Fresh Air Remembers 'Spartacus' Star Tony Curtis Actor Tony Curtis, whose notable roles included parts in The Sweet Smell of Success and Spartacus died on Wednesday night of heart failure. He was 85.  Fresh Air remembers the legendary actor with highlights from a 1991 interview.

Fresh Air Remembers 'Spartacus' Star Tony Curtis

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Actor Tony Curtis died Wednesday at his home near Las Vegas, at the age 85. Born as Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx, Curtis became a classic Hollywood leading man. He earned an Oscar nomination for his role as an escaped convict in the 1958 film "The Defiant Ones." And he's remembered for impersonating a female jazz musician in "Some Like It Hot."

Tony Curtis visited FRESH AIR in 1991 to talk about a reissue of the epic film "Spartacus," in which Curtis played a slave boy who joined a rebellion against the Roman Empire. The reissue of "Spartacus" included footage that had been cut from the original because of violent or sexual content.

Before we hear Terry's interview with Tony Curtis, let's listen to one of the scenes which was restored in the reissued version. Here, Tony Curtis' character is attending to his master, a Roman general, in the bath. Curtis gives his master a robe, then the master, played by Laurence Olivier, fills his slave boy in on the realities of captivity in Rome.

(Soundbite of movie, "Spartacus")

(Soundbite of music)

Sir LAURENCE OLIVIER (Actor): (as Marcus Licinius Crassus) There, boy, is Rome - the might, the majesty, the terror of Rome. There is the power that bestrides the known world like a colossus. No man can withstand Rome. No nation can withstand her. How much less a boy? Hmm? There's one way to deal with Rome, Antoninus. You must serve her. You must abase yourself before her. You must grovel at her feet. You must - love her. Isn't that so, Antoninus?

DAVIES: Laurence Olivier, addressing the Tony Curtis character in a reissued version of the 1960 film "Spartacus."

Terry asked Curtis to describe the part of the scene that was cut from the original.

Mr. TONY CURTIS (Actor): The scene has Larry Olivier and I in a tub, and I'm his slave and I'm washing him, and he tries to convince me to have, probably, a homosexual relationship with him. And after the proposition, I disappear and join Spartacus' forces. So that is in essence, what that scene is about.


Yes, except that it's very metaphoric, the whole thing is so...

Mr. CURTIS: Well, he doesn't come out and say I want to stick it to you with the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CURTIS: I mean, you know, he talks about snails and oysters. It's a clever way of - or they thinks it's an artistic way of doing it. I would've much preferred the scene were a little more blatant in its approach, because it would've been a lot more logical and perhaps a lot more realistic. But somebody thought it was kind of fanciful to talk of fish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CURTIS: I really don't know why.

GROSS: Well, I actually have the script from that scene in front of me.

Mr. CURTIS: Yeah.

GROSS: So let me read some it. I won't pretend like I'm you or Olivier.

Mr. CURTIS: Well, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Crassus, played by Olivier, ask you a bunch of questions. He asked you: Do you steal, Antoninus? And you say, no master. And he says, do you lie? And you say, no master. And he says, have you ever dishonored the gods? And you say, no. He says do you refrain from these vices out of respect for the moral virtues? And you say, yes. Then he asks you if you eat oysters and if you eat snails, and you say yeah, that you eat oysters, but you don't eat snails. And he asks you if you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral, and so on. And then he confesses that he eats both.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CURTIS: Yes.

GROSS: He's kind of like swinging both ways type of a subtext here.

Mr. CURTIS: Yeah, that's it. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So did you and Olivier really talk through the scene before you did it? You know...

Mr. CURTIS: Absolutely not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CURTIS: There was nothing to talk through. There I am in a bikini, standing...

GROSS: Yeah, you're wearing your bathing trunks.

Mr. CURTIS: ...standing over him while he sits in a bikini in a tub. I mean, it really doesn't take a lot of internal dialogue to describe or even know what's going on.

GROSS: Was there a big fight with the censors over the scene?

Mr. CURTIS: No, there wasn't. I don't think the studio had any plans to really put it in, you know?

GROSS: Well, whose idea was it to put it in?

Mr. CURTIS: Well, it had to go in. Larry Olivier and I wouldn't have done the other scenes had not that scene been shot. See, it was written in the script, and before the picture was made, they decided that it was not going to end up in the movie. So we shot that scene, but only under protest. Larry and I told the production department and the producer of the film that we would not be interested in doing the second scene unless we had that first scene, and we wouldn't do that first scene unless we had the scene before it where he sees me in the lineup and says to me: Your name? You will attend to me.

