No matter how famous he became, no matter how much money he earned, Tony Curtis was always Bernard Schwartz, an insecure and damaged Jewish kid from the Bronx.
As the son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, Curtis didn’t speak English until he was five or six years old.
His father was a tailor and the entire family lived in the back of the shop. His mother was schizophrenic who frequently abused young Curtis. His brother Robert was also mentally ill and was placed in an institution. As Curtis explains in his memoir, he was responsible for his younger brother Julius. But Julius was hit and killed by a truck and Curtis shouldered the guilt for his entire life.
Raised in great poverty, Curtis was a street urchin who ran with a gang of petty thieves. But a kindly neighbor enrolled Curtis in the Boy Scouts and it was this experience that, according to Curtis, saved his life.
Inspired by the Cary Grant submarine film Destination Tokyo (1943), Curtis enlisted in the submarine service. After the war, using the GI Bill, Curtis studied acting and at age 23 made his way to Hollywood where his stunning good looks landed him a contract with Universal.
Curtis admits that he hungered for fame and women, not necessarily in that order. But he worked hard at his craft and soon emerged as a forceful actor playing Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Co-starring with Burt Lancaster, Curtis is a slimy press agent who regularly debases himself in order to move up the ladder. Curtis spits some of the most bitter dialogue ever heard in a Hollywood film and all the rage and pain that was Bernard Schwartz emerges in a performance that has not a single false note.
Here’s a clip from Sweet Smell of Success, notice how Curtis quietly holds his own against one of Hollywood’s great scene stealers, Burt Lancaster:
John Garfield could well have played the Sidney Falco role, but Garfield, a fine dramatic actor, did not have the range to perform in the light comedies for which Curtis is best remembered. Indeed, Tony Curtis had depth as a serious actor and just the right touch for bedroom comedies. It’s not often that a Hollywood actor has the chops to handle such diverse roles.
Curtis should have received an Oscar for Sweet Smell of Success but Hollywood was never quite sure about Curtis. He was just too pretty. Finally nominated for his performance in The Defiant Ones (1957), it’s quite clear that the film’s liberal fantasy of race relations was the driving force for the nomination. The film is, today, like most Stanley Kramer movies, almost unwatchable, whereas lighter fare such as Operation Petticoat (1959) remains a delight.
Curtis was not one of the New York Method Actors, the serious thespians who were tediously vocal about the art of acting.
Tony Curtis considered himself first and foremost an entertainer. He wanted people to have a good time at the movies.
In 1959, Curtis emerged as a master of light comedy playing three roles in Some Like it Hot, one of Hollywood’s greatest comedies. His timing is impeccable, and his performance stands as one of the finest in movie history. All the more astonishing when you consider that the production was a nightmare, with Marilyn Monroe chronically late and her need for multiple takes in order to get the simplest lines straight.
Curtis was asked by a reporter what it was like kissing Marilyn Monroe and he responded, “Like kissing Hitler.”
But this was, he explained over and over, a throw-a-way line. In fact, as struggling actors in Hollywood, Curtis and Monroe had a brief affair.
Curtis was generous with his throw-a-way lines. During production of Spartacus, when director Stanley Kubrick was setting up one of his incredibly long and complicated shots, Curtis turned to co-star Jean Simmons and quipped: “Who do you have to f***k to get off this picture?”
In the late 50′s and early 60′s Tony Curtis was the quintessential Hollywood star. As a movie hungry yeshiva student growing up in Brooklyn, I vividly recall taking the Coney Island Avenue bus to the Kingsway movie theater to see Spartacus (1960) Taras Bulba (1962), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), The Great Race (1965), and The Boston Strangler (1968), in which he played serial murderer Albert DeSalvo. For this role, Curtis gained 30 lbs., and wore a prosthetic nose. It’s a chilling performance. Curtis received ecstatic reviews but once again there was no Oscar and Curtis was vocally bitter about the obvious snub.
Tony Curtis loved being a movie star. He loved fame, he loved the big paycheck, and he adored the women—Curtis was married six times.
As the roles got smaller and the offers slowed to a trickle, Curtis turned to alcohol and cocaine and considered suicide. After cleaning up in rehab, Curtis made numerous appearances as a guest star on TV, but Curtis had become a Hollywood legend aka relic.
In his later years, Curtis turned his attention to his Hungarian-Jewish roots. With daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, he donated generously, helping to finance the rebuilding of the “Great Synagogue” in Budapest, Hungary, the largest synagogue in Europe. In 1998, he founded the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, which works to restore and preserve synagogues and the 1,300 Jewish cemeteries in Hungary. He dedicated this to the 600,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Hungary.
In the end, Tony Curtis became, once again, Bernard Schwartz.