Charisma was Tony Curtis' calling card
Actor Tony Curtis combined good looks, brash confidence and a streetwise rough edge into one mesmerizing package.
But Curtis, who died Wednesday night at his Las Vegas-area home of cardiac arrest at 85, proved that he was much more than a handsome face and won respect in Hollywood over the course of his long career.
In one of the performances that earned him that respect, Curtis memorably played the sycophantic press agent Sidney Falco to Burt Lancaster's gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker in 1957's Sweet Smell of Success.
But he is perhaps best known for his role as a musician on the lam from gangsters in 1959's Some Like It Hot. Curtis and co-star Jack Lemmon disguised themselves as women to join an all-girl band in Billy Wilder's classic comedy. The American Film Institute poll picked the movie, which also starred Marilyn Monroe as the object of Curtis' affections, as the No. 1 screen comedy ever.
Curtis triumphed in the '50s and early '60s until unfavorable publicity and a string of comedies that would kill any career turned him from a star into a working actor. And a happy painter. And a veteran of six marriages. And a lively interview subject who enthusiastically looked back on hard work and good fortune.
Born Bernard Schwartz to Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, Curtis was so enamored of the movies and of Cary Grant that Grant's performance as a submarine commander in 1944's Destination Tokyo inspired him to join the Navy in World War II. Fittingly, Curtis and Grant would later co-star in the submarine comedy Operation Petticoat (1959).
But Curtis' road to stardom was a long one.
He studied acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York, along with Elaine Stritch, Walter Matthau and Rod Steiger.
He arrived in Hollywood in 1948 and was placed under contract at Universal, groomed for stardom from the ground up by the waning "studio system." He took his name from the novel and film Anthony Adverse and "Kurtz," a family name.
Even in his early films, it's clear why Curtis became a star. Teen girls swooned over Curtis in The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951), and guys liked him, too. It's said that Elvis Presley dyed his hair jet black as a tribute to Curtis.
His charisma is evident in Houdini (1953), the first of five films with Janet Leigh, and in 1957's Mister Cory, from director Blake Edwards.
But by this time, Curtis was beginning to show that he could be more than a pretty boy. In the late 1950s began Curtis' golden period in a long and prolific career, a busy and profitable time in which he flaunted equal flair with comedy and drama. After Cory came Sweet Smell of Success and The Vikings (1958).
His performance in The Defiant Ones (1958) as a bigoted escaped convict chained to Sidney Poitier earned him an Academy Award nomination. A year later, he channeled Cary Grant in Some Like It Hot. In 1989, Some Like It Hot was among the first movies to enter the National Film Registry, which annually adds 25 films worthy of preservation by the Library of Congress.
Notable film roles in the 1960s included Spartacus (1960); The Outsider (1961); The Great Race and Boeing Boeing (both 1965). He also was praised for his grit and his range in the title role in 1968's The Boston Strangler.
On TV, Curtis starred alongside Roger Moore from 1971-72 in the caper series The Persuaders! Over the next decades, Curtis appeared in TV guest roles, including a recurring role on Vega$, and in mostly forgettable films such as Prime Target,Naked in New York and The Immortals.
Curtis was married to Leigh from 1951-1962. The pair was Hollywood's golden couple and had two daughters, including actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
In October 2008, Curtis released American Prince: A Memoir, in which he details his affair with Monroe and his encounters with other Hollywood legends of the time.
Although an Oscar eluded him, Curtis won Golden Globes for World Film Favorite in 1958 and 1961.