Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Tony Curtis: Portrait in a Portrait

The last time I saw Tony Curtis (in person) was back in the mid 90’s, I was a theater manager at the Director Guild Theater on Sunset in Hollywood. I just happened to be down in the parking structure when this white convertible Mitsubishi sports car pulled in, behind the wheel was “The Great Leslie” himself. Sporting a glorious silver toupee and black leather driving gloves, he was still the eternal movie star… the kind they don’t make anymore, a damn dinosaur.  As I recall, he was there either the wrong day or the event he was looking for was at another place, I can’t remember? But I do remember him saying “You godda be kiddin’ me?” I assured Tony, I wasn’t. He said “thanks” and with that he sped away to Sunset Blvd.  You gotta hand it to a guy in his seventies, and still looking for the party.  Forget Michael Jackson, Tony was the real Peter Pan.

Tony and Jill: Looking for the Party

As I recall, Tony Curtis might possibly the first “real” famous person I was aware of as a kid… I say “real” because The Flintstones (along with Batman) was the biggest thing beaming into our 13 inch black & white television set in Venice, Ca..  And who had the audacity to show up in Bedrock one day, but Tony Curtis. In the guise of one “Stony Curtis” who was starring in the “Hollyrock” production of The Price Who Was a Slave Boy, with that other superstar of the 60’s Fred Flintstone. And for comedy sake Fred becomes Stoney’s stand-in with of course disastrous results.

Mr. & Mrs. Curtis in Houdini

One day the movie, HOUDINI played on The Early Show (which was the movie they used to play before dinner on our local TV station back in the old days.) I recall being just totally engrossed by that flick and getting really bummed out when he dies in the end doing the Chinese water escape; after that Tony Curtis was Houdini.  I also remember one Thanksgiving night back in the 60’s being glued my grandparents color television watching Kirk Douglas and T.C. in THE VIKINGS; it was the most exciting movie I’d ever seen at the time.

The Climax of The Vikings
Then THE GREAT RACE; who was cooler than T.C. as the white clad “Great Leslie” with his sparkling teeth and all, matched up against Jack Lemon’s evil, black clad “Professor Fate.” And what about that great sword fight with Artemus Gordon (I mean Ross Martin?) And that great Blake Edwards pie fight… great entertainment for a young lad. Then there was his TV show THE PERSUADERS, a buddy film on the small screen, where Roger Moore and he played playboy crime fighters; I remember loving that too!

Tony & Sir Roger
The guy always looked like he was having a ball. Then on the late show (another dated reference) sometime during the 70’s, I happened to catch this talkie (but gritty) B&W picture called SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. In the film T.C. (along with Burt Lancaster, who also produced) played against type, as two unsavory characters (Burt "creepy" & Tony "Slimy") set against the backdrop of Manhattan circa 1957. It was a nasty piece of business, but it was sooo good! For me, that’s when I realized film could be art. If you've never seen this picutre... you must!

On the streets of N.Y. with Burt Lancaster filming "Sweet Smell of Success
Yup, Tony Curtis has been in my psyche for almost dare I say almost fifty damn years!
I got a call from my pal John (nick-named The Grim Reaper, because he reads the obits first thing, and usually lets me know when a celebrity from are childhood catches the wagon up to Boot Hill) letting me know the news that T.C. had passed on. To me it’s funny, with my grandfathers now all gone; it’s my old film stars now who really make me feel my own mortality when they check out.  I can’t say that I was all that surprised that Tony Curtis was next… he was an old dude; T.C. was on a submarine in Tokyo Harbor when the Japanese surrendered in World War II.  But then again; I kinda was… because he was Tony Curtis. 

As "The Great Leslie" in The Great Race
T.C. was part of that generation (the era of that TV show MAD MEN) that came back after the war  to enjoy the spoils of victory. He was everything that was good and bad about this country’s 20th century man; He was Americana. T.C. was bold, brash, loud and obnoxious. He had the goods; looks, talent and charm. He ruffled feathers and got roughed up in return. He over indulged on life and paid the price, big time.

Poker with Dino, Uncle Milty & Ernie Kovacs

As a Universal Pictures contract player for $75 a week, he made his screen debut in the film noir crime drama CRISS CROSS starring Burt Lancaster. He had five minutes of screen time dancing with Yvonne De Carlo (Lily from The Munsters), and he received more fan letters than Lancaster. Universal knew they had something good on their hands weather he could act or not? But even more lucky for them, it turned out that he could. T.C. came up along the same time as Rock Hudson, the two would soon be rivals at the box-office, but never friends.

With Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (1960)

In the 50’s and 60’s Tony Curtis was really big stuff in the movies. Before THE GODFATHER, T.C.’s movies had grossed way more than Brando’s (T.C.'s former roommate.) Even Elvis, believe it or not, dyed his hair from blonde to back because he wanted to look like T.C..  He would marry actress Janet Leigh (a major star in the cinema her own right.) They were at the time Hollywood’s most premier couple (one of their children being actress Jamie Lee Curtis.) T.C. worked and palled around with all the biggies: Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, Burt Lancaster, even Sinatra. When Ol’ Blue Eyes needed performers John Kennedy’s Presidential Inauguration, he called on America’s sweethearts, Tony & Janet. But when you’re on top as the say, the only place to go is down.  In 1962 on the film TARUS BULBA, T.C. left Janet and the kids for a young ingénue co-star Christine Kauffmann was reported to be seventeen at the time.

The Kennedy Affair

Tarus Bulba (1962) with second wife Christine Kauffmann & Yul Brynner

But by the end of the 60’s, Tony Curtis began to loose his swing at the box-office. His last important film was the title role of ‘The Boston Strangler” back in 1968 (over forty years ago.) Even though he felt it was his best performance in years, he was snubbed by the Academy. Years later in an article for GQ he would blast the Academy if they ever were to knock on his door for one of their special awards for lifetime achievement. “I’d say, ‘you didn’t give me one for “Sweet Smell of Success; you didn’t give me one for “Some Like It Hot. You think just because decided to recognize the little Jewboy he’s going to come running? No fucking way!” That was the street kid talking; sadly the Academy was too slow to call the street kid's bluff.

As Danny Wilde in The Persuaders

Personal problems, not great film roles soon followed; married five times, booze and drugs (not to mention a new wave of popular actors; McQueen, Redford, Beatty, Nicholson etc.) pretty much left his career on the big screen D.O.A.. It was almost like life imitating art.  If you remember T.C. was the phone voice of the actor who mysteriously goes blind thus losing a big part to rival actor John Cassavetes in Roman Polanski’s horror film Rosemary’s Baby. When Hollywood closed the door on him Tony went to England to slum in the most expensive TV series every produced (with Roger Moore) The Persuaders. Still not bad for a poor Jewish kid from Bronx named Bernie Schwartz?

On the set of Rosemary's Baby

T.C. in the 70's: The Bad Times
But when he returned to Hollywood he was out of the big leagues. His career would languish the next forty years in tele-films, foreign produced fare and an occasional cameo or supporting part that Hollywood would throw him. A guy with smaller balls would have faded away quietly… not Tony Curtis. When they slammed the door on him, he said “F’you, I ain’t leaving!” And he didn’t. Why should he? He had a resume of films attached to his name to rely on that are now classics: Some Like It Hot (voted as AFI’s number one comedy of the 20th century), The Vikings, Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones (which he was nominated for the Oscar for best actor, along with co-star Sidney Poitier), Operation Petticoat (with his hero, Cary Grant), Spartacus and The Boston Strangler. In 1961 did an excellent job in a film that nobody remembers called, THE OUTSIDER. T.C. portrayed Pima Indian Ira Hayes, the WWII Marine who helped raise the flag after the battle of Iwo Jima. A man riddled with the guilt because he was called a hero, because he felt only his fallen friends were the real heroes. He ends up dying alone in the desert due to alcoholism… the role now almost seems prophetic for the rough times a head of him.

As Ira Hayes in The Outsider (1961)

He used to say “all my life I wanted to be Tony Curtis, and now I am!” Nobody was gonna take that away from Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx.
The first concert I ever went to was back in 1977. A friend had an extra ticket to see the band E.L.O. at Anaheim Stadium and just as he did in Bedrock, who showed up as a special guest to introduce the rock group, but Tony Curtis (who else was gonna do that Brando?) It was the summer that STAR WARS had opened and it was all the rage. After the opening act (Journey) had finished their set, then out pops T.C. dressed in black satin pants and a white satin shirt. He had a mike and shouted to the sold out crowd “are you ready for E.L.O?!” Then all of a sudden some Star Wars type villains storm the stage and begin shooting lasers at T.C; who then jumps into “The Great Leslie” mode and starts shooting his own laser at the villains. It’s obvious it that T.C. must make the stage safe for the landing of The E.L.O. flying saucer. In less than ten minutes T.C. has disposed of the villains making Anaheim Stadium safe to rock and roll. Like I said, who else had the chutzpah to do that… Brando? Around this time T.C. was popping up as the casino owner Bernie Roth on the popular TV show Vegas, which featured a much younger Robert Urich as the shows detective star Dan Tana.
Tony Charms Miss Audrey on the set of Paris When It Sizzles