All of those were implicit in this kind of string of the relationship between Crassus and Antoninus. That's what you call complete movie-making. It was very important. And for them to cut that scene out hurt that whole center of the film, and I feel it hurt the movie completely because it kind of - it kind of, you know, washed it down to nothing so you weren't quite sure what that meant.

GROSS: So did either of you take the lead in objecting to the scene being cut or insisting that that scene be played?

Mr. CURTIS: No, we both - we both knew what the relationship between Crassus and Antoninus was, and we both insisted that the scenes had to be done the way the script was written. So we got them to shoot that scene. But they never recorded the sound, you know, they discarded the sound because they knew that it would probably never be in the film. Larry and I hoped it would be and when we saw the final cut and realized they had cut it, we knew that, you know, it was hurting the performances, but there was nothing we could do about it, and here we are 30-some odd years later and its back in the movie, and I'm sure if Larry were alive he'd really be happy to know that.

GROSS: Did you need any special training for this Roman epic?

Mr. CURTIS: Nothing more than doing pushups.

GROSS: Did you have to make those muscles bulge just a little bit more?

Mr. CURTIS: Yeah, right. In fact, when the picture started, Larry came up to me, said, Tony, where do I get arms like that? I said come with me, sir, and I took him behind the stage. I said get down on the floor, which he did. I said now do like I do, push up. So I gave him a series of pushups to do. We do them every morning together. That's one of the fondest memories I have on that picture, Larry and I doing pushups in the morning.

GROSS: Do you remember any of the logistical problems in the big battle scene?

Mr. CURTIS: Yes. There was a scene that was shot in Death Valley, if I'm not mistaken. I dont remember now the exact location. We're down in the valley, with thousands of soldiers and men lined up in the camera, panned up and came up a hill. And as it came up a hill, it disclosed, I think, Spartacus on a horse. And just as that camera came there, the horse bolted and took Kirk off in a big steam of sand and dirt and was never seen again in that that shot. So we had to go do it again. It was really a complicated scene. And that horse just would not, you know, pay attention to it, because after all of the action, the camera would slowly pan and disclose that horse.

So it had those kind of problems, you know? Charlie McGraw, an actor who was doing a scene with Kirk Douglas and me, he was the he was the -what would you call it, the guy that ran the gladiator school. He and Spartacus when they revolt have their fight and in the struggle, Kirk pushed his head, Charles McGraw's head, onto the edge of the barrel and split his eye open. You can see it in the movie, just blood gushing out. So that held up the shooting for a long time.

GROSS: Oh, you mean he really hurt him accidentally?

Mr. CURTIS: Yes. So there were always accidents like that. I had hurt my tendon on the film and at one point I just couldnt walk so they gave me a cast and I tried to, you know, maneuver through that, which worked all right. Let's see, what else? Oh, there were a number of these things, a lot of horses falling down with people on it - people getting broken arms. But you know, that's the nature of the profession and we were all kind of prepared for it. We rather liked the adventure of it and the danger of it. You know, it all adds to the making of a movie.

GROSS: The way Spartacus was cast, all the Romans were played by British actors.

Mr. CURTIS: Yes.

GROSS: And all the slaves were played by...

Mr. CURTIS: Americans.

GROSS: Americans. The Americans, a lot of ethnic Americans were in there too.

Mr. CURTIS: Yes.

GROSS: What was the rationale for that?

Mr. CURTIS: I think they did it - in retrospect, you see, I feel it was probably done with, you know, with an intent that that aristocratic clipped English sound sounded 0 was in a way itself masterful, that kind of language looked down on anybody else and everybody else. And by casting most of all the slaves with Americans, you saw that very distinct difference between the two, and I think that helped in some of the scenes, you know?

GROSS: It probably played on American stereotypes too of, you know, the British being - because the comparison it was made between the British and the Romans, you know.

Mr. CURTIS: Yes.

GROSS: More high culture, I think.

Mr. CURTIS: But that's, yes, that's been going on for a long time in films, you know?

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. CURTIS: Every time you needed someone to - who seemed to have a higher elevation of intelligence, they always seemed to cast Englishmen, or that kind of a clipped sound, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Youve been in several other period movies and period epics, including "Taras Bulba." How did you like doing period movies. Did you have mixed feelings about some of them?

Mr. CURTIS: No, I didnt. I love every movie I ever made and I've done every conceivable kind of movie. I've played a woman. I've played doctors, lawyers. I've been - I played a child in a movie. I've been football players. I've been pilots. I've been in the Army, the Navy, in the Marine Corps. So I've played really a great number of different kind of parts and people, so I loved them all.

DAVIES: Tony Curtis speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1991. Curtis died Wednesday. He was 85.

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