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Remembering a legend: Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis shaped himself from a 1950s movie heartthrob into a respected actor, showing a determined streak that served him well in such films as Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones and Some Like It Hot.

The Oscar-nominated actor died Wednesday evening of cardiac arrest at home in the Las Vegas-area city of Henderson, Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy said Thursday. He was 85.

"He died peacefully here, surrounded by those who love him and have been caring for him," his wife, Jill Curtis, told the media outside their home. "All Tony ever wanted to be was a movie star. He didn't want to be the most dramatic actor. He wanted to be a movie star, ever since he was a little kid."

Here are some notable moments in his life and career.

The new kid

Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925, the son of Hungarian Jews who had immigrated to the United States after World War I. His father, Manny Schwartz, had yearned to be an actor, but work was hard to find with his heavy accent. He settled for tailoring jobs, moving the family repeatedly as he sought work. "I was always the new kid on the block, so I got beat up by the other kids," Curtis recalled in 1959. "I had to figure a way to avoid getting my nose broken. So I became the crazy new kid on the block."

The name

After serving in the Pacific during World War II and being wounded at Guam, he returned to New York and studied acting under the GI Bill. Bernie Schwartz sounded too Jewish for a movie actor, so the studio gave him a new name: Anthony Curtis, taken from his favorite novel, Anthony Adverse, and the Anglicized name of a favorite uncle. After his eighth film, he became Tony Curtis.

His famous family

Curtis married Janet Leigh of Psycho fame in 1951, when they were both rising young stars. They divorced in 1963. "Tony and I had a wonderful time together; it was an exciting, glamorous period in Hollywood," Leigh, who died in 2004, once said. "A lot of great things happened, most of all, two beautiful children." Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, far right, and Kelly Leigh are their daughters.

The memorable roles

He first attracted critical notice as Sidney Falco, a press agent seeking favor with a sadistic columnist, in the 1957 classic Sweet Smell of Success. Other prestigious films followed: Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, The Vikings, Kings Go Forth and Operation Petticoat. He also found time to do a voice acting gig as his prehistoric look-alike, Stony Curtis, in an episode of The Flintstones. In perhaps his best-remembered role, he donned women's clothing and sparred with Marilyn Monroe (above) in 1959's Some Like It Hot. When someone once remarked that it must be thrilling to kiss Monroe in the film's love scenes, the actor snapped, "It's like kissing Hitler." In later years, his opinion of Monroe softened, and in interviews he praised her unique talent.

And the Oscar doesn't go to …

Sadly, at least to his fans, Curtis never won an Academy Award, though he was nominated for best actor for 1958's The Defiant Ones. "I think it has nothing to do with good performances or bad performances," he said in a 2002 interview. "After the number of movies I made where I thought there should be some acknowledgment, there was nothing from the Academy. My happiness and privilege is that my audience around the world is supportive of me, so I don't need the Academy."

His other arts

Curtis pursued another career as an artist, creating Matisse-like still lifes with astonishing speed. "I'm a recovering alcoholic," he said in 1990 as he concluded a painting in 40 minutes in the garden of the Bel-Air Hotel. "Painting has given me such a great pleasure in life, helped me to recover." He also turned to writing, producing a 1977 novel, Kid Andrew Cody and Julie Sparrow. In 1993, he wrote Tony Curtis: The Autobiography.

"My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages. 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."

Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter, actress.

"The guy was such a sweetheart. Beautifully neurotic, in a very endearing kind of Woody Allen way."

Sam Rockwell, actor with Curtis in the 1998 movie Louis and Frank.

"He'd gotten to a transitional place at 55, 60 years old where all of a sudden they're looking for the next Tony Curtis. But the guy was filled with joy. One day we were sitting in a car together, a picture car, and he had these wonderful clothes on from the '30s, as did I, and he turned to me with a huge grin on his face and said, 'Isn't this fun? We're lucky
people.' "

Brian Dennehy, actor, co-star with Curtis in the 1980 remake of Little Miss Marker.

A chat with the star

Times film critic Steve Persall remembers his once-in-a-lifetime chat with Tony Curtis. Page 1A

Remembering a legend: Tony Curtis 09/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 9:43am]
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