From dressing in drag to posing nude for his 80th birthday, Tony Curtis truly was a defiant one.
He overcame early typecasting as a lightweight pretty boy to become a serious actor in such films as "Sweet Smell of Success," "Spartacus" and "The Defiant Ones," the latter earning him an Academy Award nomination.
He resisted obsolescence, continually reshaping himself and taking lesser roles to find steady work in a business that prizes youth. He subdued alcohol and drug addictions, lived through six marriages and five divorces, and found peace with a new art as a painter.
Curtis, whose wildly undefinable cast of characters ranged from a Roman slave leading the rebellious cry of "I’m Spartacus" to a jazz age musician wooing Marilyn Monroe while disguised as a woman in "Some Like It Hot," died Wednesday night.
The 85-year-old actor suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas, the coroner said yesterday.
"My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages," Jamie Lee Curtis – his daughter with first wife Janet Leigh, co-star of "Psycho" – said in a statement. "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."
Starting his career in the late 1940s and early 1950s with bit parts as a juvenile delinquent or in such forgettable movies as the talking-mule comedy "Francis," Curtis rose to stardom as a swashbuckling heartthrob, mixing in somewhat heftier work such as the boxing drama "Flesh and Fury" and the title role in the film biography "Houdini."
Curtis passed time painting in the islands
Tony Curtis lived in Hawaii for several years after meeting Center Art Galleries Hawaii owner William Mett in the mid-1980s. He rented a house from Mett and spent time painting. In his autobiography, Curtis said, "I liked Hawaii so much that I bought a house there and lived in it for two years."
As an artist, Curtis painted a mural in May 1988 on the third floor of the Navy’s Pearl Headquarters building that depicts an island beach scene.
Mett was later convicted of fraud in the sale of lithographs and etchings falsely attributed to Curtis, artist Salvador Dali and celebrity artists Anthony Quinn and Red Skelton.
Curtis also settled a lawsuit here brought by a Hawaii woman who accused him of touching her without permission and of making repeated sexual advances from March 1987 to March 1988. The woman assisted Curtis with preparing his artwork for Center Art Galleries.
— Star-Advertiser staff
Hindered early on by a Bronx accent that drew laughs in westerns and other period adventures, Curtis smoothed out his rough edges and silenced detractors with 1957’s "Sweet Smell of Success," in which he played a sleazy press agent who becomes the fawning pawn of a ruthless newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster).
"Curtis grew up into an actor and gave the best performance of his career," critic Pauline Kael wrote in her book "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang."
Yet it was sheer stardom, not critical acclaim, that drove Curtis, said his sixth wife, Jill Curtis.
"All Tony ever wanted to be was a movie star. He didn’t want to be the most dramatic actor," she said.
A year after "Sweet Smell of Success," Curtis was nominated for a best-actor Oscar in "The Defiant Ones" as a white escaped prisoner forced to set aside his racism to work with the black inmate (Sidney Poitier) to whom he is handcuffed.
Curtis teamed with Monroe and Jack Lemmon in 1959 for a screwball landmark, Billy Wilder’s "Some Like It Hot," which ranks No. 1 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best U.S. comedies.
Curtis and Lemmon starred as 1920s musicians who disguise themselves as women in an all-girl band to hide out from mobsters after they witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
It was a masterful comic performance by Curtis, whose character pursues the band’s singer (Monroe) both in drag and in another charade as a Shell Oil heir who talks like Cary Grant, with whom Curtis co-starred later that year in the Navy farce "Operation Petticoat."
In Stanley Kubrick’s "Spartacus," Curtis played star Kirk Douglas’ loyal follower, leading a chorus of captured slaves shouting "I’m Spartacus!" to confound Roman oppressors seeking the ringleader of a rebellion.
His other credits included "Captain Newman, M.D.," "The Vikings," "Kings Go Forth," "Sex and the Single Girl" and "The Boston Strangler." He also did a wryly self-deprecating cartoon gig, providing the voice of his prehistoric look-alike, Stony Curtis, in a television episode of "The Flintstones."
Curtis and Lemmon collaborated again on 1965’s "The Great Race." And more than 40 years after "Some Like It Hot," Curtis co-starred in a stage version, playing the role originated by Joe E. Brown in the film as a millionaire smitten by Lemmon’s female alter ego.
To mark his 80th birthday in 2005, Curtis posed nude in Vanity Fair alongside his dogs, Josephine and Daphne, named after his and Lemmon’s "Some Like It Hot" characters.
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.
Curtis had six children from his marriages. He was estranged for a long period from daughter Jamie Lee, whose credits include "Perfect," "Halloween," "True Lies" and last week’s comedy release "You Again."
He and his daughter eventually reconciled, and Curtis took great pride in her Hollywood success.
Jill Curtis said her husband had been hospitalized several times recently for lung problems she blamed on smoking 30 years ago.