. He guarded his good looking profile even when he was in Hollywood. His mother would still try to hit him. He covered his face because that was his livelihood.
Tony said his life went by too fast. One minute he was a young contract player at Universal and the next his film career was over. He stayed friends with Rock Hudson who also started out at Universal the same time as Tony. They got together and both talked about the good old days. Where did it all go? Curtis remembered chasing all those pretty starlets. He claims that he never once asked Hudson if he was gay. He didn’t care because they were friends until Hudson died of AIDS in 1985.
Curtis went through 6 marriages, had children and battled drug addiction. At one point his marriage to actress Janet Leigh was labeled as America’s Sweethearts. He worked hard to be respected as a serious actor. Tony received only one Oscar nomination as best actor for The Defiant Ones in 1958. He was bitter about getting over looked for a nomination for his portrayal in the title role of The Boston Strangler 1968. He wasn’t even nominated for Some Like It Hot 1959 while his co-star Jack Lemmon got that honor in the same movie.
My favorite film of his is Spartacus 1960 with my hero Kirk Douglas. Tony portrayed a singer of songs named Antoninus. He was a servant to a Roman named Marcus Crassus played brilliantly by Sir Lawrence Olivier. Antoninus flees Rome and joins the Spartacus rebellion. Crassus ends up capturing both Antoninus and Spartacus. He forces them to fight each other to the death. It is a powerful scene in a great movie. I could watch it over and over and over again. The 1960 censors cut a bath scene between Antoninus and Crassus because it was deemed too homosexual. That scene was edited back in upon its’ 1990 re-release.
The American Film Institute (AFI) named Some Like it Hot 1959 as the number one comedy of all time. I’ve seen it dozens of times and Tony Curtis is so funny as a woman in drag. His spot on Cary Grant impersonation is hilarious too. There are other notable films, The Vikings 1958, Sweet Smell of Success 1957, Operation Petticoat 1959, Son of Ali Baba 1952, the Western Winchester ’73 in 1950 and my other top favorite Trapeze 1956 with Gina Lollobrigida and Burt Lancaster.