Tony Curtis: Actor who started out as a teen heartthrob and became a much-loved and versatile character actor

An actor with dark, curly hair and handsome looks, Tony Curtis began his film career playing small roles as gangsters or juvenile delinquents before his popularity with teenagers won him stardom at Universal in swashbuckling fantasies such as The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951) and The Black Shield of Falworth (1954). Elvis Presley is said to have modelled his hairstyle on Curtis, whose marriage to the equally attractive Janet Leigh made the pair a popular subject of fan magazines throughout the Fifties.

Although critics mocked his earlier performances (he became famous for uttering in his Brooklyn accent, "Yonder lies the castle of my faddah") he was later to gain respect and admiration for his fine performances in such films as Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959) and Spartacus (1960), and he won an Oscar nomination for his powerful portrayal of a racist who finds himself chained to a black man in Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958).

The son of an Hungarian immigrant tailor, he was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx, New York in 1925. Growing up in a poverty-stricken area amid strong anti-Semitism, he had a tough childhood and at the age of 11 he was part of a notorious street gang. He found escape at the movies, and while attending Seward Park High School ("I paid no attention at school. All I did was barely learn how to write and read"), he became a member of the Young Men's Hebrew Association because it had an acting department.

During the Second World War he served in the US Navy, having been inspired to enlist for submarine duty after seeing the Cary Grant film Destination Tokyo. At war's end, he discovered that the GI Bill would provide an education in any subject he wanted, including acting, so he studied at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research in New York ("The government paid your tuition and gave you $65 a month, a lot of money in 1946").

Walter Matthau, Elaine Stritch and Harry Belafonte were among his classmates, and Matthau later recalled that he and Curtis had appeared together in Twelfth Night.

"Tony came over to me during rehearsals and asked me what the phrase, 'took the Phoenix and her fraught' meant. I said, "I haven't the faintest idea, and you shouldn't worry about it either, because you're going to be a movie star.' Talk about pretty. Tony Curtis and Harry Belafonte. Two of the great beauties."

In 1948 Curtis was given the leading role of the violinist/boxer Joe Napoleon in the school production of Golden Boy at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York, where he was seen by the agent Joyce Selznick, who persuaded Universal to give him a contract. He made his screen début (billed as Anthony Curtis) with the role of a gangster's henchman in Robert Siodmak's bleak film noir, Criss Cross (1948), in which he briefly whirled its star, Yvonne De Carlo, around the dance floor. "I didn't know how to dance at all, but from my waist up I could wiggle a little," Curtis said. De Carlo recalled in her autobiography: "A new contract player was given his first part in Criss Cross – a bit, actually. His name was Bernie Schwartz, and since he was so cute and likeable I went out with him a couple of times. I don't think he was much younger than I, but his exuberance and cockiness made him seem like a kid."

Further apprenticeship roles included a delinquent in City Across the River (1949), a deaf mute gangster in Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), and he made a brief appearance (as did another rising contract player Rock Hudson) in Anthony Mann's great western, Winchester '73 (1950).

In 1950 Universal decided to team Curtis and the rising star Piper Laurie in the Arabian Nights tale The Prince Who Was a Thief, a colourful piece of escapism aimed at the teenage audience. Directed by Rudolph Mate, it proved a greater success than anticipated and Curtis was lauded for his athleticism and fencing skills. Time magazine called it "touched with humour and quite free of pretensions. It should delight youngsters without irritating grown-ups who go along for the air-conditioning."

Curtis was teamed again with Laurie in Son of Ali Baba and a light comedy, No Room for the Groom (both 1952). "The studio tried to hype a romance between us, but we never had one," he said. "When they sent us on personal appearance tours, the response was always in my favour and I was selfish. I didn't want to share my career or be paired up with anybody, certainly not with someone who was not of my own choosing."

In June, 1951, Curtis married Janet Leigh, whom he met at an RKO party while she was under contract to Howard Hughes. Debbie Reynolds, who was present when Curtis and Leigh first met, recalled, "Tony was a big, macho, Rambo-type guy; stunning, with gorgeous blue eyes and an ego on steroids. But he took one look at her and it was like the Fourth of July tripled. Janet had the world trying to get her, but Tony wanted her and she didn't have a prayer. It was physical; it was sexual. It was like dynamite. He got her and he married her."