Pie Fight: The Great Race
But these were tough times for T.C.. For a movie star, nothing freaks them out like getting old;”My fucking looks went; everything went. My hair was falling out in handfuls. I was sick; I lost all my humor; I had no sense of myself---I couldn’t talk to anybody. I was so fucking mean and arrogant, because I was losing it and I knew I was losing it, and I didn’t want to share that with anyone.” I used to teach traffic school back in the 90’s; to break up the day, I’d ask the class if they ever had a brush with greatness (which I stole from David Letterman.) I remember one guy, saying “yeah, when I was a kid my dad almost kicked Tony Curtis’s ass, after he pushed me out of the way when we were unboarding an plane at LAX.” The guy seemed to remember every detail; “I remember that Tony Curtis had a walking stick too.”  

The kid with the ice cream face, immortalized under the bridge of the Hollywood Freeway

Around 1980, I went to a taping of Night at The Improv and the host happened to be Tony Curtis. It had been only a few years since his exploits at the E.L.O. concert, but was not his finest moment. He was obviously wasted and in seriously in need of something?  Most of his famous hair was now gone, and almost unrecognizable, his hard living had really caught up with him. I was thinking “Tony what happened dude?” I remember him being fidgety up on the stage. He had a little band aide on his finger, and as he tried to talk to the audience, he nervously rubbed his hand on his face blood smeared on his face; this was worse than the end of Houdini, I thought to myself? It was sad and painful to watch.  T.C. was in a nosedive, and amazingly he was lucky enough to pull out of it before he crashed. He finally got some help. He was candid about his time at the Betty Ford Clinic ‘There I was, sitting with all these guys – 22, 18, 31 – and the therapists says, “This is the only 58 year old fuck-up you guys will ever see, so you better get a good look.” That shock me up quicker that anything.” Perhaps this would have been the road his character Sidney Falco would have traveled after the movie, Sweet Smell of Success? In the 90's T.C.'s son Nicholas tragically died of a heroin overdose at the age of 23. "As a father you don't recover from that. There isn't a moment at night that I don't remember him." Billy Wilder (his Some Like It Hot director) didn’t mince words with T.C. when he spoke to him about his heartbreak one evening at Spago.” He learned it from you” Wilder told him bluntly.

Tony the Artist

T.C. got it back together; "The Great Leslie" part duex. Magically his hair was now silver and thicker than ever. He put his lifelong love of painting to use, his painting style was in the style of Matisse, and he also had a lifelong love of making assemblage box pieces that were made popular by artist Joseph Cornell. T.C. made his art a big business; his work sold for thousands of dollars. And occasionally he’d pop up in a movie or even more entertaining a talk show where he’d talk smack about the days when he was “King Kong” in Tinseltown. And he was the best raconteur on the talk show circuit; who else had first hand stories about kissing Marilyn Monroe?

Tony & MM
In the 90’s T.C. married his fifth wife Jill, a tall gorgeous blond (42 years his junior.) She worshiped and loved the old matinee idol, she made him feel young again… what more could the guy ask for?  With his new lady, all Tony would need in his last years was a room to work... and to be Tony Curtis. The two would move out of Hollywood to the Nevada desert, where they had a sanctuary for wild horses.  Yes, T.C.  made it into the 21st Century and into the cyber age, he would reconnects with his fans millions of fans from around the world on his website and yes, on Facebook.  Sadly the bright flame that was Tony Curtis was to finally  flicker out on September 29th 2010, but will T.C. ever die... he's made not of flesh and bone, but of celluloid. 

T.C. and Me (1993)
T.C. never got that last great role (say like Burt Reynolds in BOOGIE NIGHTS or Jack Palance in CITY SLICKERS ) but, he went out having fun; being Tony fn Curtis… the guy in the sports car, wearing the black leather gloves… looking for the party and buried with his iphone. So long pal... send us a text now and then, let us know how your doing?


  1. Great Article, Tony Curtis was awesome, and he lived till the end.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your personal views on Tony. He was an incredible man, and I'm so happy I was his friend. I miss him terribly as do all of his family, friends and fans. I really enjoyed this blog. Gina

  3. Thank you Gina... the pleasure was all mine.

  4. A splendid profile. And the photos are priceless.