Tony Curtis, 1925-2010

Philip French looks at the career of an actor who defied his detractors with several unforgettable performances

Universal was so pleased with City Across the River, its topical 1949 film about New York's juvenile delinquents, that it decided to end it with a tracking shot around the set so each member of its cast of newcomers could nod to the audience. But the only one to become a star was the 23-year-old Anthony (later Tony) Curtis, born to Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, whose name the studio had changed from Bernie Schwartz earlier that year. Back then no one would have predicted a career that would take him from an undistinguished decade as a glamorous pin-up through five years as a great movie actor followed by 40 years of mostly banal films in which he grew increasingly bloated and grotesque.

In those early movies Curtis worked in westerns, easterns, Arthurians, war movies, sports flicks and other unmemorable genre pieces. In a 1995 conversation with Jamie Lee Curtis (his gifted daughter with his first wife, Janet Leigh), he remarked: "I was labelled the worst fucking actor that ever came down the pike since day one... Meanwhile, every motherfucker grew his hair long, put a lot of pomade on it, curled it in the front, and there were 800 Tony Curtises roaming the city." He was mocked for his Bronx accent and the way he said "Yondah lies da castle of my foddah da king" in a medieval swashbuckler, though in fact the true line was "Yondah lies de palace of my foddah de sheikh" in Son of Ali Baba (1952).

Curtis got his own back with an unforgettable impersonation of Cary Grant in Some Like It Hot (1959), one of the funniest pictures ever made, and entered the quotation books by saying that kissing Marilyn Monroe was like kissing Hitler. That film was the apex of a remarkable run of 10 pictures that began when he starred with Burt Lancaster in Carol Reed's glossy Trapeze (1956) and ended with an undervalued performance in the downbeat The Outsider (1961) as Ira Hayes, the doomed Pima Indian who helped raise the Old Glory on Iwo Jima. Between those two he gave his greatest performance as the slimy press agent Sidney Falco opposite Burt Lancaster's toxic gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. He was Oscar-nominated as the southern redneck chained to fellow-convict Sidney Poitier in the ultra-liberal, anti-racist The Defiant Ones, played the titled hero of The Vikings, one of the greatest costume action movies, and held his own opposite Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier (with whom he shared a scene of memorable gay banter) in Spartacus.

His only notable performances thereafter were as serial killer Albert DeSalvo in The Boston Strangler (1968) and as a brutal Senator Joe McCarthy terrorising Marilyn Monroe in Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance (1985). Neither renewed his fortunes. But by then Curtis had something more valuable than a star on the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard: he'd appeared in half a dozen enduring classics.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Tony Curtis I knew, by director Nicolas Roeg
Director Nicolas Roeg recalls working with Tony Curtis, who died on 29 September, aged 85

Nicolas Roeg

12, Dec, 2010 @12:04 AM

Article image
Transcript of the Guardian interview with Tony Curtis at BFI Southbank, London

Hollywood icon Tony Curtis was on stage at BFI Southbank to discuss his remarkable career with Adrian Wootton - his favourite roles, fellow screen legends and his many leading ladies

23, Apr, 2008 @4:38 PM

Article image
Tony Curtis, painter

Visual arts: Growing up in poverty in Manhattan and the Bronx in the 1930s, Bernard Schwartz, as he was known then, began drawing as a kid. Now, living in some splendour in Las Vegas he is more prolific than ever.

Geoffrey Macnab

29, Oct, 2003 @2:04 PM

Article image
Tony Curtis dies aged 85

Tony Curtis, the star of Some Like it Hot and The Sweet Smell of Success, has died

Xan Brooks

30, Sep, 2010 @10:06 AM

Article image
Tony Curtis: a life in pictures

Tony Curtis, six-times married actor and artist, has died aged 85. We look back over his life in photographs

30, Sep, 2010 @11:30 AM

Article image
Tony Curtis and Tutankhamun: coffin hoarders

The film star was buried with a lot of stuff. But does it compare with the Egyptian pharaoh's hoard?

Homa Khaleeli

06, Oct, 2010 @7:00 PM

Article image
Tony Curtis: a true Hollywood star

Peter Bradshaw: He was beautiful as a young slave in Spartacus, yet Curtis's greatest role was in Some Like It Hot, dressed as a woman and wooing Marilyn Monroe

Peter Bradshaw

30, Sep, 2010 @1:11 PM

Article image
Tony Curtis remembered at the Oscars
Academy pays tribute at Oscars ceremony to Tony Curtis, star of Some Like it Hot, who died last September aged 85

Xan Brooks

28, Feb, 2011 @4:01 AM

Article image
Tony Curtis: 'Marilyn Monroe carried my baby'
In a new memoir published in September, Curtis claims that he had an on-set affair with his Some Like It Hot co-star that resulted in her pregnancy

Catherine Shoard

07, Aug, 2009 @3:28 PM

Article image
Tony Curtis and the part with no heart | Jonathan Jones
Jonathan Jones: Some like his turn opposite Marilyn Monroe, but for me, the definitive Curtis role was as amoral press lackey Sidney in Sweet Smell of Success

Jonathan Jones

01, Oct, 2010 @11:59 AM