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July 23, 2019

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Remembering Tony Curtis: Lover of screen and studio

Tony Curtis aspired to movie stardom, struggled through hardship, expressed himself on canvas

Tony Curtis


Surrounded by his paintings, actor and artist Tony Curtis conducts an interview in 2007 in the studio at his home in Henderson.


Services for the 11-year Southern Nevada resident, who had ties to Las Vegas dating to the 1950s, will be at 11 a.m. Monday at Palm Mortuary Eastern.

Tony Curtis

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In Memoriam: Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis and Jill Curtis at MGM Grand on Feb. 11, 2006. Launch slideshow »

Some Like it Hot - Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis

Curtis and The Great Race pie fight

Countless unframed acrylic-on-canvas works painted by actor Tony Curtis were stacked upright in rows on the floors of his Henderson home and art studio. He had long ago run out of wall space to hang them.

Among such a large body of work — some of his pieces have sold for up to $20,000 — one painting stood out and pretty much summed up who Tony Curtis was. The painting depicted a distinguished, aging white-haired Curtis looking at himself in a large mirror while painting a self-portrait as he truly saw himself — the vibrant, dashing, young, dark-curly-haired matinee idol of the 1950s and ’60s.

Undoubtedly, that is how many of his fans fondly remember Curtis, who died Wednesday at his home of a heart attack — as the handsome leading man from enduring feature films including “Some Like It Hot,” “The Defiant Ones” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus.” He was 85.

In reality, three years ago, Curtis was far from the man he was a half-century earlier. He had aged well beyond the older version of himself in his painting. He was bald and used a wheelchair to get around. Curtis was recovering from a bout with pneumonia that had hospitalized him and almost killed him that year.

Indeed, he had overcome a lot in life, including a battle with drugs and alcohol during a lull in his career in the 1970s, and heart bypass surgery in the mid-1990s. In 2007, Curtis insisted he was well on the road to recovery.

Undoubtedly, in the melodramatic movies he had attended as a child, spending as many as 10 hours a day for an 11-cent admission and dreaming of future stardom, Curtis would have fully recovered from his ailments and regained all lost glory. But real life is not the movies.

Curtis, who from 1978 to 1981 portrayed Strip casino-resort owner Philip Roth on the TV show “Vega$,” starred in more than 100 major films over seven decades. In the process he became one of the most enduring movie heartthrobs of his generation.

And although a number of the films he was in were terrible, the at-times stubborn Bronx-born Navy veteran was unwavering in his defense of his career and choice of roles if, for nothing else, the consistency of paychecks they brought.

“I had child-support payments to make, so I would have done that film (1990s “Lobsterman From Mars”) if its title was ‘A Dog’s Ass in the Window,’ ” Curtis told the Sun in 2007.

Curtis had no difficulty poking fun at himself. In the 1960s, he did a voice role in an episode of “The Flintstones” cartoon series, portraying a prehistoric version of himself, Stony Curtis.

However, Curtis wasn’t joking about the child-support payments. He was married six times and had six children, including actress Jamie Lee Curtis with his first wife, the late actress Janet Leigh (“Psycho”).

The only way Curtis figured he could make the money necessary to enjoy a high standard of living and meet his divided-family obligations was to not worry about his place in thespian history and just be a movie star.

“All Tony ever wanted to be was a movie star,” his sixth wife, the former Jill Vandenberg, said in a statement after her husband’s death. “He didn’t want to be the most dramatic actor. He wanted to be a movie star ever since he was a little kid.”

The couple met in 1993 and married in 1998. He was 42 years her senior.

Talking about his self-portrait, Curtis told the Sun in 2007 that he still saw himself “as a kid” and probably would until the day he died.

“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,” 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.”

Curtis knew a lot about being bitter. He long was a critic of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and never missed a chance to lambaste the organization for overlooking the significance of his career.

“I’ve made no secret about my feelings — my profession has not properly acknowledged me,” he said in the Sun interview. “Why not me? I’ve made some great films. But the chance of winning an Academy Award has completely passed me by.”

Curtis was nominated for an Oscar for best actor in 1958, honoring his performance in “The Defiant Ones,” in which he portrayed a bigoted escaped convict chained to a black prisoner portrayed by Sidney Poitier. Curtis was nominated for an Emmy as lead actor in a limited series for his portrayal of David O. Selznick in “The Scarlett O’Hara War” in 1980.

Curtis won two Golden Globes for world film favorite in 1958 and 1961.

The role Curtis may best be remembered for was as a cross-dressing musician in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” with Marilyn Monroe.

The outspoken Curtis once said that kissing Monroe in the film’s love scenes was “like kissing Hitler.” He had gotten angry with Monroe for keeping the rest of the cast and crew waiting during filming while she lingered in her dressing room because of fears about performing.

But his criticisms of Monroe did not stop Curtis from dating the blond bombshell who posed nude in the first issue of Playboy and has been called the sexiest movie icon of the 20th century.

Several years ago, for a milestone anniversary of Monroe’s untimely death in 1962, Curtis appeared on a televised tribute panel and got noticeably angry when another panelist lavished sainthood-type praise on Monroe.

When it was Curtis’ turn to talk, he mentioned that he was the only person on the panel who actually had known Monroe — and had known her intimately.

When the panelist told Curtis his comments about having had sex with Monroe were in poor taste, Curtis fired back that Monroe was not the saint some people wanted to make her out to be as part of their misplaced hero worship, but rather was a normal, healthy woman with normal sexual desires.

In later years, Curtis praised Monroe’s unique talents as an actress.

In the 2007 Sun interview, Curtis said he was happy to get back into making films.

He plugged his latest movie, “David and Fatima,” which turned out to be his last. The movie, released in 2008, was about a Jewish man who marries a Muslim woman. Curtis’ character, a wise old man, advises the lead male character to not let their families’ prejudices tear the couple apart.

Curtis was born Bernard “Bernie” Schwartz in the Bronx on June 3, 1925, the son of Hungarian Jews who had emigrated to the United States after World War I. He served in the Pacific during World War II and was wounded on Guam. After the war, he studied theater in New York under the G.I. Bill and appeared in summer stock productions.

In 1948, at age 23, Curtis got his first break, signing a seven-year contract with a Hollywood studio for $100 a week. Because his name sounded too Jewish, the studio changed it to Anthony Curtis and later shortened it to Tony Curtis.

The name was a combination of the title of Curtis’ favorite novel, “Anthony Adverse,” and the name of a favorite uncle.

In 1993, he wrote “Tony Curtis: The Autobiography.”

Ed Koch is a former longtime Las Vegas Sun reporter and story obituary writer.

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