What makes a Tony Curtis performance so compelling is you never know what to expect. Tony Curtis has always been an actor who has refused to play it safe, and has devoted his working life to performing in a vast array of characters, as Curtis has alternatively played the handsome leading man, the sidekick, the comic relief, the villain and a host of other roles that demonstrate how versatile he is. Yet what stands out about all his performances in the inner vulnerability and humility he finds in his unsympathetic characters and the never-say-die attitude of the heroes he plays. However, his unique ability to tap into what makes his characters tick comes as no surprise, seeing as how Curtis’ own life was also one of triumph over adversity and fighting the odds.
Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on the 3rd of June, 1925, the eldest of three children to immigrant parents, Emanuel and Helen Schwartz. Curtis himself admits that while he had almost no formal education, he was a student of the “school of hard knocks”, and learned from a young age that the only person who ever had his back was himself, so he learned how to take care of both himself and younger brother Julius. Curtis grew up in poverty, as his father Emanuel, who worked as a tailor, had the sole responsibility of providing for his entire family on his meager income. This led to constant bickering between Curtis’ parents over money, and Curtis began to go to movies as a way of briefly escaping the constant worries of poverty and other family problems.
The financial strain of raising two children on a meager income became so tough that in 1935 Curtis’ parents decided that their children would have a better life under the care of the state, and briefly had Tony and his brother admitted to an orphanage. During this lonely time the only companion Curtis had was his brother Julius, and the two became inseparable as they struggled to get used to this new way of life. Weeks later Curtis’ parents came back to reclaim custody of Tony and his brother , but by then Curtis had learned one of life’s toughest lessons: the only person you can count on is yourself.
In 1938, shortly before Tony had his bar mitzvahs, tragedy struck when Tony lost the person most important to him, when his brother Julius was killed after being hit by a truck. After this tragedy, Curtis’ parents became convinced that a formal education was the best way that Tony could avoid the same “never knowing where your next meal is coming from” life that they had. However, Tony rejected this as he felt that learning about literary classics and algebra wasn’t going to advance him in life as much as some real hands-on life experience would.
Tony was to find this real-life experience a few years later when he enlisted in the Marines in 1942. Tony spent the next three years getting the life experience he desired, as he did everything from working as a crewman on a submarine to honing his future craft as an actor by performing as a sailor in a stage play at the Navy Signalman School in Illinois.
In 1945, Curtis was honorably discharged from the navy and when he realized that the GI Bill would allow him to go to acting school without paying for it, Tony now saw that his lifelong pipe-dream of being an actor might actually be achievable. Tony auditioned for the New York Dramatic Workshop, and after being accepted on the strength of his audition piece (A scene from “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in pantomime) Tony enrolled in early 1947. Tony then began to pay his dues by appearing in a slew on stage productions, including “Twelfth Night” and “Golden Boy”. Tony then saw a small theatrical agent named ‘Joyce Selznick’, who was the niece of film producer David O. Selznick. After seeing his potential, Sleznick arranged an interview for Tony to see David O. Selznick at Universal Studios, where Tony was offered a seven- year contract. After changing his name to what he saw as an elegant, mysterious moniker “Tony Curtis” (named after the novel Anthony Adverse (1936) by Hervey Allen and a cousin of Tony’s named Janush Kertiz), Tony began making a name for himself by appearing in small, offbeat roles in small-budget productions. Tony’s first notable performance was a two minute role in Criss Cross (1949), with Burt Lancaster, in which he makes Lancaster jealous by dancing with Yvonne De Carlo. This off-beat role resulted in Curtis being typecast as heavies for the next few years, such as playing a gang-member in City Across the River (1949).
Curtis continued to build up a show-reel by accepting any paying job, as he acted in a number of bit-part roles for the next few years. It wasn’t until late 1949 that Tony finally got the chance to demonstrate his acting flair, as he was cast in an important role in an action-western, Sierra (1950). On the strength of his performance in this, Tony was finally cast in a big-budget movie, Winchester ’73 (1950). While Tony only appears in this movie very briefly, it was a chance to for him to act alongside a Hollywood legend, James Stewart.
As his career developed, Curtis wanted to act in movies that had some kind of social relevance, movies that would challenge audiences, so he began to appear in movies such as Spartacus (1960) and The Defiant Ones (1958). Tony was advised against appearing as the subordinate sidekick in Spartacus (1960), playing second fiddle to the equally famous Kirk Douglas. However, Curtis saw no problem with this as the had recently acted together in dual leading roles in The Vikings (1958). Off-screen, Curtis also became famous for his romantic escapades, as he had relationships with a number of famous actresses, including Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe and, of course, Janet Leigh.
