HENDERSON, Nev. — Tony Curtis shaped himself from a 1950s movie heartthrob into a respected actor, showing a determined streak that served him well in such films as Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, and Some Like It Hot.
The Oscar-nominated actor died Wednesday evening at age 85 of cardiac arrest at his home in the Las Vegas-area city of Henderson, Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy said Thursday.
Curtis began in acting with frivolous movies that exploited his handsome physique and appealing personality, then steadily moved to more substantial roles, starting in 1957 in the harrowing show business tale Sweet Smell of Success.
In 1958, The Defiant Ones brought him an Academy Award nomination as best actor for his portrayal of a white racist who escaped from prison handcuffed to a black man, Sidney Poitier. The following year, he donned women's clothing and sparred with Marilyn Monroe in one of the most acclaimed film comedies ever, Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot.
His first wife was actress Janet Leigh of Psycho fame; actress Jamie Lee Curtis is their daughter.
“My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages,” Jamie Lee Curtis said in a statement Thursday. “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.”
Curtis struggled against drug and alcohol abuse as starring roles became fewer, but then bounced back in film and television as a character actor.
His brash optimism returned, and he allowed his once-shiny black hair to turn silver.
Again he came back after even those opportunities began to wane, reinventing himself as a writer and painter whose canvasses sold for as much as $20,000.
“I'm not ready to settle down like an elderly Jewish gentleman, sitting on a bench and leaning on a cane,” he said at 60. “I've got a helluva lot of living to do.”
“He was a fine actor … I shall miss him,” said British actor Roger Moore, who starred alongside Curtis in TV's The Persuaders.
“He was great fun to work with, a great sense of humor and wonderful ad libs,” Moore told Sky News. “We had the best of times.”
Curtis perfected his craft in forgettable films such as Francis, I Was a Shoplifter, No Room for the Groom, and Son of Ali Baba.
He first attracted critical notice as Sidney Falco, the press agent seeking favor with a sadistic columnist, played by Burt Lancaster, in the 1957 classic Sweet Smell of Success.
In her book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Pauline Kael wrote that in the film, “Curtis grew up into an actor and gave the best performance of his career.”
Other prestigious films followed: Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, Captain Newman, M.D., The Vikings, Kings Go Forth, Operation Petticoat, and Some Like It Hot.
In 2000, an American Film Institute survey of the funniest films in history ranked Some Like It Hot at No. 1. Curtis — famously imitating Cary Grant's accent — and Jack Lemmon play jazz musicians who dress up as women to escape retribution after witnessing a gangland massacre.
After his star faded in the late 1960s, Curtis shifted to lesser roles. With jobs harder to find, he fell into drug and alcohol addiction.
“From 22 to about 37, I was lucky,” Curtis told Interview magazine in the 1980s, “but by the middle '60s, I wasn't getting the kind of parts I wanted, and it kind of soured me. … But I had to go through the drug inundation before I was able to come to grips with it and realize that it had nothing to do with me, that people weren't picking on me.”
Curtis took a fatherly pride in daughter Jamie's success. They were estranged for a long period, then reconciled. “I understand him better now,” she said, “perhaps not as a father but as a man.”
He also had five other children. Daughters Kelly, also with Leigh, and Allegra, with second wife Christine Kaufmann, also became actresses. His other wives were Leslie Allen, Lisa Deutsch, and Jill VandenBerg, whom he married in 1998.
Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925, the son of Hungarian Jews who had emigrated to the United States after World War I.
After serving in the Pacific during World War II and being wounded at Guam, he returned to New York and studied acting under the G.I. Bill. He appeared in summer stock theater and on the Borscht Circuit in the Catskills. In 1948, at 23, he signed a seven-year contract with Universal-International, starting at $100 a week.
Bernie Schwartz sounded too Jewish for a movie actor, so the studio gave him a new name: Anthony Curtis. After his eighth film, he became Tony Curtis.
The studio helped smooth the rough edges off the ambitious young actor. The last to go was his street-tinged Bronx accent, which had become a Hollywood joke.