Friday, October 01, 2010

Tony Curtis

As he morphed from Bernie Schwartz, a Depression kid of my generation who believed in the immigrant dream and lived it, Tony Curtis, who died this week, never lost the exuberance that came from growing up in a time when everything seemed possible because life couldn't possibly get worse.

Unlike most of us, who counted on our brains to escape Bronx squalor, Bernie was also blessed with a pretty face and he made the most of it, graduating from Universal's good-looks can't-act mill, along with Rock Hudson and others, to make a star of himself by working hard and choosing his mentors wisely.

He shone as "a cookie laced with arsenic" in Burt Lancaster's "Sweet Smell of Success;" chained to Sidney Poitier in Stanley Kramer's "The Defiant Ones;" and, most of all, in drag and doing a Cary Grant impression to woo Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder's 1959 classic, "Some Like It Hot."

That year, on my first trip to Hollywood as a magazine editor, he was married to the lovely Janet Leigh, who had chided me when we met in New York for titling a piece about Tony, "I Grew Up Stealing," but relented and invited my family to visit.

My wife, new baby and I arrived at their Beverly Hills home with a circular driveway full of antique cars. Inside, we met the children, a sweet little girl named Kelly and a baby sister, Jamie Lee. As Janet took my wife on a tour of the house, Tony took me aside.

He gave me an abashed Bernie Schwartz smile and admitted he didn't know to make the martini my wife had asked for. I gave him a demonstration of the fine art of handling gin, vermouth and lemon peel, a social skill he would put to good use in the following decades as a suave international movie star.

He never stopped learning, as an actor and as a painter with enough skill to impress the Museum of Modern Art, even through a life filled with failed marriages, bad movies and a stay at the Betty Ford Center for drug and alcohol abuse.

That baby back then, Jamie Lee Curtis, now a movie star herself, estranged from him after her parents' divorce, now sums up Tony Curtis:

"My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages. He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him and a wife and in-laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world."

R.I.P., Bernie.

1 comment:

Nick said...

I interviewed him a few years ago and only just blogged about it some weeks ago. Fabulous actor and lovely man.