Remembering Hollywood Legend Tony Curtis

Oscar-nominated actor Tony Curtis has passed away at his home in Las Vegas at the age of 85. Film expert Murray Horwitz remembers the life of the Hollywood icon and looks back at his roles in films like Spartacus, Some Like It Hot and The Defiant Ones.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Later this hour, we're going to talk about professionalism and harassment in the workplace and focus on the sports locker room. After that, about the loss of your digital sound recordings.

But we begin with Tony Curtis. The actor passed away last night at his home in Las Vegas at the age of 85. Fifties heartthrob, often the comic sidekick, also a leading man, Tony Curtis appeared in well over 100 movies. What part do you remember him for?

800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Or go to our website: npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We've asked TALK OF THE NATION's favorite buff Murray Horwitz to help us look back at the career of this Hollywood legend. He joins us, as always, in Studio 3A.

Murray, nice to have you with us today.

MURRAY HORWITZ: Good to be here, Neal, as always.

CONAN: And Tony Curtis - well, he's Bernard Schwartz.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: He was Bernie Schwartz. And he's sort of famously Bernie Schwartz. You know, he didn't hide the fact that he was the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants. And he grew up in the Bronx, grew up in poverty, actually was in an orphanage for a while, and was really almost that 1950s cliche of the actor who went to the hard knocks school of acting. Although he did study with a very, very famous, actually, avant-garde theater person and leftist theater person from Europe who fled the Nazis named Erwin Piscator. And he was in an acting class in the '40s with Walter Matthau and Harry Belafonte and a lot of really great actors.

CONAN: He grew up in the Yiddish theater?

HORWITZ: Well, he - I think he actually appeared once on the Yiddish stage as Bernard Schwartz. I'm not sure of his billing, but I did - a wonderful philanthropist and community leader, a man named Maynard Wishner in Chicago told me this story years ago, that he'd actually seen Tony Curtis - and this would have been right after World War II - when he was just beginning, maybe even before he started his training. He had to fill in quickly. They needed somebody to play the young, male lead in a - some, you know, romantic, tear-jerking melodrama on the Yiddish stage in Chicago.

And they put him on the train. He got up to Chicago, and he didn't really speak that much Yiddish.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: But Wishner remembered that when he entered, when Tony Curtis took the stage, he heard throughout the audience, shh, shh. And Tony Curtis was kind of bugged by it, and he thought people were telling him to be quiet or be - but they were all saying in Yiddish: (Yiddish spoken). Meaning, he's so beautiful. He's just so gorgeous. (Yiddish spoken). So that was Tony Curtis, and that was dynamic of his career, in many ways.

CONAN: Then went to Hollywood as a contract player for 75 bucks a week.

HORWITZ: Yeah.

CONAN: But - appeared in a bunch of Westerns, once with Jimmy Stewart, but made, I guess, a breakthrough in "The Defiant Ones," where he and Sidney Poitier starred as escaped convicts - the black man and the white man -shackled together.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Defiant Ones")

Mr. TONY CURTIS (Actor): (as John Joker Jackson) Come on, let's go.

Mr. SIDNEY POITIER (Actor): (as Noah Cullen) Go where?

Mr. CURTIS: (as John Joker Jackson) Pineville. Let's head for Pineville.

Mr. POITIER: (as Noah Cullen) Pineville's south. I don't go south.

Mr. CURTIS: (as John Joker Jackson) I used to know a girl in Pineville. If she's still there, we get this broke. Now, come on.

Mr. POITIER: (as Noah Cullen) And then what? I'm a strange colored man in a white South town. How long you think before they pick me up?

Mr. CURTIS: (as John Joker Jackson) Get off my back. I ain't married to you. Now, what do I care? Come on.

Mr. POITIER: (as Noah Cullen) You married to me, all right, Joker, and here's the ring. But I ain't going south on no honeymoon. Now, we going north.

HORWITZ: He - it's - I mean, you may remember, Neal, when that film came out -I think it's 1957, thereabouts - it was a real landmark. And in an industry that had to sometimes excise scenes with integrated jazz bands - for example, the Benny Goodman Quartet - before they could run in the South, the idea of a black actor and a white actor portraying characters who were chained together was of enormous symbolic significance in - during the civil rights movement.

And, in fact, you mentioned his breakthrough. His breakthrough came earlier. I mean, I remember him as Houdini in the film of the same name, playing another famous Jew. And he...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: A gut-buster of a role.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: He - people will remember. But, in any case, he insisted that Poitier be given equal billing to him, even though he was the star in that picture by Stanley Kramer.

