Actor Tony Curtis dies at Las Vegas-area home

LAS VEGAS — The Clark County coroner says actor Tony Curtis has died.

KEN RITTER,Associated Press Writer Modified: September 30, 2010 at 12:04 pm •  Published: September 30, 2010
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After his star faded in the late 1960s, Curtis shifted to lesser roles. With jobs harder to find, he fell into drug and alcohol addiction.

"From 22 to about 37, I was lucky," Curtis told Interview magazine in the 1980s, "but by the middle '60s, I wasn't getting the kind of parts I wanted, and it kind of soured me. ... But I had to go through the drug inundation before I was able to come to grips with it and realize that it had nothing to do with me, that people weren't picking on me."

He recovered in the early '80s after a 30-day treatment at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

"Mine was a textbook case," he said in a 1985 interview. "My life had become unmanageable because of booze and dope. Work became a strain and a struggle. Because I didn't want to face the challenge, I simply made myself unavailable."

One role during that era of struggle did bring him an Emmy nomination: his portrayal of David O. Selznick in the TV movie "The Scarlett O'Hara War," in 1980.

He remained vigorous following heart bypass surgery in 1994, although his health declined in recent years.

In a 2007 interview with the Las Vegas Sun, he described his frustration during a lengthy hospitalization for a bout with pneumonia in 2006. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported he was hospitalized several times in more recent years in Henderson and New York with breathing trouble, including once in July.

Curtis took a fatherly pride in daughter Jamie's success. They were estranged for a long period, then reconciled. "I understand him better now," she said, "perhaps not as a father but as a man."

He also had five other children. Daughters Kelly, also with Leigh, and Allegra, with second wife Christine Kaufmann, also became actresses. His other wives were Leslie Allen, Lisa Deutsch and Jill VandenBerg, whom he married in 1998.

He had married Janet Leigh in 1951, when they were both rising young stars; they divorced in 1963.

"Tony and I had a wonderful time together; it was an exciting, glamorous period in Hollywood," Leigh, who died in 2004, once said. "A lot of great things happened, most of all, two beautiful children."

Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925, the son of Hungarian Jews who had emigrated to the United States after World War I. His father, Manny Schwartz, had yearned to be an actor, but work was hard to find with his heavy accent. He settled for tailoring jobs, moving the family repeatedly as he sought work.

"I was always the new kid on the block, so I got beat up by the other kids," Curtis recalled in 1959. "I had to figure a way to avoid getting my nose broken. So I became the crazy new kid on the block."

His sidewalk histrionics helped avoid beatings and led to acting in plays at a settlement house. He also grew to love movies. "My whole culture as a boy was movies," he said. "For 11 cents, you could sit in the front row of a theater for 10 hours, which I did constantly."

After serving in the Pacific during World War II and being wounded at Guam, he returned to New York and studied acting under the G.I. Bill. He appeared in summer stock theater and on the Borscht Circuit in the Catskills. Then an agent lined up an audition with a Universal-International talent scout. In 1948, at 23, he signed a seven-year contract with the studio, starting at $100 a week.

Bernie Schwartz sounded too Jewish for a movie actor, so the studio gave him a new name: Anthony Curtis, taken from his favorite novel, "Anthony Adverse," and the Anglicized name of a favorite uncle. After his eighth film, he became Tony Curtis.

The studio helped smooth the rough edges off the ambitious young actor. The last to go was his street-tinged Bronx accent, which had become a Hollywood joke.

Curtis pursued another career as an artist, creating Matisse-like still lifes with astonishing speed. "I'm a recovering alcoholic," he said in 1990 as he concluded a painting in 40 minutes in the garden of the Bel-Air Hotel. "Painting has given me such a great pleasure in life, helped me to recover."

He also turned to writing, producing a 1977 novel, "Kid Cody and Julie Sparrow." In 1993, he wrote "Tony Curtis: The Autobiography."

___

Associated Press writer Bob Thomas in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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