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FEATURE: The Last Profile of Tony Curtis You Will Ever Need

Life lessons from a guy who’s lived a hell of a life

Steve Bornfeld


"Could life be like a window and love be like a book; And hate be like a falling stone and peace be like a brook; And joy be like a cloudless sky and mine be like a shell; And trees be like an open hand and laughter like a bell; Can youth be like a falling tear, could leaf be like a rise; Could blue be like the line across, could clear be like your eyes; Could love be like a sparrow, could lifetime never end; And if the queen had balls, she'd be the king, and nails would never bend."


— Poem by Tony Curtis


The Boston Strangler from the Bronx pauses over his white wine from his perch on the corner stool, anchoring the bar at Picasso in a swank jet-black jacket over white, textured T-shirt, hair the color of distinction cresting across his forehead, breaking like a silver wave.


He is glossy Hollywood in regal repose.


That's Hollywood circa one-half century ago, when the gods knew how to carry themselves, how to dress in more than jeans and a smirk, how to wear crisp, creased slacks and the class that put the starch in their march through celebrity.


Though this god, while looking every bit the authentic American Deity, still sounds remarkably like the Joe-Blow masses that made a star of Bernie Schwartz.


"I dunno what I sound like, but shit, man, I'm havin' such a good time," says Tony Curtis in that subway rumble of a voice, still as streetside New York as a pushcart pretzel (extra salty) in his 78th year. "It's cool, bein' myself. OK, honey?"


This impromptu admission distills the one-time Bernie from the Bronx right down to his Tinsel-Towned DNA.


"I get the best of everybody I meet. They become more open, more suggestive in their thoughts and thinking and feeling. I love that about life. Getting to know a guy like you, I love it! I feel like a kid always. Whaddaya wanna do now? I don't know, let's talk with Jason."


Jason the bartender glances up, briefly befuddled, caught in the high beams of Tony's ever-roving spotlight. "How's it going, Jason? Jason is someone I find most interesting. Works in a bar mixing drinks. It's a profession. The guys who park the cars, I love 'em! Shit, man, it's amusing. I'm just curious about everything."


To spend time in the company of Tony Curtis is to realize how overrated—hell, boring—are virtues such as consistency and logic and modesty and understatement. None ever suited or explained him—and if they did, he wouldn't be the feisty, funny, hoot-'n'-a-half hell-raiser he's always been.


This man is at his best untethered to such humdrummery.


"Lew Wasserman was my agent," Tony says, referring to the guy who helped guide him toward his big-screen legacy. "He conceived a lot of movies I was in. So he was the medium, and the medium is the message, don't ya see? That girl with the big tits? THAT'S the message. The guy getting on the horse? THAT'S the message. So I became the message. If you're in that kind of environment, nothing can stop you. You don't have any repercussions. You can say, 'Listen, don't blame me, I'm a star because my studio wants to use me in all their movies.' You don't have to make excuses."


A tad inscrutable, perhaps ... maybe a tad more than a tad ... and yet … I get it. It's about Tony as commodity, a form of currency, a tool of commerce—one of the best-selling cinematic products of the late-'40s, '50s and '60s.


"There's always something that doesn't quite jell the way you'd like it to," he says, "but then, what do you like? Aren't you opinionated? Aren't we so E-GO-TIS-TI-CAL"—Tony savors words that tickle him, punching out every syllable—"in our attitude of things that we read into the dilemma more than it really wants or needs? So you see, we're constantly jerking ourselves off, ya know? Constantly vibrating ourselves in that orgasm."


We're full of ourselves. Simple. Twisted into a knot of snarled syntax and sexual imagery, but essentially … simple.


I believe Tony Curtis is a bona fide sage.


A wise soul, his wisdom bound up in its own kind of code. Decoding him is key. Approaching 80, he's a streetwise philosopher with a Bronx honk. A childlike dispenser of hard-earned life lessons. Profound and profane and, at times, charmingly vain (though he would never want to appear, as he terms it, "braggadocious," a word that escaped the attention of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary).


Contradictions and non sequiturs leap out of his mouth in a stream-of-consciousness steamroller of words, thoughts, intense convictions, stitched together—often in rational order, occasionally not—into conversational filibusters. Trying to reconstruct Tony's thought process and absorb his meaning is like futzing with that deceptively "easy-to-assemble" entertainment center from Wal-Mart. After all the sweat and strain, it turns out surprisingly solid and sturdy, even with Screw C and Flap G left over.


