Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2017

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Recasting his life


Leila Navidi

Actor and artist Tony Curtis sits in the art studio at his Henderson home in this June 2007 portrait.

One of actor/artist Tony Curtis' paintings in his Henderson studio depicts a gray-haired Curtis looking into a mirror while painting a self-portrait - as the young, dark curly haired matinee idol version of himself.

Despite a near-fatal bout earlier this year with pneumonia, a bald, mustached Curtis - who looks several years older than the elder Tony Curtis in his painting - still sees himself "as a kid."

"I'd like to play the role of an 85-year-old man who sees himself as young, healthy, sexy and vibrant but has no place in a younger world," 82-year-old Curtis said. "The man goes to bars and tries to pick up attractive women but they reject him. He gets angry at being old and winds up alone and bitter."

Despite the loss of his boyish good looks, Curtis lives a life distant from that curmudgeonly character. He is married to his sixth wife, 42 years his junior, who might exactly fit the description of the woman who would rebuff him at a bar. They met in 1993 and married in 1998.

A tear welled up in Curtis' left eye as he talked of how "my sweet wife," the former Jill Vandenberg, dutifully sat at his bedside at St. Rose Hospital for months as he teetered near death.

"I had no life. I was a prisoner of my body and my mind," Curtis said of the hospital stay. "I had been healthy my whole life. I sabre fenced, boxed, rode horses. I had all of the elements to fulfill what I viewed as being a man. And there I was unable to do anything about my situation."

Curtis, a Bronx-born Navy veteran who may be best remembered for his cross-dressing role in the film "Some Like It Hot" with Marilyn Monroe, vowed that if he got a second chance, he would try to inspire older, ailing people by example to live a healthy life style.

He said he hopes that, by being an aging celebrity who survived such a debilitating situation, he will motivate others to get checkups, see the doctor at the first sign that something is wrong or exercise to maintain - and even improve - existing good health.

One expert on aging says older people need more than just an example - they need a vocal crusader to put a face on health issues.

"Tony Curtis has a wonderful opportunity to reach people of his age group with words and deeds," said Claudia Collins, associate professor of aging issues for UNR's Cooperative Extension.

"But he needs to be out there encouraging people they can bounce back by sharing stories of his illness and recovery - what he does different now than he did before he got sick and what he wishes he did different."

Curtis this month is to undergo surgery related to a perforated colon he suffered during his bout with pneumonia.

"Tony has talked about making some appearances (at health fairs, convalescent homes and the like), but we'll have to wait until after his recovery before he makes any decisions about that," his spokeswoman, Julie McRay, said.

Curtis has lived in Henderson for eight years, though he has frequented Las Vegas since the 1950s and, from 1978 to 1981, portrayed Strip casino-resort owner Philip Roth on 16 episodes of the TV show "Vega$."

Today, Curtis gets around mostly with the help of a wheelchair, though he can walk short distances. He credits in-place walking, exercising with light weights, stationary bike riding and other machinery he used at a local rehabilitation clinic, HealthSouth, for speeding his recovery.

Curtis at one point worked out for one to two hours a day, three to five days a week. He wants to start a tougher weight lifting regimen that would belie his age.

The recent illness hasn't mellowed Curtis. He is as outspoken as ever, whether in expressing his bitterness toward the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or defending his choice of questionable roles he took in later years.

"I've made no secret about my feelings - my profession has not properly acknowledged me," he said.

"Why not me? I've made some great films. But the chance of winning an Academy Award has completely passed me by."

On being in bad movies like the 1990 film "Lobsterman From Mars," Curtis says: "I had child support payments to make, so I would have done that film if its title was 'A Dog's Ass in the Window.' "

Curtis' five prior marriages produced six children , including actress Jamie Lee Curtis with his first wife , the late actress Janet Leigh.

And, despite not being fully recovered, Curtis is acting again.

"I recently did a movie ('David and Fatima,' scheduled for release next year) where I play an ailing man in a wheelchair," Curtis said. It wasn't, he said, a stretch of his thespian skills given his health.

The movie is about a Jewish man who marries a Muslim woman. Curtis' wise, old man character, in an emotional scene, advises the lead male character to not let their families' prejudices tear the couple apart.

The role is a world away from Curtis' portrayal of the bigoted escaped convict chained to fellow escapee Sidney Poitier in the 1958 classic film "The Defiant Ones," which earned Curtis his lone Oscar nomination.

Curtis' most significant role now might be acting as a role model for other octogenarians.

"I hope to show them by example and by being positive," Curtis said. "Do what you have to do to stay out of the wheelchair. Pull yourself up."

Curtis' recent ailment also has put his painting pastime on hold. But he says he intends to pick up the brush again soon. Curtis' home and studio in Anthem is full of his frameless ac rylic-on-canvas works, stacked upright on floors because he has run out of wall space to hang them.

Curtis also has no intention of announcing his retirement from acting - ever - just in case the offer of a real good role comes along.

"I just want to enjoy the time I have left and reach out to people," he said.