Thursday, September 30, 2010

RIP - Tony Curtis

A Hollywood icon has passed away; Tony Curtis is dead at the age of 85. Curtis was one of the most vibrant leading men of the late 1950s and early 1960s, giving indelible performances in such classic films as The Defiant Ones, Sweet Smell of Success, Some Like it Hot, Spartacus, and The Boston Strangler.

He was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925, to poverty-stricken Hungarian immigrants. His father operated a tailor shop, and his mother was a schizophrenic that regularly beat her children. The Depression hit the Schwartz' so hard that Bernard and one brother were made wards of the state. They lived a hard-scrabble, tough existence, and Bernard Schwartz' escape only came with WWII, where he served aboard a navy submarine in Japan, witnessing their eventual surrender.

After the war, Schwartz returned to New York, where he studied acting and performed in the Catskills before eventually signing a contract with Universal Studios in 1948. His name change to Tony Curtis, and his incredible good lucks, marked him as an up and comer, and by 1951, he was headlining a film called The Prince Who Was a Thief. That same year, he married an actress whose career was also on the rise and whose beauty rivaled his own; Janet Leigh. The marriage made them media darlings, and the press followed them everywhere.
In 1953, Curtis headlined his first major hit, portraying legendary magician Houdini. The film, and his high-profile marriage, cemented his status as an A-list movie star. He would spend the next few years making schlocky costume pictures that the thoroughly modern and urban Curtis seemed ill suited for.

It wasn't until 1957, and his magnificent turn as sleazy press agent Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success, that Curtis began to be recognized as a gifted and powerful dramatic actor. The following year, he appeared opposite Kirk Douglas in The Vikings and co-starred in Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones, playing a racist fugitive manacled to fellow escapee Sidney Poitier. Curtis received an Oscar nomination for his performance in the film.

He followed this up with some very successful comedies, Mister Cory, The Perfect Furlough and Operation Petticoat, all directed by Blake Edwards. He followed this with a film that many consider to be the best American comedy film or all time, Some Like it Hot. During this creatively successful period, he would appear in Spartacus, The Outsider and The Great Imposter.

But in 1962, he and Leigh divorced after an affair with a 17 year old co-star came to light. The break-up and affair severely damaged his reputation, and although he had a hit with Blake Edwards' The Great Race, his career never really recovered. In 1968, he gave a final great performance as The Boston Strangler. But the film was years ahead of its time, and was seen by the critics and public of the day as tacky and garish.

The 1970s were spent in minor film roles and marginally successful TV shows, and he went through multiple marriages as well. The 1980s did not begin well, either, with a stint in rehab. However, during this time he discovered a love for painting and his work sold well, inspired by Matisse and buoyed by his celebrity. But it brought him a measure of peace and it would remain his primary love for the rest of life.

And with his passing, there is the feeling that an era of old time glamour has come finally to an end. His career was full of peaks and valleys, but few had peaks that rose as high.

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