Tony Curtis (1925-2010)
He was 85 years old. So his death wasn’t really a shock. But, for me, the passing of Tony Curtis truly signals an end to a particular era in movie history. Curtis was one of those actors who did something extremely rare in movies and TV today. He was a commanding presence, a strong leading man, who could take on a dramatic role in one movie (Sweet Smell of Success), then a charming romantic part in another (Sex and the Single Girl), and finally be an outrageous, over-the-top comedian (Some Like it Hot) – and never lose his cool or his dignity. Sometimes he got to do all three at once, such as in my favorite of his movies The Great Race. (Okay, maybe that last one isn't heavy on the drama -- but there's lots of action and a sword fight!)
Born Bernard Schwartz in The Bronx, New York, Curtis was a kid who loved the movies. He learned to imitate his favorite actor Cary Grant – which helped a lot in his best known movie Some Like it Hot. When Curtis decided to make acting his career, his looks got him in the door. But his talent kept him there. And that led eventually to a co-starring role opposite his idol in the wartime comedy Operation Petticoat.
I’ve said before that certain actors are fearless in their choice of roles. Tony Curtis truly was. He could play the lead but was willing to share that status. In The Defiant Ones, Curtis co-starred with Sidney Poitier as escaped prisoners handcuffed together. They shared the accolades and Oscar nominations for Best Actor – Curtis’s only nomination. In dramas such as Spartacus and Captain Newman, M.D., he took a secondary part, while Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck played the title roles. And though he usually played good guys, Curtis wasn’t afraid of taking on the part of a serial killer in The Boston Strangler.
In the 1970s Curtis turned to television and co-starred with Roger Moore in the action comedy series The Persuaders. He made several TV movies, including The Count of Monte Cristo, Murder in Three Acts, and Christmas in Connecticut, along with guest-starring on series such as Vega$ and Roseanne – and even a role as prehistoric actor “Stony Curtis” on The Flintstones.
There are very handsome and talented movie stars around today. But Hollywood doesn’t turn out many who take the chances – and succeed – as Tony Curtis did.