Saturday, October 2, 2010

Remembering Tony Curtis

There I was rushing through the lobby of Toronto's Harbor Castle hotel on my way to interviewing Tony Curtis.
And then I saw him waiting by the elevator, resplendent in a white mink cape and with a white pompadour wig perched uneasily on his head.
Was I meeting Curtis or Liberace?
I'd already met Liberace once in Hamilton and his wigs had nothing on Curtis's.
When Curtis died last week at 85 of heart failure coverage was extensive and I had to ask why.
Bigger stars like Glenn Ford had gotten minimal obituary coverage.
I think it was a sort of universal sadness that with the death of Curtis practically all who represented the Golden Age of Hollywood are dead.
Of the Oscar winners only Luise Rainer at 100 is still alilve from the Thirties, from the forties only those continually feuding sisters Joan Fontaine, 93, and older sis Olivia de Havilland, 94, are still around if hardly active.
I'd first met Curtis when in L.A. in 1972 when he was promoting his short lived series The Persuaders.
By 1972 his movie career was in tatters and he had yet to reach 50.
A series of terrible films (Boeing, Boing, Goodbye, Charlie) had sunk him at the box office combined with a series of bizarre marriages. He told me he was working so hard because he owed so much alimony.
Always affable and with a string of marvelous anecdotes, he jumped when I told him I'd just seen (on TV) his first movie, 1949's The Lady Gambles starring Barbara Stanwyck --he had a one minute bit as a bellhop. Billed as "Anthony Curtis" he made $100 a week and was part of a coterie of young names pushed by ace publicist Henry Willson.
"I was one of the last batch of Universal starlets," he laughed. "I was 24 and my pals on the lot included the other starlets: Jeff Chandler, Julie Adama, George Nader, Rock Hudson, Piper Laurie, Hugh O'Brien."
As a little kid in the early Fifties I adored Tony Curtis movies at the Saturday matinees at Toronto's Century movie palace on the Danforth.
When I reeled off the titles Curtis laughed again: The Prince Who Was A Thief, Son Of Ali Baba, The Black Shield Of Falworth, The Purple Mask.
"I did not say 'Yonda is de castle of my fodda' " he protested. "That was Walter Matthau doing an impersonation of me!"
But gradually the parts got better. He was spectacularly effective in the brilliant 1957 film The Sweet Smell Of Success and definitely should have been Oscar nominated. He did get an Oscar bid (his only nomination) for 1958's The Defiant Ones and for the next few years was a top box office star: Some Like It Hot, Operation Petticoat opposite his idol Cary Grant, Spartacus. If you want to see how effective Curtis could be you must catch him in The Boston Strangler (1968) and Lepke (1975) which was his last major role.
His parts became terrible --when I told him I'd just seen The Manitou (1978) he winced and said he'd never seen it.
Later we had a reunion of sorts when he was co-starring in the TV series Vegas (1978-81) and playing second fiddle to Robert Urich.
I remember Curtis saying great fame and fortune did not translate into personal happiness.
"I still thought of myself as Bernie Schwartzand not Tony Curtis just as Cary Grant always thought of himself as Archie Leach."
Curtis wound up marrying six times. With first wife Janet Leigh he had two actress daughters Jamie Lee and Kelly. A son would die from a drug overdose and Curtis would later admit to addictions to both booze and drugs before he became clean.
When he stopped director Billy Wilder in a restaurant to tell him of his loss Wilder snapped "He learned from a master"--a cruel jest that devastated Curtis.
Curtis was pretty much resigned to being remembered for his comedic turn in Some Like It Hot --he played sax player Joe who donned disguises as Josephine and a millionaire yacht player. At the time he was quoted as saying that kissing Marilyn Monroe was like kissing Hitler but he later mellowed and allowed that she was among the greats he'd worked with.
"She had her problems. We all did, only those who've been stars can appreciate the toil it takes on you emotionally."
And with Curtis's passing the three great stars and director of Hollywood's funniest ever comedy, Some Like It Hot, have left us.

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