"The more open our society is, the more we can benefit," he says with mounting fervor, his analytical tumblers clicking into a Serious Examination of Individual and Societal Reflection. "But it's much more dangerous, isn't it? Isn't it?" Repeating rhetorical questions is one of his favorite conversational riffs to assure our continuous attention. "We must live in an open society, and we don't. The foundation for it is there, but if you have some animosity with an ethnic group, a religious group, an intellectual group, all those very subtle things about life, if you're very sensitive about wanting to be King Kong, your ego won't let you take a second position. You know how many relationships you lose because of that?


"You say, 'Oh, pleasure to meet your family,' and you're outta there. Why would you want to confront it? Why even bring it up? Why even create a tension when there wasn't any? So these are the stumbling blocks, aren't they? So I'm eliminating every one of those blocks, every one of those ignorant feelings I used to have are slowly disappearing."


Talking with Tony is less about tracking linear thought than attaining emotional truth. It is the most logical measure of this man, who has lived—man, has he lived—and has things to say, and he'll say them however he pleases, thank you very much. Grant him leeway on his words and listen to his heart, and you'll hear him just fine.


Admittedly, it helps if you subscribe to the adage that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Passion is infinitely more intriguing than perfection, contradiction far more fascinating than consistency, and Tony's career, even at a mere glance, is a textbook study.


A dashing young vision of manly beauty—looks demanding speech rich in European elegance and dripping continental courtliness—attached to a foggy New York bark so thick you could slice it with a switchblade. A man of seemingly endless affection and goodwill, nailing his only Oscar nomination as a seething bigot on the lam, chained to fellow escapee Sidney Poitier in 1958's searing racial screed The Defiant Ones. A one-man stud farm and serial husband famed for appearing in drag—not to mention an acclaimed dramatic actor costarring in what the American Film Institute crowned the funniest movie ever made—in 1959's Some Like It Hot. A performer reared on the streets of the Bronx who played the title terror of 1968's The Boston Strangler (a devilish irony, at least to feuding Yankee and Red Sox fans). The portrayer of a press agent Esquire magazine declared one of the supreme movie "suckups" in 1957's Sweet Smell of Success—who never met an ass he would deign to kiss.


A Hollywood mainstay who flipped the bird at the town he once had by the, well, sensitive orbs (we'll leave blunt descriptions to Tony—it sounds cooler coming from him), settling five years ago in Las Vegas, where he's the hippest, happiest, party-loving, dance-clubbing, cheek-pinching (to which I can personally attest), backslapping old guy in Sin City.


"Jilly, honey!" says the god on the corner stool, lifting his glass toward his fifth wife, "I'm so happy!"



"Once I knew a girl so fair; The air was bare, her hair was rare; The girl I knew was there; Beware."


—T.C.


If you're too young to remember or are otherwise unfamiliar with Big-Screen Tony, or recognize him chiefly as Jamie Lee's dad, you've missed something. Unlike colleagues—such as the late, great Richard Harris, known only to younger moviegoers as a bit player to Harry Potter, or Charlton Heston, whom an entire segment of film fans connect to Planet of the Apes only as Tim Roth's simian papa in Tim Burton's deadbeat remake—Tony Curtis followed the advice of his idol, friend and one-time co-star (in 1959's breezy submarine farce, Operation: Petticoat), Cary Grant, who told him, "Don't grow old on the screen." And he hasn't.


"I don't wanna walk around with a humpback," he says emphatically. "I don't wanna walk around clumsily, I don't wanna play without my teeth, I don't wanna shave off my hair and play bald, I don't wanna put on 40 pounds with a big pillow and play an old man. I don't wanna be Walter Matthau, ya know?"


His strongest late-career TV work—as a recurring character on the late Bob Urich's Vega$, and as pre-007 Roger Moore's stylish partner on the criminally short-lived adventure series The Persuaders—is largely absent from American airwaves.


But his massive screen output—transcending his glamour-puss rep and ridiculed voice to mark him as one of his era's true screen icons—remains a staple of American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies and film retrospectives worldwide. Even though the quality gap is more a gaping chasm—Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) and Tarzan in Manhattan (1989) and Lobsterman from Mars (1990) are a whopping belly-drop from the mesmerizing work he pulled off as Houdini (1953) and in Trapeze (1956) and Spartacus (1960)—he's made enough jewels to justify his place in the Hollywood pantheon.


