The street kid who became an “American prince”
I could have been a politician or a brain surgeon. But I didn’t have an education, so there wasn’t anything I could do but get into the movies. And, boy, did I ever. To burst into the movies like I did… Isn’t that neat?
Tony Curtis (born Bernard Schwartz) was one of Hollywood’s ultimate outsider-insiders. His parents were immigrants from Hungary who settled in the Bronx. (The actor never completely lost his Bronx accent.) Tony didn’t speak English until he went to school at age six. His father was a tailor; the family lived in the back of his shop. Tony and his brothers suffered at the hands of their abusive and schizophrenic mother. He even spent time in an orphanage when money got TOO tight for the family!
As a kid, he was beaten up for being BOTH Jewish and good-looking. During these fights, he took care to protect his face, feeling that ONE day it could be the making of him. At 11, Tony joined the Boy Scouts and eventually began acting in school plays at 16 at Seward Park High School. (To this day, this public school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is attended by many young immigrants to the US.) Reaching 18, he joined the Navy; this was right after Pearl Harbor.
Because some like it VERY hot…
I was the best-looking kid in town. It’s not what you have but what you do with it that counts.
At 23, Tony reached Hollywood and got roles in fluffly comedic films. This was a period of learning for him. However, he STILL faced anti-Semitism, as Jews weren’t yet fully accepted in the Hollywood studio system. But Tony made his mark; later on, his duck-tail hairstyle would be copied by another ladies’ man- Elvis Presley. Very cool!
Roles in some GREAT films, including his Oscar-nominated performance in The Defiant Ones (w/ Sidney Poitier) came in the late ’50s. Hollywood took a few years to realize that Tony was more than a pretty (err, insanely gorgeous) face. He broke a Hollywood taboo by insisting that Poitier have co-starring billing next to him.
Jack Lemmon and I always had a great time together; even though we were from different backgrounds – he was Harvard-educated, very intelligent and urbane. We balanced each other out.
Tony acted w/ Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in the comic hit Some Like It Hot. Tony’s lovestruck character copied Cary Grant’s posh accent to win over Marilyn’s character.
Jerry: What are you trying to do to that poor girl, putting on a millionaire act? And, where did you get that phony accent? Nobody “talks loike thet!”
Aiming high… & scoring BIG
Another former NYC street kid, Burt Lancaster, recognized Tony’s talent, charisma, and ambition. They were co-stars in two films- Trapeze and Sweet Smell of Success. In Sweet Smell of Success, both actors transcended their looks to interpret amoral, ruthless strivers (a press agent and a popular newspaper columnist) in the Big Apple.
J.J. to Sidney: I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.
Swords, Sandals, & Shirtless Scenes
In the photo above, Tony jokes around w/ his Spartacus co-stars Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons. In the epic historical drama, Tony played Antoninus, innocent young slave of power-hungry ex-gladiator, Crassus (Laurence Olivier). After Crassus hits on Antoninus (during a bath in a NOT so subtle manner), he runs away to join Spartacus.
In Operation Petticoat, Tony acted alongside Cary Grant, one of his long-time idols. Tony played a tennis pro/playboy Navy officer who needs to be kept in line by Grant’s character- his captain. It was a dream come true for Tony!
Early on, I decided I didn’t want to be known as a mere actor. I wanted to feel like a star. I wanted to get my footprints in Hollywood on the sidewalk, which I got. I wanted to be on the cover of all the magazines and go to parties in a limousine with a beautiful girl. I did all of that – and more. And I appreciate it.