Tony Curtis: 'American Prince' tells tales of Hollywood romances

Playing Josephine in Some Like It Hot definitely wasn't the first time Tony Curtis got into girls' undies.

Curtis' new memoir, American Prince, covers his rough childhood, his long career in Hollywood, his five marriages, his many celebrity friends and a few enemies, but most of all it's a series of fond (and mostly gentlemanly) reminiscences of all the girls, famous and not, he loved.

Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in New York City in 1925. His parents were Hungarian Jewish immigrants; his father struggled to support the family as a tailor. One younger brother died in an accident; his mother, who was physically abusive, and his other brother were schizophrenic. Like a million other kids, Bernie saw show biz as an escape — but he figured out a way to make it happen.

At 16, Bernie joined the Navy; after World War II, he used the GI Bill to study at the Dramatic Workshop with other future stars like Walter Matthau and Harry Belafonte. After some stage success, he was signed by Universal in 1948 and changed his name to Tony Curtis.

In Hollywood, between lessons in fencing and elocution, Curtis found himself boggled by all the beautiful women. Within months, he was having an affair with a very young, then red-haired Marilyn Monroe — a sweet and steamy memory he opens the book with — just one on a very, very long list of lovers.

Curtis became a teen idol first, his smoldering good looks attracting screaming fans. His long, curly locks — unusual for the day — inspired Elvis Presley's 'do; Curtis writes, "My hair took on a life of its own. In fact, for a while my haircut was more famous than I was. I felt like introducing myself to people as 'the guy with Tony Curtis' hair.' "

As a contract player, Curtis chafed at his roles in Universal's B pictures, longing to do serious films that stretched his acting skills. He got his wish eventually, earning praise in dramas like Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones and The Boston Strangler, although his best-known role may be his triple-character comic turn in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot.

In American Prince, Curtis offers plenty of interesting stories about stars and the business of moviemaking; co-writer Peter Golenbock, a veteran of sports biographies and a St. Petersburg resident, does a good job of maintaining order and letting Curtis dish.

Don't look for a lot of introspection here, though. Curtis acknowledges his emotional problems (depression and compulsive sexual behavior), his bout with cocaine addiction and his failings as a husband and father (he's estranged from all five of his children, including actor Jamie Lee Curtis), but he doesn't delve into self-analysis.

American Prince is at its best when Curtis is recalling his glory days as a plucky kid who found himself married to Janet Leigh, hanging out with Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant, and just couldn't believe his luck.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

American Prince:

A Memoir

By Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock

Harmony Books, 364 pages, $25.95

Tony Curtis: 'American Prince' tells tales of Hollywood romances 12/20/08 [Last modified: Saturday, December 20, 2008 3:30am]

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