His deft, daft turn in Some Like It Hot alone wins him the nod—say, his riotous beachside seduction of Marilyn Monroe, clad in millionaire-yachtsman's garb and spouting a second-to-none Cary Grant impersonation. Or the hilarious hotel-room scene in which female-impersonating Jack Lemmon, happily clacking a pair of maracas, announces (in a movie obviously made pre-gay rights) that he's engaged to Joe E. Brown's smitten suitor.


"But why would a guy wanna marry a guy?" asks an incredulous Tony.


Delicious, anticipatory pause.


"Security!" says Lemmon.


"Because he was thought of as a pretty boy when he started, he was symbolic to a lot of people of how phony Hollywood was, but good-looking actors are always underestimated—he proved to have talent and a career," says Gannett News Service film reviewer Marshall Fine. "People like James Dean and Brando, they were much more interior in their acting, that's where the agony came from. Tony Curtis was much more expressive, he had that kind of passion. In Sweet Smell of Success, you can't imagine James Dean in that role. It would have been too verbal for him. Curtis was great with words.


"I'm surprised that he isn't one of those actors who suddenly get a role and make a comeback. Someone like Tarantino or the Coen Brohers, who would say, 'Hey, let's put Tony Curtis in a movie.' He's certainly someone who helped define an era of Hollywood movies."


Lashing out in an Internet essay against the AFI's choice of Tom Hanks last year for a Lifetime Achievement Award, critic Jon Ted Wynne nominated a number of overlooked, alternative choices, including Tony. "If Tony Curtis has shot himself in the foot, so to speak … it's because of the twinkle in his eye and the self-deprecating sense of humor that allows him to do schlock like TV's Hollywood Babylon. Tony Curtis, I suspect, does not take himself too seriously. But I would suggest that we should. At least Tony Curtis, the film artist. Not actor—artist."


And no less a cultural personage than David Mamet revealed his T.C. boosterism in a piece written for The Guardian newspaper in 2001. Mamet proclaimed his hatred for the "stiff, self-conscious, grudging, coy and ungenerous" performances of Lord Laurence Olivier—Tony's co-star in the deleted, much-ballyhooed bathing scene from Spartacus, bubbling with bisexual subtext cloaked in seafood similes. ("My taste includes both oysters and snails," coos Olivier's Roman senator, Crassius, to the beefcaked Tony as slave Antoninus)—and admiration for the star often snubbed by the actorly hoi-polloi.


"You may snort with contempt, but I will name, in support, just two of his performances," Mamet wrote, citing Tony "playing low comedy as high as it gets" in Some Like It Hot, then creating "some of the greatest moments of film acting" as monstrous Albert DeSalvo in The Boston Strangler.


"We do not laud and revere Curtis' 'great technique,'" Mamet concludes. "We merely remember the moments of his performance our entire lives."


The slights still sting, stretching as far back as 1952's Son of Ali Baba, and one line of dialogue that haunts him even now. "I supposedly said, 'Yandah liez da castle of me faddah,'" he recites with contempt—and exaggerated, gutteral Bronx-ese, even for Tony—still smarting over the industry's widespread amusement. "I never said it. NEVER SAID IT. What I said was, 'Yonder lies the valley of the sun and beyond, the castle of my father.' But Debbie Reynolds was the one who pulled that out of the movie. She was on a talk show and says, 'Wait'll you hear his speech!' So it became a joke. It pissed me off.


"Now what the f--k is wrong with having speech from New York? I had a very difficult time in those early days, and that was an important thing I had to overcome. It was an excuse not to like me. Because I was so likable and so handsome and so easy to look at and so easy to do the work, they had to find some obstacle—either saying I'm a homosexual or a Jew or a New York gangster. All of this came out in those early days for me."


Resistance eventually crumbled, giving way to a fruitful career—"I've made the most variety of movies of any actor I've ever known," he says—but Hollywood's indifference still hurts. "I've never been acknowledged. I was nominated once for The Defiant Ones [along with Poitier and director Stanley Kramer], but that was like splitting the vote, a token, give it to a black guy and give it to a Jew guy. I never felt it was a reasonable one, more like an honorary one."


Give him a moment and he unearths a better explanation.


"I wish my peers would have stretched out their arms to me," he says. "But I was too much of a cocksman, I guess. I was jumping on every girl around."



"Go on, try to make it tougher, try to break my balls; Try to get me to admit that maybe I ain't all; Well let me tell you one thing, kid, I've had it up and down; And one thing sure you'll never see is me when I was 9."


