LOS ANGELES — Tony Curtis was a strikingly handsome 23-year-old native New Yorker playing the lead in an off-Broadway production of "Golden Boy" in 1948 when he was spotted by a Universal Pictures talent scout. Sent west for a screen test, he signed a seven-year contract at $75 a week.
"I got into movies so easy it was scary," Curtis told The Denver Post in 1996.
The former Bernie Schwartz went on to become one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the 1950s and '60s, one whose early reputation as a "pretty boy" tended to blur recognition of his growth and range as an actor who starred in some of his era's landmark films.
Curtis, who died of cardiopulmonary arrest Wednesday night at his home in Henderson, Nev., at
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age 85, delivered memorable performances in films such as Billy Wilder's classic comedy "Some Like It Hot" and dramatic roles in "The Defiant Ones" and "Sweet Smell of Success." In 1959, he received an Academy Award nomination for best actor in "The Defiant Ones," the convict-escape film in which he was chained to co-star Sidney Poitier.
He also lived like a movie star and was married five times, most notably to actress Janet Leigh, a union that produced another movie star, Jamie Lee Curtis.
"My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages," Jamie Lee Curtis said in a statement. "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."
For many film fans, Curtis' most memorable role was in "Some Like It Hot," the 1959 film in which he and Jack Lemmon played small-time jazz musicians who witnessed the St. Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago and, pursued by gangsters, posed as women to escape with an all-female jazz band bound for Miami.
In 2000, the American Film Institute named "Some Like It Hot" as the best comedy of the 20th century.
Curtis made more than 60 feature and TV films, including "The Mirror Crack'd" in 1980 with Angela Lansbury and a string of forgettable movies, such as "Lobster Man From Mars" and "The Mummy Lives." He also frequently appeared on television shows and talk shows. Regardless of the role, "Tony always gave his absolute, total best," said former Times movie reviewer Kevin Thomas.
Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, in New York City, the oldest son of Jewish Hungarian immigrants. His father was a tailor, and his mother raised their three boys. Curtis' early life was a series of struggles — he said he was constantly taunted for being young, Jewish and handsome. At 17, he enlisted in the Navy, serving in the Pacific during World War II. After leaving the service, he used the GI Bill for acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research in Manhattan.
That led to some work in the Borscht Belt in the Catskills and later to Yiddish theater in Chicago. He ended up in New York doing "Golden Boy" at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Then it was on to Hollywood.
He changed his first name to Anthony and his last to Curtis — an Anglicized version of a Hungarian family name, Kertesz. But before long, he was known simply as Tony Curtis.
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