They were teamed for the first of five times on screen in Houdini (1953), a biography of the escapologist. "There was no bigger pair," wrote Curtis. "No other husband-and-wife team came close to us until Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, but that was 10 years later. They did it through scandal. We did it through the movies and people's affection." In 1954 the couple were paired in The Black Shield of Falworth, an enjoyable period romp, and the same year Curtis made his only musical, So This is Paris, a three-sailors-on-leave tale. "I asked Gene Kelly what he thought of my dancing, and he said, 'Keep fencing'."

In 1954 Modern Screen magazine named Curtis the third most popular actor in Hollywood, after Rock Hudson and Marlon Brando. Among the more notable of the films Curtis made in this prolific period were Stuart Heisler's gritty film of war in the Pacific, Beachhead (1954), Joseph Pevney's Six Bridges to Cross (1955), based on the infamous Brinks robbery (Sal Mineo made his screen début playing Curtis as a young boy) and Carol Reed's Trapeze (1956), in which Curtis and Burt Lancaster were circus performances and rivals for the love of Gina Lollobrigida. The Hollywood Reporter said, "Curtis has had to overcome the fact that he is a very handsome young man. He has done it, so that his appearance is now secondary to a talent and vitality that mark him as one of the most important young stars."

The same journal saluted the star's "insouciance and bubbling good humour" in Blake Edwards's Mr Cory (1957), an entertaining tale of a busboy from the Chicago slums who rises to be a big-time gambler. Curtis was then cast in the film which was to get him taken seriously as an actor, Sweet Smell of Success, Alexander Mackendrick's brilliant study of Broadway's underbelly, with Burt Lancaster as JJ Hunsecker, a powerful gossip columnist, and Curtis as a toadying and opportunistic press agent.

Lancaster was one of the producers, and Curtis later confessed that he "hounded" the star for the role of Sidney Falco, the fawning agent desperate to get his clients mentioned in JJ's column. When JJ, who disapproves of his sister's boyfriend, asks Sidney what it is the lad has, Sidney replies, "Integrity – acute, like indigestion." McKendrick said, "There was this enormous difference between Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Tony had a fantastic vanity, but no ego. He could act Burt off the screen, but lacked Lancaster's granite quality of ego."

Though shamefully undervalued in the US (it was totally ignored at Oscar time, and was much more appreciated in Europe), the film proved that the years of toiling for Universal had honed a first-rate talent, and the following year Curtis was nominated for an Academy Award as best actor for his performance in Stanley Kramer's study of racial bigotry, The Defiant Ones.

Kramer had originally tried to get Marlon Brando to co-star with Sidney Poitier in the tale of two racist convicts, one black and one white, who escape from a prison train while chained together, but shooting on Mutiny on the Bounty overran and Brando was not available. Kramer later confessed that he tried almost every major star in Hollywood, and both he and Poitier were worried that Curtis might not be a strong enough actor.

"After two or three weeks," Kramer recalled, "Poitier reported, as I had asked him to do, his observations. 'I think Curtis is doing one hell of a job,' he said, to my enormous relief. 'You needn't have worried about whether Tony could stand up to me. He's doing it and I feel it.'

In his autobiography, Poitier credits Curtis with insisting that Poitier received co-star billing with him above the title – "the first time in my career – and in those days, getting co-star billing above the title was difficult."

Curtis, virtually at the peak of his career, co-starred with Kirk Douglas in the roistering tale The Vikings (1958), then he returned to Universal for another frothy comedy co-starring his wife, The Perfect Furlough (1958), prior to making his most popular film and one of Hollywood's funniest comedies, Some Like It Hot.

Curtis and Jack Lemmon played two musicians in 1920s Chicago escaping gangsters by impersonating two members of an all-girl band. Though Lemmon had the most outrageous comic moments, Curtis was an admirable foil. His "female" voice was dubbed by Paul Frees, but for his masquerade as a millionaire who meets Marilyn Monroe on the beach he adopted an hilarious Cary Grant accent. "You play the market?" he asks her. "No, the ukelele."

The director Billy Wilder said, "Tony's enormous contribution came when I said, 'When you have stolen the yachtsman's clothes and you begin your relation with Marilyn, you have to speak differently – not the English of a Brooklyn musician. What can you do?' He said, 'I can do Cary Grant.' I said, 'Do it.' And he did. And it was a huge, wonderful plus for the picture. I did not know he could do such a perfect imitation. I discussed it with Cary Grant later and he was roaring with laughter. He said he loved it."

Curtis later has an hilarious scene with Monroe in which he professes impotence, despite the fact that his glasses mist over when she tries to make love to him. Curtis was to make history later when a reporter asked him what it was like making love to Monroe, and he replied "It was like kissing Hitler."

