From dressing in drag to posing nude for his 80th birthday, Tony Curtis truly was a defiant one.
He overcame early typecasting as a lightweight pretty boy to become a serious actor in such films as “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Spartacus” and “The Defiant Ones,” the latter earning him an Academy Award nomination.
He resisted obsolescence, continually reshaping himself and taking lesser roles to find steady work in a business that prizes youth. He subdued alcohol and drug addictions, lived through six marriages and five divorces, and found peace with a new art as a painter.
Curtis, whose wildly undefinable cast of characters ranged from a Roman slave leading the rebellious cry of “I’m Spartacus” to a jazz age musician wooing Marilyn Monroe while disguised as a woman in “Some Like It Hot,” died Wednesday night.
The 85-year-old actor suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas, the coroner said Thursday.
“My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages,” Jamie Lee Curtis — his daughter with first wife Janet Leigh, co-star of “Psycho” — said in a statement. “He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him and a wife and in-laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world.”
A movie star
Starting his career in the late 1940s and early 1950s with bit parts as a juvenile delinquent or in such forgettable movies as the talking-mule comedy “Francis,” Curtis rose to stardom as a swashbuckling heartthrob, mixing in somewhat heftier work such as the boxing drama “Flesh and Fury” and the title role in the film biography “Houdini.”
Hindered early on by a Bronx accent that drew laughs in Westerns and other period adventures, Curtis smoothed out his rough edges and silenced detractors with 1957’s “Sweet Smell of Success,” in which he played a sleazy press agent who becomes the fawning pawn of a ruthless newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster).
“Curtis grew up into an actor and gave the best performance of his career,” critic Pauline Kael wrote in her book “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”
Yet it was sheer stardom, not critical acclaim, that drove Curtis, said his sixth wife, Jill Curtis.
“All Tony ever wanted to be was a movie star. He didn’t want to be the most dramatic actor,” Jill Curtis said. “He wanted to be a movie star, ever since he was a little kid.”
In 1959, Curtis teamed with Monroe and Jack Lemmon for a screwball landmark, Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot,” which ranks No. 1 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best U.S. comedies.
His other credits included “Captain Newman, M.D.,” “The Vikings,” “Kings Go Forth,” “Sex and the Single Girl” and “The Boston Strangler.”
“The guy was such a sweetheart. Beautifully neurotic, in a very endearing kind of Woody Allen way,” said Sam Rockwell, who co-starred with Curtis in the 1998 movie “Louis and Frank.”
Ups and downs
To mark his 80th birthday in 2005, Curtis posed nude in Vanity Fair alongside his dogs, Josephine and Daphne, named after his and Lemmon’s “Some Like It Hot” characters.
By then, his shiny-black hair had turned silver, he had long since kicked booze and drugs, and painting his Matisse-like still-lifes filled much of the creative space left as his acting career waned.
In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press, Curtis talked candidly about where his life was in his 50s, when he was relegated to television work and such movies as “The Bad News Bears Go to Japan” or the cheesy sex comedy “Some Like It Cool.”
“I wasn’t happy with my marriages. I wasn’t happy with the films I was getting. The next thing I know, I’m using cocaine and alcohol. And the next thing I know, I’m immersed in it,” Curtis said.
Curtis had six children from his marriages. He was estranged for a long period from daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, whose credits include “Perfect,” “Halloween,” “True Lies” and last week’s comedy release “You Again.”
He and his daughter eventually reconciled, and Curtis took great pride in her Hollywood success.
Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925, the son of Hungarian Jews who had emigrated to the United States after World War I.
Curtis remained vigorous following heart bypass surgery in 1994, although his health declined in recent years.
Jill Curtis said her husband had been hospitalized several times in recent weeks for lung problems she blamed on smoking 30 years ago. He recently returned home, where he died in his sleep, she said.
Longtime friend and casino executive Gene Kilroy said memorial services would be Monday in Las Vegas, with a reception at the Luxor hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
Through his ups and downs, Curtis maintained a brash optimism.
“One thing Tony always said: ‘God is great. He won’t hurt us, ’cause he looks like Tony Curtis,’” said wife Jill Curtis. “I guess now he knows how he looks.”