CONAN: And you hear him with that Southern accent, and you have to - well, it's a smile.

HORWITZ: It is a smile. It's not nearly as bad as it was in the - what was that thing he did where he was - it was a swashbuckler. There was the...

CONAN: Was it "Taras Bulba"?

HORWITZ: No, no. That - much, much later. He was in "The Black Shield of Falworth," and there he is as this courtier with this Bronx accent, talking about how he's going to challenge him to a duel.

CONAN: Yonder lies the castle of me father.

HORWITZ: Right. Exactly. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: (unintelligible). Let's see if we can get some people on the line. 800-989-8255. We'll start with Al(ph), Al calling us from Jacksonville.

AL (Caller): Yes. This is Al from Jacksonville. And thank you so much for NPR.

CONAN: Go ahead.

AL: I was just - during this week, I was thinking of - trying to think of the movie that Tony Curtis starred in with Sidney Poitier, and while holding on, I heard on - over the phone that it was "The Defiant Ones." And so, I've been wanting to get that movie because it - the music behind that, the score, it's kind of interesting. And I kind of like the music. Now, do your guest know much about the music and the scores that was playing behind in the "The Defiant Ones"? And who else was there in that movie who's a standout today? There's one guy, I think he was - he had kind of a quirky hairdo. He was a comedian, and he had a small part in that movie. Can your guest think of him?

HORWITZ: I don't know. I apologize, Al, because I don't know who did the music. As I mentioned, it was directed by Stanley Kramer, a guy who made his - you know, his reputation doing these activist films and these socially relevant films. But the standout supporting performer in that is Theodore Bikel, who played - with a much more persuasive Southern accent, I must say - who played the sheriff, the guy in charge of finding the guys. And it was - I'm going to guess, I don't know, but he might even have been nominated for an Academy Award. The film had such an impact, it was nominated for a great number of awards.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Al. The other film that - well, again, he didn't have the biggest part in this picture, but the sword-and-sandal epic -well, announces the name of his part, which, of course, he didn't really have.

(Soundbite of movie, "Spartacus")

Mr. CURTIS: (as Antoninus) I'm Spartacus.

Unidentified Man #1: I'm Spartacus.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm Spartacus.

Unidentified Man #3: I'm Spartacus.

Unidentified Man #4: I'm Spartacus.

Unidentified Man #5: I'm Spartacus.

Unidentified Man #6: I'm Spartacus.

Unidentified Man #7: I'm Spartacus.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

CONAN: And Murray, let's just say, you and I, we're Spartacus.

HORWITZ: We are Spartacus. We are all Spartacus. It's Spartacus's world. We're just living in it. But I have to tell you, I get chills just listening to the audio of that. You know, and it's important to remember: I mentioned that he worked with Stanley Kramer. He worked with a great many amazing directors, including Stanley Kubrick. And, you know, he was in not only landmark films like "The Defiant Ones" and you might argue "The Boston Strangler" and a couple others, but he was in a couple of real masterpieces: "Spartacus" and what many people consider to be the greatest film comedy of all time, "Some Like It Hot."

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

Mr. CURTIS: (as Joe) What's the matter now?

Mr. JACK LEMMON (Actor): (as Jerry) How do they walk in these things? Huh? How do they keep their balance?

Mr. CURTIS: (as Joe) It must be the way their weight is distributed. Now, come on.

Mr. LEMMON: (as Jerry) It is so drafty. They must be catching cold all the time, huh?

Mr. CURTIS: (as Joe) Will you quit stalling? We're going to miss the train.

Mr. LEMMON: (as Jerry) I feel naked. I feel like everybody's staring at me.

Mr. CURTIS: (as Joe) With those legs? Are you crazy? Now, come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: Just - it's just one of the - it's a perfect screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder, who collaborated on many classics. That's their best. Billy Wilder, one of the greatest directors of all time. And it's a perfect movie.

CONAN: Well, we think of comedies like that, but every once in a while, we - of course, "The Defiant Ones" was a drama, too - but "Sweet Smell of Success," Tony Curtis plays a ruthless press agent. Here he is, talking to Walter Winchell - I mean, Burt Lancaster. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: Hunsecker.

CONAN: ...New York's most powerful columnist, about a young couple he plans to break up to get his client some publicity.

(Soundbite of movie, "Sweet Smell of Success")

Mr. BURT LANCASTER (Actor): (as J.J. Hunsecker) What has this boy got that Susie likes?

Mr. CURTIS: (as Sidney Falco) Integrity. Acute, like indigestion.

