Thursday, September 30, 2010

Remembering Tony Curtis 1925-2010

This morning Matt Lauer spoke of the late Tony Curtis on The Today Show, and I'll paraphrase to make a point to some of the younger the 1950's and 1960's Tony Curtis was Brad Pitt and George Clooney rolled into one.

Yes, he was that big of a movie star and matinee idol.

Curtis was such a mega star in that era a young brown haired singer from Memphis named Elvis Presley dyed his hair black so he could look more like Tony Curtis.

Curtis died last night at age 85 at his home near Las Vegas- his death was announced by his sixth wife Jill Curtis, who said that Tony died peacefully overnight. Daughter Jamie Lee Curtis said in a statement...

"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."

Tony Curtis was born in the Bronx as Bernard Schwartz, the son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, and spoke only Hungarian until he was about five years old. About 10 or perhaps 15 years ago, Curtis was the Grand Marshall of New Brunswick's (NJ) annual Hungarian Festival, years past his prime in Hollywood. By then, Curtis spent most of his time playing the odd part on TV ("Hope and Faith", "Roseanne", "Suddenly Susan"), or in a film, but spent the majority of his time painting. He starred or had recurring roles in the 1970's and 1980's TV series "The Persuaders" (with Roger Moore), "McCoy", and "Vega$".

Tony Curtis was one of the first movie stars I was aware of when I was a little kid. He made "The Vikings" and "Spartacus" with Kirk Douglas, "The Defiant Ones" with the young Sidney Poitier, "The Great Race" with Natalie Wood and Jack Lemmon, and played Albert De Salvo the alleged "Boston Strangler".

There was "The Sweet Smell of Success" and "Trapeze" with Burt Lancaster, "The Great Impostor", "The Outsider" (where the blue eyed Curtis played Pima Indian and flag raiser on Iwo Jima Ira Hayes) and "Houdini".

A frequent costar was Janet Leigh, best known as the ill-fated Marian Crane in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and she was also the first of six Mrs. Tony Curtis'. Janet Leigh was probably the first movie star I had a crush on as a kid, as much as an eight year old can be attracted to a real live adult woman. Janet and Tony were in "The Vikings", "Who was The Lady", "The Perfect Furlough", "Houdini" together....and that's just off the top of my head. They were Hollywood's "Golden Couple" in the late 1950's. When Curtis left Janet (and young Jamie Lee and Kelly) for the 17 year old German actress Christine Kaufman in 1962 (while on the set of "Taras Bulba"), I was saddened....for about ten seconds. Janet Leigh was a free woman; I kept praying for puberty, at last.

I haven't yet mentioned the crown jewel of Tony Curtis' resume, "Some Like It Hot", the prohibition era comedy in which Curtis and Jack Lemmon go on the lam to avoid getting whacked by mobsters. They join an all woman jazz band- in drag- fronted by "Sugar Kane" Kowalczyk played by Marilyn Monroe. Curtis did an amazing, dead on impression of Cary Grant (his co star in "Operation Petticoat") wooing the voluptuous Sugar in the classic Billy Wilder directed film, listed as one of the greatest comedies of alltime.

Tony Curtis, like all of us, was a flawed individual; witness six marriages, substance abuse and stints in rehab. But there was an everyman quality as well- a guy that handsome had no problem taking a pie in the face for a cheap laugh....though in "The Great Race" he made out a lot better than costars Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, and Peter Falk.

And so....another voice and image from my childhood goes on "to that next level". Tony, say hi to Jack, Marilyn, and Janet....and thanks for the thrills and the laughs.

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