Tony Curtis was so famous, so iconic an American movie star that I don’t really need to tell you who he was. He was Tony Curtis, and he lived that role with childish delight, relishing where his life had taken him, and the pleasures and opportunities fame had afforded him. By the time he died last week at age 85 at his home in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nev., he was known the world over — for the movies he starred in, such as “Some Like It Hot” and “Sweet Smell of Success,” for the women he loved (Janet Leigh, Marilyn Monroe), for being the father of Jamie Lee Curtis and for being a movie star from a time when being one mattered.
Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx. His parents were Hungarian immigrants who came to the United States following World War I. His father, Emanuel Schwartz, was a tailor who could barely support the family. His mother, Helen, suffered from schizophrenia, as did his younger brother Robert. At one point, when his parents could not support the family, Curtis and his other brother, Julius, were sent to a state institution. After the brothers returned to the Bronx, Julius was killed by a truck and Curtis fought in a street gang and endured anti-Semitic attacks.
Curtis joined the Navy in 1944, serving during World War II. Upon his return, he took acting classes on the GI Bill and was discovered by a Universal Studios talent scout. What Hollywood had to offer — girls and money, in that order — was irresistible.
It was Curtis’ combination of toughness and vulnerability — his predatory sexual magnetism and the almost female quality to his beauty — that would make his career. Billy Wilder had the genius to lampoon and showcase all these contradictions in “Some Like It Hot,” casting Curtis as a jazz performer who was a womanizer and a con man who had to disguise himself both as a woman and as a Cary Grant-flavored fop. Burt Lancaster seized on Curtis’ charisma and his ambition by playing opposite him in “Trapeze” and “Sweet Smell of Success.”
Once Curtis achieved success, the roles were many, but his great performances were few and far between. Although he could surprise in such roles as “The Boston Strangler” (1968) and “Lepke” (1975), more often than not he was in such popcorn fare as “The Great Impostor” (1961) and “The Great Race” (1965). Curtis also starred in the TV series “The Persuaders!” with Roger Moore for two seasons (1971-72), and later played a recurring character in “Vega$” (1978-1981). Nevertheless, over the years the role he came to inhabit best was that of Tony Curtis.
Curtis was married six times: to Janet Leigh (daughters Jamie Lee and Kelly), Christine Kaufmann (daughters Alexandra and Allegra), Leslie Allen (sons Nick and Benjamin), Andrea Savio, Lisa Deutsch and Jill Vandenberg. He did two stints at the Betty Ford Center for drug and alcohol abuse. Yet, despite his ups and downs, personally and professionally, he had a keen sense of his rakish appeal to the general public and was willing to use his celebrity not only to support his lifestyle but also to support causes greater than himself.
I first met Curtis in 1988 in Budapest at ceremonies for the dedication of a memorial sculpture to the 600,000 Hungarian Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Imre Varga’s weeping-willow-like monument, “Memorial of the Martyrs,” stands to this day in the courtyard of the Dohány Synagogue. The Emanuel Foundation, which Curtis was instrumental in founding and which is named for his father, is a Brooklyn-based charity that sought to preserve and restore sites of Jewish interest in Hungary and had raised money for the memorial. Curtis was in Budapest to garner as much publicity and recognition as possible for the organization and the event and to serve as a draw for local politicians and potential donors.
I was there because my parents were involved in the Emanuel Foundation and because my father was being honored by the Dohány Synagogue for his rescue efforts in Budapest during World War II (a plaque honoring my father’s wartime actions is affixed to the base of the Holocaust memorial).
Curtis had traveled to Budapest with two of his children, Kelly and Nick (the latter of whom would later die of a drug overdose). Curtis was charming — the elegance, swagger and air of noblesse oblige that he had employed to pose as a wealthy gentleman in “Some Like It Hot” had by now been absorbed into his public persona. The event was a great success: In the following years, the Dohány Synagogue was completely restored to its pre-war glory with funds from the Hungarian government, and support was being given to other synagogues as well as to maintain Jewish cemeteries all over Hungary.
Several years later, after I moved to Los Angeles, my mother enlisted me to be the driver and general factotum to Andor Weiss, the Emanuel Foundation’s executive director. Weiss was a Brooklyn-based Orthodox rabbi and a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who may have been the most tenacious person I’d ever met. Whenever he was in town, I would drive him around, imagining that I was co-starring in a remake of “The Mad Adventures of ‘Rabbi’ Jacob,” or what would surely one day be the basis for the oddest buddy comedy ever made.
One day, our travels had me turning off Sepulveda Boulevard and into Bel Air Crest. We were directed to a townhouse up the hill. The rabbi, not much more than 4 feet tall, reached to ring the bell. After a few minutes, the door opened, and there to greet the rabbi was Tony Curtis, wearing short-short white tennis shorts — and nothing else. No shirt, no shoes, his white hair teased high. He embraced the rabbi. Then he turned to me and hugged me, too, before leading us into his home.
We talked for several hours. The rabbi had big plans for Los Angeles: a gala, events, honorees, sponsors. Curtis listened amiably and offered to allow his name to be used on whatever letterhead, committee listing or invitation would help. The rest was up to the rabbi. After that, Curtis took us on a tour of his house. We met his wife, Jill, who bore what seemed an intentional resemblance to Marilyn Monroe but who revealed herself to be her own person — lovely, thoughtful and passionate about horses (in 2009, she and Curtis released a documentary about Shiloh, a horse rescue facility they founded). Everywhere we went, paintings leaned against the walls. Curtis proudly showed us several, talking about the influence of Matisse and Magritte upon his own work, and mentioning upcoming exhibitions of his artwork. Among the works leaning against the walls was one that stood out because of its resemblance to the work of the Swiss artist Balthus. When asked about it, Curtis confirmed that it was indeed a Balthus — a small work, mixed casually among the Curtis oeuvre.
When we got to the garage, he showed us a new Camaro he’d recently purchased. “When I was a teenager in the Bronx, I loved muscle cars,” he said, “and in my head I’m still a teenager who wants his muscle car.” You could take the boy out of the Bronx, but it appeared that the Bronx never left the boy. That was what made him a star, allowed him to survive Hollywood, and have a sense of himself that included befriending an Orthodox rabbi and lending his name and his celebrity to raise funds to commemorate his Hungarian Jewish heritage.
And that, for me, was the key to understanding Curtis’ lasting appeal: the bald-faced nature of his charm, his vanity, his egotism, all feeding a larger-than-life persona that was self-created and that he deployed with charm and generosity for his benefit and to help others, with his talent sitting there casually in the mix, like a lone Balthus.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears here regularly, and his blog can be found at jewishjournal.com/tommywoodtheblog.