Mr. LANCASTER: (as J.J. Hunsecker) What does this mean, integrity?

Mr. CURTIS: (as Sidney Falco) A pocket full of firecrackers waiting for a match. You know, it's a new wrinkle. To tell you the truth, I never thought I'd make a killing on some guy's integrity.

Mr. LANCASTER: (as J.J. Hunsecker) I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: A cookie full of arsenic.

Mr. HORWITZ: Another not-bad screenplay at all.

CONAN: He uses his dialogue as a rapier. You know, oh...

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah, he's just it's a terrific characterization. Sidney Falco is the character's name, and the perfect foil for the very evil Burt Lancaster.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jen, and Jen's with us from Duluth.

JEN (Caller): Yeah, hi. Thanks for taking my call. One of my favorite movies -well, "Some Like it Hot," obviously - but I think "Operation Petticoat" with Cary Grant, which is even funnier, considering the kind of take-off that Tony Curtis did of Cary Grant in "Some Like it Hot." And it's kind of a bit of fluff, but I just, it's such a fun movie to watch. I think Dina Merrill's in it also.

Mr. HORWITZ: Jen, you've got two men here, like, blessing you, you know, over the radio, because it's a personal favorite of both Neal's and mine. And the pink submarine is one of the great movie images of all time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here he is talking with Cary Grant, Officer Nick Holden, played by Curtis, being quizzed about his experience in the Navy.

(Soundbite of film, "Operation Petticoat")

Mr. CARY GRANT (Actor): (As Lieutenant Commander Matt T. Sherman) Have you ever been in a submarine before, Mr. Holden?

Mr. CURTIS: (As Lieutenant JG Nicholas Holden) No, sir.

Mr. GRANT: (As Sherman) We could use a good torpedo and gunnery officer. Any experience along those lines?

Mr. CURTIS: (As Holden) Guns? I'm afraid not, sir. No.

Mr. GRANT: (As Sherman) How about navigation?

Mr. CURTIS: (As Holden) Terribly sorry.

Mr. GRANT: (As Sherman) Communications?

Mr. CURTIS: (As Holden) Wish I could help you out, sir.

Mr. GRANT: (As Sherman) Tell me: Before you became an admiral's aide, what did you do in the Navy, Mr. Holden?

Mr. CURTIS: (As Holden) Well, sir, I was primarily an idea man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: It's an underrated comedy. It really is.

CONAN: There's not too many submarine well, I guess there was "Down Periscope" many years later. But we're going to do the submarine movie one day.

Mr. HORWITZ: I defer to your expertise.

CONAN: Jen, what did you particularly like about him in that part?

JEN: I just think Tony Curtis is his delivery is absolutely hilarious. And there's just, I mean, he always looks like, you know, the cat that just ate the bird.

Mr. HORWITZ: And he also always looked good, didn't he, Jen?

JEN: Oh, absolutely. Well, I think that's one thing, he always did look good, but and, you know, the fact that his uniform was tailored and then the champagne and the golf clubs, and just - it was just one of my very favorite movies. It's just so much fun to watch.

Mr. HORWITZ: Did you ever see him stripped to the waist in "Trapeze"?

CONAN: Yes, I did, but I think Jen might have been more interested than me. But anyway, Jen, thank you very much for the call.

JEN: Well, Cary Grant's my personal favorite of all time. So Tony Curtis, he's in the top 10, at least.

Mr. HORWITZ: That's great.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Yvonne(ph) writes from Sonoma, California: I'm 60 years old. I remember my first aching, relentless crush was on Tony Curtis after seeing him in "Taras Bulba" around 1962. He was gorgeous, passionate, and I wanted him more than life itself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORWITZ: I can't - I've never had a crush like that. I don't think so. But that was right in the sort of sweet spot of his career. I mean, he had he was a number one or close to number one box office draw during that time, from like '58 to, say, '63, and worked with an enormous number of stars, male and female, an enormous number of first-rate directors all during that time.

CONAN: And it's been a long time since he's been working regularly, but we will miss him.

Mr. HORWITZ: We will miss him. He was I hate to use the cliche, but it's true he's one of the last of the great movie stars.

CONAN: Murray Horwitz, film historian and TALK OF THE NATION's favorite movie buff, joined us here in Studio 3A. Murray, thanks, as always.

Mr. HORWITZ: Thank you, Neal

CONAN: Stay with us. Coming up, gender politics in the locker room. We'll talk about what's changed for women's sports reporters in the past 25 years. That one incident earlier this month maybe not a lot.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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