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A movie star who played it to the hilt

It is considered unprofessional for anyone in my business to collect autographs from celebrities we meet.

I'll confess to crossing that line a few times, including a November evening 14 years ago in Tampa.

On my wall is a framed laserdisc jacket for 1953's Houdini, signed twice that night by its star Tony Curtis, 71 at the time and concerned that the first signature wasn't legible. It's a reminder of times when movie stars weren't measured by what they thought of themselves but how much they thought of making fans happy.

Curtis, 85, died of heart failure Wednesday in Las Vegas, one more Old Hollywood treasure gone but certainly not forgotten. Curtis wouldn't allow that, no matter how many decades passed since his name on a marquee was box office gold.

Watching him in 1996, surrounded by Tampa Theatre's retro-palatial decor, was a flashback to those days, even if Curtis was grayer and chunkier. With his wide-brimmed hat, flamboyant scarf and a blond companion a head taller and around one-third his age, Curtis still projected the jaunty aura of Hollywood stardom.

Curtis visited Tampa at the request of his daughter Alex Sargent, then a Tampa Theatre volunteer. The theater was showing Billy Wilder's 1959 comedy classic Some Like It Hot, in which Curtis and Jack Lemmon pose as women to evade mobsters. Curtis couldn't turn down another opportunity for applause.

"Fame is a profession unto itself," Curtis had said in a telephone interview. "Some people adjust to it quicker and better than others. That doesn't mean that actors are particularly good at being famous. Greta Garbo wanted no part of it. Some guys punch cameras."

Curtis made it clear that he still considered himself an actor first and a celebrity second.

"The audience has a great effect on me when I'm not playing parts," he said. "I love the adulation, the affection I get from people, but not when I'm doing that work … (it's) so powerful, so overwhelming.

"If I turn my back to the camera, those 80 people on the crew behind it become nonexistent. It's an invisible line between us. Over my shoulder is reality."

Curtis never tired of telling the same stories, a raconteur with a Bronx accent. Like the first time he dressed in drag for Some Like It Hot and wasn't sure if he could do it Wilder's way.

"I didn't want to come out of the dressing room," Curtis said. "I didn't want to come out of my closet."

Wilder knocked on Curtis' door, asking what was wrong.

"I told Billy if I'm going to be a woman, I want to be an elegant and dainty one," Curtis said. "I don't want to look like a klutz, swishing my purse around and winking at guys. I didn't want it to look like drag, or anything other than a guy who dresses like a girl because if he doesn't he's going to get bumped off. That's the secret of it all."

Wilder told his star to play it however he wished.

"I gathered myself together, picked up my purse, put on my lipstick, thought of my mother and stepped out," Curtis said. "I was a combination of my mother and Grace Kelly. What a combo."

Eventually the actor was better known by young moviegoers as Jamie Lee Curtis' father. For older generations Curtis was still a star, an impression reinforced each time his hits are rerun on television, a medium he credited with keeping his celebrity alive.

For decades before home video, the movie industry's biggest competitor was Curtis' best friend.

"My pictures weren't around, and all of a sudden one day I'm being recognized, and it's because of television. I went on a good diet, kept myself in shape so I could look like that guy they see on the screen."

Years later, Curtis still enjoyed watching his past rewind on television. At the time, his statuesque companion Jill Ann Vanden-Berg was usually by his side.

"She's always checking the TV times," he said, "and each week she comes up to me saying, 'Tony, I found you have three pictures on this week.'

"Isn't that fabulous? That's too good. That is love."

Now it's our turn to love Tony Curtis again, through movie channel tributes, and maybe an autograph on the wall. The street kid who became a Hollywood prince has disappeared. Like Houdini he'll reappear now and then, for fans he loved right back.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.

A movie star who played it to the hilt 09/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 11:33am]

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