From sword-and-sandal epics to the most famous drag show in movie history, Hollywood legend Tony Curtis did it all during his long career on the screen. The actor died on Wednesday in his Las Vegas of cardiac arrest at the age of 85.
Though he earned an Oscar nomination for his role as a an escaped convict in 1958′s “The Defiant Ones,” Curtis is best remembered for his role alongside Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy classic “Some Like It Hot.” A dashing ladies man with a reputation for a wandering eye, Curtis donned women’s clothes in the movie to play a jazz musician on the run from the mob who, along with cohort Lemmon, makes the acquaintance of singer Sugar Kane (Monroe). Hilarity ensues.
Through more than 140 movies Curtis was the 1950s equivalent of a modern metrosexual, known for his sculpted pompadour hair, dreamy blue eyes and dashing looks, which accompanied what the New York Times described in an obituary as a “dramatically potent combination of naked ambition and deep vulnerability, both likely products of his Dickensian childhood in the Bronx.”
Curtis, the son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary, was born Bernard Schwartz in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, on June 3, 1925. Father Emanuel owned a tailor shop, behind which the family lived in cramped quarters. Mother Helen was a schizophrenic who often beat Curtis and his two brothers. When his parents couldn’t provide for their children during the Great Depression, Curtis and one of his brothers were put in a state institution in 1933, and the actor often spoke of the rabid anti-Semitism he suffered when he returned to his old neighborhood. Younger brother Julius died at age 12 after being struck by a car.
Following a stint in the Navy during World War II, Curtis began acting lessons in New York and quickly landed a contract with Universal Pictures in 1948, beginning a string of small movie roles that led up to 1952′s “No Room for the Groom,” in which he first showed off his ace comedic timing.
Off screen, Curtis was legendary for his way with women, which resulted in six marriages and liaisons with such Hollywood icons as Monroe and Natalie Wood. His first marriage in 1951 was to actress Janet Leigh, his co-star in 1953′s “Houdini,” Curtis’ first box office hit. Popular, but not taken seriously, Curtis finally gained notice for his acting chops in 1957′s “Sweet Smell of Success,” which he followed up with “The Defiant Ones,” portraying a prisoner who escapes a Southern chain gang while shackled to fellow convict Sidney Poitier. As the civil rights movement was just gaining steam, the sight of the black and white actors chained together was a potent symbol for the nation’s upcoming struggles and earned Curtis his only recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
He went on to a string of successful starring roles in the late 1950s and 1960s, including “Operation Petticoat,” “Spartacus,” “The Outsider” and “The Great Race.” His career was thrown off track in 1962 when he divorced Leigh — with whom he had daughter Jamie Lee Curtis — after an affair with a 17-year-old German actress named Christine Kaufmann, whom he married the next year. That marriage only lasted five years. Curtis gave it another shot shortly after divorcing Kaufmann in 1968 when he married 23-year-old model Leslie Allen.
The 1970s found Curtis retreating to undistinguished roles in TV shows, such as “The Persuaders” and “Vegas,” and a few B-movies. An admitted drinker and addict, Curtis went to rehab in 1982 following his divorce from Allen. He continued to pop up in small films and pursue his second love, painting.
His final film appearance was in the 2008 indie “David & Fatima,” in which he played a character named Mr. Schwartz.