Tony Curtis, 1950s Hollywood Heartthrob, Dies At 85

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For many people, the name conjures memories of Curtis and Jack Lemmon dressed as women to avoid gangsters in the 1950s comedy Some Like It Hot. But he was also a playboy and an Oscar nominee (for The Defiant Ones) — and became one of Hollywood's elder statesmen.


Let's spend some time this morning remembering Tony Curtis, who has died at the age of 85. This is the Tony Curtis people think of first: He and Jack Lemmon planned to dress as women to avoid gangsters in the 1950s comedy "Some Like It Hot."

(Soundbite of movie, "Some Like It Hot")

Mr. JACK LEMMON (Actor): (as Jerry) Joe, we've got to get out of town. Maybe we should grow beards.

Mr. TONY CURTIS (Actor): (as Joe) We are getting out of town, but we're gonna shave.

Mr. LEMMON: (as Jerry) Shave?

Mr. CURTIS: (as Joe) Shave.

Mr. LEMMON: (as Jerry) At a time like this? Those guys got machine guns, ready to blast our heads off, you wanna shave.

Mr. CURTIS: (as Joe) Shave our legs, stupid.

Mr. LEMMON: (as Jerry) Shave our legs? What?

INSKEEP: Shave their legs, as they prepare to dress in drag. Our film critic Bob Mondello is here to tell us what else we should remember about Tony Curtis.

Bob, good morning.

BOB MONDELLO: Good morning.

INSKEEP: His obituary calls him one of Hollywood's busiest playboys. How was he as an actor, though?

MONDELLO: Well, actually, it was interesting, because he was - it took him a while to get taken seriously as an actor. He had three strikes against him. He was so good looking: The curly hair, the sort of chiseled features, blue eyes. He was part a Hollywood power couple, he and Janet Leigh, who were sort of the Brangelina of their day. And that's hard, too. And he was so good at comedy, and audiences loved him in comedy. So getting himself taken seriously for more serious roles was tough.

INSKEEP: Although, let's remember that he did manage to do that in a relatively early role. In 1958, there's a movie called "The Defiant Ones." He's with Sidney Poitier here. They're playing two escaped convicts, and they are shackled together. Let's listen to a little bit. In this clip, they're arguing over which direction to go after getting out of prison.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Defiant Ones")

Mr. CURTIS: (As John "Joker" Jackson) How long you been in jail?

Mr. SIDNEY POITIER (Actor): (As Noah Cullen) Eight years.

Mr. CURTIS: (As John "Joker" Jackson) Then how do you know the train's still running?

Mr. POITIER: (As Noah Cullen) I don't know.

Mr. CURTIS: (As John "Joker" Jackson) You don't know. You're asking me to go 60 miles with you, and you don't even know? What are you inviting me on? The long walk off a short pier, and I'm going to come up with a wet head? Nothing doing. Now, come on.

INSKEEP: Just an amazing performance, these two guys shackled together, and the camera's just on them and on them.

MONDELLO: And so different from what we just heard in the other clip, which was only about a year away. Yeah, he was really versatile. And he - the nice thing about his performances - he didn't want to be typecast. And so he kept doing these various things, trying - actually, he was nominated for an Oscar for "Defiant Ones," and he wanted that Oscar badly. And he did a lot of different things that were kind of out there. He was in costume epics like "Spartacus." He was in "The Sweet Smell of Success," where he played a hustling press agent opposite Burt Lancaster. He was forever going for the gold, in a way, and was terrific at it.

INSKEEP: Well, given the incredible variety of roles that he played, is there anything in common, in the end? Any themes that he went back to again and again?

MONDELLO: Well, he was almost always an outsider. And he may have taken that from his own life. He was born Bernard Schwartz, and grew up in the Bronx in the Depression and had a really tough life when he was growing up. He was actually an orphan at one point. And so playing the outsider who gets by on charm, on good looks, on all of that kind of thing came so naturally to him. And he really could use it. So you see that in almost everything he does.

INSKEEP: Where did the name Tony Curtis come from?

MONDELLO: They made it up for him, or he made it up at some point. He went with - I think it was James Curtis for a little while, and then went Tony, finally. It was one of those things they did back in the '50s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: OK. Bob, thanks very much.


INSKEEP: That's NPR's Bob Mondello, on this morning when we're learning that the actor Tony Curtis has died at age 85.

Now, in 2001, Curtis told NPR that he enjoyed being one of Hollywood's elder statesman.

Mr. CURTIS: I'm now giving into some of the joys that I've experienced in my lifetime, you know. I'm a painter. I write poetry. I'm invited to different places to speak on movies, and I just get up and talk to them like I'm talking to you. I don't have to research anything. I am the research.

INSKEEP: The late Tony Curtis in 2001, at the end of a career that started when a talent scout spotted him. His first contract in Hollywood paid him $75 a week.

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