Despite having worked in movies for sixty years, Curtis’ performances continue to resonate with the same spark they had when he was just starting out. It’s been said that the closest thing America has to royalty are genuine movie stars, and Curtis is a prime example of one. Despite having an extremely tough childhood full of tragedy, much like many of the characters he has portrayed, Curtis refused to do what was expected of him and follow his father’s footsteps, and all of his experiences, whether it be the death of his brother or living in an orphanage, contributed to Curtis’ driving ambition that would not sway.
Tony Curtis Wife List:
Jill Vandenberg Curtis: (6 November 1998 – 29 September 2010) (his death)
Lisa Deutsch: (28 February 1993 – 1994) (divorced)
Andrea Savio: (1984 – 1992) (divorced)
Leslie Curtis: (20 April 1968 – 1982) (divorced) 2 children
Christine Kaufmann: (8 February 1963 – 1967) (divorced) 2 children
Janet Leigh: (4 June 1951 – June 1962) (divorced) 2 children
About Tony Curtis:
Date of Birth: 3 June 1925, The Bronx, New York, USA
Date of Death: 29 September 2010, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA (Cardiac arrest)
Birth Name: Bernard Schwartz
Height: 5′ 9″ (1.75 m)
Tony Curtis Trivia:
Father of Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis (with Janet Leigh).
Father of Allegra Curtis (with Christine Kaufmann).
His son, Nicholas Curtis, died of seizures due to an overdose of heroin (2 July 1994).
Born to Emanuel Schwartz, a Hungarian tailor who emigrated to the United States, and his wife Helen, he grew up with two brothers, Julius and Robert.
Enjoys painting and creating shadow boxes. In late 2005, the Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY) acquired one of his canvasses for its permanent collection.
Lives in Henderson, Nevada.
Appears on sleeve of The Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
Suffers from fear of flying.
He made a literary cameo in Matt Whyman’s debut romantic comedy novel, ‘Man or Mouse’, in which the main character, Ren, e-mails Curtis with his love-life problems, and finally meets him briefly.
He has two adopted sons.
Was the inspiration for and voiced the character Stoney Curtis on an episode of “The Flintstones” (1960), along with Ann-Margret as Ann Marg-rock.
Since re-dubbing the bath scene in Spartacus (1960) in which he starred with Laurence Olivier, Curtis has said that whenever he encounters Anthony Hopkins (who did the voiceover for Olivier in the re-dubbed version following Olivier’s death), he hollers “Oh Tony… it’s Antoninus”.
Appeared in [i]Sugar[/i], a stage musical based on Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) . He appeared as millionaire Osgood Fielding III, the character played by Joe E. Brown in the film.
He is a militant anti-smoker. Both Sir Michael Caine and Sir Roger Moore have credited Curtis with helping them quit smoking cigarettes in the early 1970s, though not cigars.
Serving with “F Troop” (1965) actor Larry Storch in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1945 aboard a submarine tender, he witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay from a vantage point 300 yards away. He and Storch have had a lifelong friendship. They appeared together in The Great Race (1965).
Along with Ernest Borgnine, Curtis refused to watch, and publicly condemned, Brokeback Mountain (2005).
Nearly died in hospital from pneumonia at Christmas 2006.
Was originally considered for one of the leading roles of Lady L (1965).
Has appeared in tourism advertisements for his ancestral homeland Hungary.
His favorite movie star was Cary Grant.
Elvis Presley copied his duck-tail hairstyle after seeing it on screen.
His brother Julius died after being hit by a truck (1938).
He enjoys playing the flute for pleasure and relaxation. He is a very accomplished player.
Now in his 80s, he spends most of his time painting. Some of his works are a part of a permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Claims that his mother was physically abusive and that his father was impassive.
Recovered from a cocaine addiction in the 1980s.
His sixth wife, Jill Vandenberg Curtis (since 1998), who is more than 40 years younger than he, runs a wild-horse refuge.
Claims he probably had a sexual addiction. Among his female conquests boasted of in his 2008 memoir are Yvonne De Carlo, Natalie Wood and a pre-star Marilyn Monroe who was a very young, pony-tailed redhead during their teenage affair.
Broke a Hollywood taboo in the 1950s by insisting that an African-American actor, Sidney Poitier, have co-starring billing next to him in the movie The Defiant Ones (1958).
Like many before and after, he changed his name from Bernard Schwartz to Tony Curtis, partly in response to Hollywood anti-Semitism.
Admits that he is largely estranged from all six of his children, including actress Jamie Lee Curtis, one of his children by first wife Janet Leigh.
According to his autobiography, he really desired the lead male role of Paul Varjack in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Director Blake Edwards considered the idea, but the role eventually went to George Peppard.
Suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Information from IMDB.