Wilder said, "He didn't quite mean it. Tony and Jack suffered because she was never on time. In a scene where she had one line and they had all the rest of the dialogue, we'd have to do it 80 times because she forgot her one line. She paid absolutely no attention to anybody."

Lemmon added, "Tony had his hands full with Marilyn. It was easier for me, especially in the second half, because I'm off with a rose in my mouth doing tangos with Joe E Brown, while Tony has those long scenes with Marilyn."

Curtis realised an ambition, to co-star with his idol, Grant, in Blake Edwards' maritime comedy Operation Petticoat (1959), another box-office triumph, then made his final film with Leigh, the farcical Who Was That Lady? (1960), before playing a jazz saxophonist trying to find fame in New York in The Rat Race (1961). He worked with Kirk Douglas again on one of the finest of screen epics, Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, based on the two-year revolt of the slaves in Rome.

Curtis said, "Stanley was a genius with the camera, but as far as I was concerned, his greatest effectiveness was in his one-on-one relationships with actors. He was a very fine person. My favourite director, in fact."

In 1962 Curtis and Leigh were divorced. They had two daughters, Kelly and Jamie (the actress Jamie Lee Curtis), who stayed with Leigh.

"There was a long time after that when I didn't get along with my daughters, because I didn't see them. Not that Janet was stopping me. I was suffering a lot. I couldn't be bothered with anybody. But those girls turned out wonderfully, and Janet deserves most of the credit for that."

Curtis met the Austrian actress Christine Kaufmann when she was cast opposite him in Taras Bulba (1962). They were married in 1963, and had two daughters before their divorce in 1968. Though Curtis was working steadily, his films were often mediocre – Taras Bulba did not fulfil the expectations of its budget, and it was followed by such forgettable fare as Forty Pounds of Trouble (1962), Captain Newman, MD (1963), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), Goodbye Charlie (1964) and Sex and the Single Girl (1964).

In 1965 he was reunited with Jack Lemmon in Blake Edwards' comedy The Great Race, which had some inspired moments (in a sequence in which Curtis is aping Rudolf Valentino, his front tooth literally glistens) but was over-produced and over-long. Curtis's flagging career was boosted when he won the role of the notorious serial killer Albert de Salva in The Boston Strangler (1968), for which he transformed his appearance with a false nose, black contact lenses and extra weight. The director, Richard Fleischer, made striking use of split-screen images and Curtis was lauded for his psychologically complex portrayal.

While making the film, Curtis had met the model Leslie Allen, and they married in 1968, four days after his divorce from Kaufmann. The same year he did a voice cameo (unbilled) as the actor who telephones Mia Farrow after losing a job in Rosemary's Baby, but his major roles continued to be in poor films – accepted, he said, because of large child support bills – and in 1970 he moved to London to accept Lew Grade's offer to co-star with Roger Moore in a television series, The Friendly Persuaders – the word "friendly" was later dropped.

Despite unwelcome publicity when Curtis was arrested at Heathrow for possessing marijuana, the series went ahead and The Persuaders! proved a hit with viewers (though it flopped in the US). "It was more tongue-in-cheek and less violent than American audiences were used to," Curtis said.

While making the tough thriller Lepke (1974), Curtis became addicted to cocaine. By the end of the decade drugs and alcohol were affecting his looks and behaviour and though he won an Emmy nomination for his TV portrayal of David O Selznick in Movieola: the Scarlett O'Hara War (1980), he played in mainly forgotten films such as Where is Parsifal? (1984) with Orson Welles: "It opened and closed in about four days. I made a lot of films like that during my user days to pay for my drugs."

In 1984 a prolonged stay at the Betty Ford Center in California ended his reliance on substance abuse. In later years, Curtis devoted more time to his painting, a lifelong passion, and his works now fetch large sums – one, The Red Table, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2005. Billy Wilder, a collector, described him as "a latter-day Matisse".

Tom Vallance

Bernard Schwartz (Tony Curtis), actor: born New York 3 June 1925; married 1951 Janet Leigh (divorced 1962; two daughters), 1963 Christine Kaufmann (divorced 1968; two daughters), 1968 Leslie Allen (divorced 1982; one son, and one son deceased), 1984 Andrea Savio (divorced 1992), 1993 Lisa Deutsch (divorced 1994), 1998 Jill Vandenberg; died Henderson, Nevada 29 September 2010.

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