—T.C.


"Has Tony arrived yet?" the Picasso hostess at Bellagio asks a waiter after I inquire. It is inching past 8, and if he's here, I can't imagine—as I scan the posted menu in the exquisitely marble-tiled, wine-stocked anteroom—the monumental disgrace of a film legend kept waiting by a reporter whose entire wardrobe costs less than several of the entrees. And if he's fashionably late? I'd be disappointed if he weren't.


But at four minutes past, The Man sweeps in, his blonde, beautiful, tall-drink-of-water wife (5-foot-11 in flats), equestrian Jill Vanden Berg, on his arm. His missus of five years now—they wed November 6, 1998—is 45 years her husband's junior, and a dozen years younger than her stepdaughter, Jamie Lee.


"My dear, you look like peaches and cream tonight," Tony purrs to her. She blushes back.


Jilly quietly, contentedly, basks in the jovial, one-man show that is her spouse.


"Sometimes I think, 'Why is everyone staring?'" says the wife who wasn't yet born when her husband did the bulk of his best work. "And then I think, 'Oh yeah, I forgot.' But the way he is now is exactly how he is all day, every day. He just seems happier living here. LA is about envy and jealousy. Here he has a real life."


Striding in with the pure pleasure of Being Tony Curtis Out In Public, he exuberantly greets me as "Honey," squeezes my cheek like a ripe melon, shares a funny anecdote and lands a playful, but forceful shot in my arm for emphasis, before a brief, harmless flirtation with the dazzled hostesses. Tony Curtis cannot not flirt.


"Hello, my darlings!" he chirps. "Kiss! Kiss!"


Head swiveling to drink in the entire room, mindful of surprised stares—enjoying them immensely, in fact, even hungry for them—he spots a man pointing excitedly at him, then back at his stunned, slack-jawed wife. They gaze disbelievingly, but say nothing, so Curtis, immediately sizing up the scenario, selects the appropriate response from his repertoire of fan acknowledgements.


The Silent Bow.


He turns, regally bends at the waist with Euro-flair, offers courteous eye contact—a bit haughty, a bit humble—flashes The Star Smile, then glides on.


Gracious. Flawless. Movie-Star Masterful.


"One time, we were having dinner in Seven Hills, at some very posh restaurant," recalls Corinne Sidney, ex-Vegas showgirl, one-time wife of Jack Entratter and widow of director George Sidney, with whom Tony made 1959's Who Was That Lady?


"The busboy was soooo nervous, he was shaking the glass of water, laying it down in front of, you know, MR. TONY CURTIS. Tony put his hand on his arm and said, 'Tell me, what's your name, young man?' (He told him) and Tony said, 'I'm so glad to meet you. My name is Tony Curtis, and we're just so happy that you're helping us tonight.' The young man relaxed immediately. That's Tony."



"There is no difference between you and I; For you are tall and I am shy; You are gentle and I am quick; You are rainbow, I am slick; And were I to find you in myself, there would be only daffodils to pick."


—T.C.


His history was blood-red meat for carnivorous tabloids for years—the pre-E! years when trashy Confidential magazine stalked stars, scaring them silly with screaming scandals and sordid secrets.


To briefly rehash the trash, Tony—born Bernard Schwartz, the son of immigrant Hungarian Jews—married actress Janet Leigh (Psycho's shower casualty) in 1951 in a tempestuous union that yielded daughters Jamie Lee and Kelly.


"My husband and Tony both had one great thing in common—they both hated Janet Leigh," Sidney says with a bellowing guffaw. "We had more laughs at dinner! She's easy to hate, a real pain in the ass." Subsequent marriages to Christine Kaufmann, Leslie Allen and Lisa Deutsch kept the divorce courts busy and the tabloids buzzing, but also produced four more children—and storied liaisons with scores of his leading ladies (Jack Lemmon, he loves to note, excepted), including Marilyn Monroe.


"The marriages were based on the wrong reasons," Curtis says. "You got married for f--king privileges so you didn't have to go out after work every night and try to get laid. It's a little cynical to say that, but that's how it was. Being married in this profession is a very difficult thing, especially if you're tantalized and TIT-I-LLA-TED," he says, drawing out the word with naughty relish. "I have always respected women, and that's why I spent my life chasing them."


