Ernest Borgnine, Janet Leigh, Kirk Douglas y Tony Curtis.
Tony Curtis was convinced of his power of seduction and, in fact, he won his first Hollywood contract because of his looks, his demeanor and his charming and malicious smile, not because of his acting skills. The Jewish interpreter, born with the name Bernard Schwartz, showed everything his physique could give in films like ‘Spartacus’, in which he played the slave Antonino, who is hinted at as the general played by Laurence Olivier. However, the posterity of the American will be linked to a comedy, ‘Con faldas ya lo loco’, in which he appeared transfigured, transvestite in the role of a harassed by the mafia who disguises himself as a woman and sneaks into a marching band of girls to elude the bullies.
A Hollywood legend, both for his filmography of more than a hundred films and for his private life, Tony Curtis died yesterday at the age of 85, victim of cardiac arrest. The actor put face to unforgettable characters such as the white prisoner who manages to escape with a fellow black prison in ‘Fugitives’. But it was also the face of excesses, of drug and alcohol abuse, very common in the film mecca since the 1950s.
His reputation as a womanizer survives him. He was married six times and his love resume was extensive and varied. “There was a time when I didn’t leave a skirt unattended,” she once confessed, recalling her most hectic time, the 1940s and 1950s.
Curtis wrote several memoir books and probably had material left over for other volumes. His life was dense, complicated at first by obligation and later by vocation. His parents, immigrants from Hungary, came to the Bronx from New York in the 1920s. He was a tailor, she suffered from schizophrenia, a disease inherited by one of her brothers. They all lived in the back of the tailor shop and spoke Yiddish, the Hebrew dialect of Central European Jews. Curtis began learning English when he entered school at the age of five.
The family went through periods of extreme poverty during the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 29, so much so that Curtis and his younger brother had to enter an orphanage for a month because their parents had no money to feed them.
A button paper
One of the ways to escape in those hard days of childhood was to get into the movies. “I was in awe of the sword fights, the actors riding horses, the kisses with the girls. I wondered how I could get to do all that, “he wrote in one of his books.
Before reaching the height of his idols, Curtis enlisted as a marine in a submarine, at age 17, to fight in World War II. The Army experience was most positive for him. While his mother beat him, as his psychotic outbreaks replayed, the US Navy cared for him and fed him.
He also gave him money, enough to enroll in the dramatic art seminar at the New School for Social Research in New York, a center that brought together numerous European intellectuals exiled because of Nazism, and in whose classrooms he met Walter Matthau, Harry Belafonte and Rod Steiger.
An actor’s agent saw him perform at a Greenwich Village theater in 1948 and signed him a seven-year contract with Universal Pictures for $ 50 a week, which quickly rose to $ 75. In 1949 he got his first success thanks to the role of buttons in ‘Forbidden Direction’, starring Barbara Stanwyck. His intervention was limited to giving the actress a telegram. But it did not go unnoticed and the Universal mailbox was filled with letters from women asking who he was.
Curtis also appeared in films such as 1950’s ‘The Mule Francis’, landed his first leading role in ‘His Highness the Thief’ and continued with ‘The Great Houdini’, about the famous illusionist. In this film he shared the limelight with Janet Leigh, his first wife, famous for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, and with which he had two daughters, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis, both actresses.
They were the “golden couple”, according to the interpreter’s expression. The stars of the gossip magazines, though, he added, always gave him the impression that she considered herself superior. After eleven years of living together they separated and the actor married Christine Kaufmann, 17, whom he met on the set of ‘Tara Bulba’.
In the 1950s his career gained in strength and experienced its greatest popularity. His curly, gel-covered toupee was imitated by young people, including Elvis Presley, who made it his hallmark. And in the cinematographic plane he chained a series of extraordinary films, such as ‘The Vikings’, in which he worked with Kirk Douglas; ‘Fugitives’, with Sidney Poitier as a co-star; and ‘Spartacus’, directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1960. His next hit was ‘The Boston Strangler’, from 1968.
Curtis, a father of six, worked his entire life because, as he acknowledged, every month he had to sign large checks to support his offspring. In 1970 he was arrested at London Heathrow Airport for possession of marijuana. A bad time, which he shared with his daughter Jamie Lee, with whom he used to go to buy cocaine.
In 1998 he married his sixth wife, Jill Vanderberg, 42 years his junior, and with whom until yesterday he lived in Las Vegas. His last appearance was in ‘David & Fatima’, a love story between an Israeli Jew and a Muslim Palestinian. Curtis embodied the character of Mr. Schwartz, his birth name.