Born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, Curtis is one of three children born of Hungarian Jewish immigrants. His family lived behind his father's tailor shop, and the children were sometimes put in an orphanage when their parents could not afford their care. When Curtis was 12, his brother Julius was killed by a truck, something that has haunted Curtis his entire life. His mother was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia; his brother Bobby inherited the disease and was institutionalized. Bernie escaped his difficult home life into the world of film, idolizing stars like Cary Grant and Tyrone Power.
Asked why he joined the Navy, Curtis replied, "Because Cary Grant made Destination Tokyo and Tyrone Power made Crash Dive." He served on a submarine during World War II and saw the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.
Once discharged, Curtis attended the Dramatic Workshop in New York City under the GI bill, studying with famous fellow students Elaine Stritch, Walter Matthau, and Rod Steiger. He appeared in productions of Golden Boy, Twelfth Night, and other plays.
Discovered by agent Joyce Selznick, he came to Hollywood in 1948 under contract with Universal, usually playing a street kid in low-budget films like City Across the River (1949), Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), and I Was a Shoplifter (1950) (all as Anthony Curtis).
He graduated to swashbucklers: The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951) and Son of Ali Baba (1952). These films provided a training ground for both Curtis and another Universal star, Rock Hudson, using as As Curtis noted, "the sets and costumes from the Maria Montez-Jon Hall films." In The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), Curtis uttered the line, "Yonduh lies duh palace of my faddah," and the line has been imitated in his New York accent ever since.
Nevertheless, Curtis had the makings of a true star. (A producer once told Harrison Ford, who also spent his early career years at Universal, "The minute you saw Tony Curtis come on screen as a grocery boy, you knew he was a star." Ford replied, "I thought he was supposed to be a grocery boy.")
Curtis Hits the Big TimeHis career kicked into high gear with films such as Houdini (1953), Trapeze (1956), Mister Cory (1957), and The Perfect Furlough (1958), securing his place as a matinee idol, but he longed to do more serious roles. He was a revelation in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) as slimy Sidney Falco, leading to his key role in The Defiant Ones (1958)and an Oscar nomination.
Often considered too handsome for some roles, Curtis had no problem applying nose putty, which he did as the escaped prisoner in The Defiant Ones. To win the role of Albert DeSalvo in 1968's The Boston Strangler Curtis had photos taken for the producers in which he was unrecognizable. He impersonated a woman in one of his best films, Some Like it Hot (1959), and did a dead-on take of his idol, Cary Grant. In the hilarious Operation Petticoat (1959), Curtis realized his lifelong dream of working with Grant.
The '60s saw Curtis in a series of light comedies popular at the time, including 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), and Boeing-Boeing (1965). He also made the "sword and sandal" films which dominated the screen: Spartacus (1960, with the famous bath scene) and Taras Bulba (1962) .
DownturnAfter 1966, the quality of Curtis' films became more erratic, due to severe financial pressures - alimony, child support, and the care of his brother Bobby and his parents. He began doing television, in the U.S. and England, where he starred in the series The Persuaders (1971-1972). He acted in films with limited distribution, including Lepke (1975) and horror films like The Manitou (1978) and Lobster Man from Mars (1989). In the Mae West film he did, Sextette (1979), Curtis asks her, "Do you remember how you used to teach me your mother tongue?" and West answers, "No, but I remember your mother tongue." (The aging West was fed her lines through an earpiece, once picking up police radio calls and reciting them instead.) Curtis's last film was a 2008 independent, David & Fatima, playing, appropriately, Mr. Schwartz. He has made 100 films in his 61-year career.
Private LifeHis private life has been volatile, encompassing six wives, six children, and battles with drug addiction, alcoholism, and heart disease. With his first wife, Janet Leigh, he has two daughters, Jamie and Kelly, both of whom are actresses. His daughter with wife Christine Kaufmann, Allegra Curtis is also an actress. In 1994, his son Nikolas, whose mother is Leslie Allen, died of a heroin overdose. Curtis was married to Jill Vandenberg Curtis, 42 years his junior, from 1998 until his death.
A talented artist, his paintings and shadowboxes have appeared in galleries and shows. In 2005, New York City's Museum of Modern Art acquired one of his paintings.
Curtis's health deteriorated near the ene of his life, and he used a wheelchair. His two autobiographies, Tony Curtis: The Autobiography (1994) and American Prince: A Memoir (2008), contain contradictory information. In the first book, he calls Marilyn Monroe dirty and drug-ridden, maintaining that no one in the Kennedy family would have been interested in her; in American Prince, he writes that he and Monroe had an affair, and she aborted his child. The tone of the books is quite different as well, the latter being quite negative in its treatment of many people in his life.
Tony Curtis - The Bottom Line
One of the last of the old-time matinee idols, Tony Curtis was more than a pretty face. His versatile performances as Josephine in Some Like it Hot, Joker in The Defiant Ones, Fred Demara in The Great Imposter, Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success, and Albert DeSalvo in The Boston Strangler insure his place in the pantheon of great American stars