Addiction and tragedy also had their shots at him—from a notorious drug habit he ultimately kicked, but not before poisoning his personal and professional lives, to twin tragedies spanning the decades: His little brother, Julius, was hit by a truck and killed in 1938, when Tony was 13. Fifty-six years later, his first-born son, Nicolas, died in his early 20s from a heroin overdose in 1994.


"About two months after he died, I was having dinner at Spago and there was Billy Wilder," Tony recalls, dredging up a painful memory of his Some Like It Hot director. "So I went up to him and said, 'Billy, my son died a few months ago from an overdose of heroin.' He said, 'He learned it from you.' Imagine someone exposing themselves to you with that kind of statement," Tony says, still looking blindsided by the casual cruelty nearly 10 years later. "I hated him for that. But the town was loaded with that kind of bullshit. Many of those elegant and intellectual and gifted people were lowdown. It was one of the big steps for me to get out of that community."



"You be the father, I be the son; You be the garden-green and I be the chum; I'll be the friendship looking for sails; Deep in the ocean, swimming with whales; So time does not bother, you're in my heart; When morning be coming, twilight will part."


—T.C., composed for his son, Nicolas, before his death


Dinner conversation with the Curtises is vintage Tony. Eclectic, pinballing, roller-coasting: Painting. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Blacks and Jews will never be president. "I think Hilary would make an excellent president." Iraq. Baba Wawa. The classic comedy of Senor Wences. "My father should have been more courageous, he should have moved his family to California right in the early '20s." Dostoevsky. The opening refrain of Sinatra's "I Fall in Love Too Easily" (Tony on vocals). Finally learning how to cook ("Chef Schwartz!"). Walking the East Bronx. The elegance of scarves and gloves. Even, briefly, movies.


"It's hard to watch a movie with Tony," Jill exclaims in mock exasperation between forkfuls of exceptionally high-grade meat. "I'll be into it and he'll critique it, like, 'Look at that mistake in continuity,' or 'They probably said CUT right there,' or 'Look at the makeup on his collar, you can see it!' It's like, 'Shut up, Tony!' But now I start seeing the same things he does."


Nor are his own movies spared during dessert.


"I see a number of things in Spartacus," he says. "Where did Spartacus get that excellent haircut in the middle of nowhere? This beautiful butch haircut? Please! Who the f--k did that? The guy in the chariot next to him? HAHA!"


And finally, a cup of coffee—with the slight kick of Bailey's—and a slice of peer critiques. "Kirk Douglas"—ol' Sparty himself—"had to power his way through everything," Tony says with a trace of disdain for the famously egotistical Dimpled One. "But Burt Lancaster, Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon, smooth as butter."



"Were I to put my face inside your pride, and feel you hide beside my side; How wide the tide … I tried, sweet bride, the feeling lined and cried; The winter tide to be denied and never ride this slide; Come bride, the time, and hide; Forever."


—T.C.


His home—more precisely, his retreat, even his sanctuary—is a comfy sprawl in the secluded hills of Anthem. Ringed by the lush, deep-blue Infinity pool in which he takes daily laps, it overlooks a striking landscape of pearl-green golf course and mountaintops that, when the sun angles in just so, look like they've been dusted with chocolate.


Casa de Curtis is littered with the recreational love of his life: paintings, idling on easels, propped against chairs, stacked and strung across the floor. They are all his brushwork, of course—he's had exhibitions around the globe, the results of renaissance-man passions that also embrace writing (poetry, as one might have surmised, as well as novels and an autobiography) and teaching. He is a guest lecturer in UNLV film classes, visiting up to eight times per semester.


"The students just love him because he's very giving and very honest and very approachable," says Jeffrey Koep, dean of UNLV's College of Fine Arts. "Some of the younger students don't connect to who he is until he mentions the movies. They know his movies. He tells them frankly about the problems they'll encounter making movies. Ask Tony a question, Tony always says, 'I've done it, and I'll give you my honest opinion.' There's no hedging and that's refreshing."


So here I am, without the pesky ritual of a shared, public meal between us. No filter separating me and a silver-screen superstar, who is yanking one of his seven cats out of a potted plant.


The coolest, most contented senior citizen—he'll doubtless despise that last distinction with all his childlike might— in Las Vegas.


"Look how great I'm doing!" he fairly shouts. "I've never looked better in my life. Everywhere I go, people just get stunned when they see me. They're so nice to me. I'm so privileged. I'm 78 years old, I'm the handsomest of men, what have I got to complain about?"


Very little, apparently.


But Tony, babe, it's just you and me now … so how about we really talk?

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