Friday, October 1, 2010

Tony's Reward

Bernard Schwartz was a Bronx kid spawned by Hungarian Jews, his mother a diagnosed schizophrenic. He didn't even learn to speak English right away---Hungarian was his first and only language until age six.

He was inspired by the actor Cary Grant, even enlisting in the U.S. Navy because he marveled at Grant in the film "Destination Tokyo."

Bernard Schwartz was further inspired by Grant to pursue acting, and went to Hollywood mainly for the girls and the money more than for the craft.

It was on the Left Coast, in 1948, when Schwartz borrowed a first name from the novel "Anthony Adverse" and a version of the surname Kurtz from his mother's family and became, just like that, Tony Curtis.

In his younger days in film, Curtis was a raven-haired ladies man with beveling eyes and a slight pout. The Bronx accent never left him.

Curtis played the ladies man on film and in real life. He was married six times, and infidelity played a role in the breakup of his first, to actress Janet Leigh.

But he was married long enough to Leigh to father the actress Jamie Lee Curtis, a daughter with whom he became virtually estranged as Jamie grew older and she gravitated more to her mother.

Curtis hit it big with "Some Like it Hot," a 1959 vehicle with Jack Lemmon in which Curtis famously played a cross-dresser.

Curtis died Wednesday, at age 85, from cardiac arrest. He's another who takes with him a mold that has been broken.

One of the most enjoyable interviews I ever saw was with Curtis, who was being queried a few years ago on one of those movie channel specials. He was a cornucopia of anecdotes, back stories, and self-criticism of his work. It was, at the risk of sounding cliche, captivating.



Curtis enjoyed painting, and did more of that as the acting lessened. One of his works sold for $25,000.

But his relationship with Jamie Lee, as he outlined in the aforementioned interview, saddened me. It was evident that his trysts with other women, after Jamie Lee learned of them, put a wedge between father and daughter.

Worse was what happened to his son Nick, who died of a heroin overdose in 1994 at age 23.

"As a father you don't recover from that," he once said.

Curtis revived his career by playing hotel owner Mr. Roth in the TV series "Vegas" from 1978-81. In fact, Curtis ended up dying in Henderson, Nevada---not far from Vegas, a city he adored.

He was a walking history book of Hollywood, both good and bad. You looked at Tony Curtis and you knew there were stories that were aching to be told. And Curtis was often eager to oblige.

His wife at the time of his death, Jill Vandenberg Curtis, was 42 years his junior. That shouldn't have been a surprise.

"I wouldn't be caught dead," Curtis once said, "marrying a woman old enough to be my wife."

So wry, so self-effacing.

So Tony Curtis.

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