Last week, Hollywood lost one of its last Golden Age stars, Tony Curtis, at the age of 85. Like many non-WASP actors of his time, the Bronx-born actor changed his name, from Bernard Schwartz to the Anglo-sounding Tony Curtis. Curtis' career, which spanned an astounding six decades and 130 film and television credits, peaked long before most readers of this article were born, but the Oscar-nominated actor still managed to leave a brief, if no less compelling, series of performances, both in light, comic roles ( 'Operation Petticoat,' 'Some Like It Hot') and hard-hitting dramatic films ('Sweet Smell of Success,' 'The Boston Strangler').
Like other GIs returning home from World War II, Curtis took advantage of the government's generous GI program, and studied acting before heading off to Hollywood. His first role, a walk-on in 'Criss-Cross,' a crime-noir starring Burt Lancaster, proved propitious. Curtis and Lancaster would go on to co-star in 'Trapeze,' in 1956, and 'Sweet Smell of Success,' in 1957, before Curtis joined Kirk Douglas in the 1958 film 'The Vikings.' (Curtis and Douglas appeared together again in the epic Stanley Kubrick movie 'Spartacus,' two years later.)
On and offscreen, Curtis was known for his decade-long marriage to Janet Leigh, who went on to become the original "Scream Queen" thanks to her role in Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho.' The couple co-starred in one of Curtis' most underrated movies, 'Houdini,' in which Curtis played the famous real-life escape artist who died tragically in mid-act. Although Curtis proved he could carry a film with 'Houdini,' he was still paired with a strong co-lead in such films as 'Trapeze' and 'The Vikings,' the former a glossy, circus melodrama, the latter an unchallenging action-adventure film. Curtis also co-starred opposite Sidney Poitier in Stanley Kramer's 1958 message film 'The Defiant Ones,' about about two escaped prisoners, one white and one black, who befriend each other while out on the run.
Although Curtis was more than impressive in the above-cited films, he showed surprising amount of range and depth in 'The Sweet Smell of Success,' the 1957 drama from director Alexander Mackendrick. In the film, which was based on the Clifford Odets play, Curtis played Sidney Falco, an egotistical, status-hungry publicist desperate to curry favor with alpha gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster). By granting or withholding favors, Hunsecker can make-or-break Falco's clients and, by extension, Falco's career. On Hunsecker's behalf, Falco reluctantly agrees to break up a romantic relationship between Hunsecker's younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), and a jazz guitarist, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Over 'Sweet Smell of Success'' 96-minute running time, Falco almost unravels, compromising his integrity (or what's left of it) by allowing Hunsecker to manipulate him into making one bad decision after another. It's a surprisingly nuanced performance that showed off Curtis' incredible dramatic range.
After 'Sweet Smell of Success,' Curtis had two more great roles ahead of him, first as the co-lead in Billy Wilder's classic comedy, 'Some Like It Hot,' which played to Curtis' strengths as a comic actor, and, almost a decade later, as Albert DeSalvo in the 'The Boston Strangler.' In 'Some Like It Hot,' Curtis held his own as the charmer to Jack Lemmon's goofball, but he also sparked in scenes shared with Marilyn Monroe. Considered too handsome for the role by studio executives, Curtis gained 30 pounds (13 years before Robert DeNiro did something similar for 'Raging Bull') and used makeup to make himself less recognizable -- and less handsome. Meanwhile, as DeSalvo, Curtis burrowed deep into the role, deeper than anyone familiar with his light, comedic characters could have imagined, to portray his character's pathological, misanthropic angst.
Sadly, Curtis peaked as a dramatic actor with 'The Boston Strangler,' and the light comic roles that made him a popular box-office draw disappeared as well. Appearing on television regularly in the 1970s, he gave a memorable turn as shady businessman Philip Roth in the campy 'Vega$' television series that ran from 1979 to 1981. In later years, Curtis turned to painting and philanthropic work, reconnecting with his Hungarian-Jewish roots. He helped raise funds to rebuild a synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, with his daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis (the original "Teen Scream Queen"), but for his fans, he'll be best remembered for his all-too-brief run as a movie star.