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An appreciation of Tony Curtis: 'Fame is a profession unto itself'

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.

This morning, I'm glad that I broke that unwritten rule on 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 autograph wasn't legible. It's a reminder of times when movie stars weren't measured by what he or she 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 himself to be forgotten, no matter how many decades passed since the last time his name on a marquee was box office gold.

Watching him work an adoring crowd in 1996, surrounded by Tampa Theatre's retro-palatial décor, was a flashback to those golden days, even if Curtis was grayer and chunkier than his heyday. With his wide-brimmed hat, flamboyant scarf and a blonde companion a head taller and nearly 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 Curtis' signature performance in Billy Wilder's 1959 comedy classic Some Like It Hot, in which Curtis and Jack Lemmon pose as women to evade mobsters wanting to kill them. Curtis couldn't turn down a family request, or another opportunity to soak in applause.

"Fame is a profession unto itself," Curtis told me in a telephone interview a few days earlier. "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 clear in our conversation 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. I won't say that I'm easily distracted, but the work is so powerful, so overwhelming.

"If I turn my back to the camera, those 80 people on the crew behind it become non-existent. 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 and plenty of memories. 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, adding with a laugh: "I didn't want to come out of my closet."

Wilder knocked on Curtis' door, and asked 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."

Living in the past was all Curtis had professionally by 1996. After his image-busting role as Albert DeSalvo in 1968's The Boston Strangler, his career was a string of television guest shots and fast-paying, forgettable films. Eventually he was better known by young moviegoers as the father of Jamie Lee Curtis than as an Oscar nominee for The Defiant Ones.

But for other 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 existed, the movie industry's biggest competitor was Curtis' best friend.

"(Studio executives) were sure that once a movie was played and finished (in theaters) they'd stick it away somewhere and reissue it now and then," Curtis said.

"So, 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 through television and home video. At the time, his statuesque companion Jill Ann Vanden-Berg was usually by his side.

"Jill loves to watch these early films of mine," he said. "She's 26, so she doesn't remember all of them. She's always checking the TV times, 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 that are bound to occur, and maybe an autograph on the wall. Like everyone will, this street kid who became a Hollywood prince has disappeared. Like Houdini he'll reappear now and then, in the memories of 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.

An appreciation of Tony Curtis: 'Fame is a profession unto itself' 09/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 30, 2010 11:34am]

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