Tony Curtis will always be remembered for the 1959 film Some Like It Hot, in which he and Jack Lemmon played musicians who dress in drag and join an all-women jazz band to escape the Mob. Curtis’ character falls for a band mate, played by Marilyn Monroe, whom he woos with yet another gender-switching impersonation—this time a parody of debonair Cary Grant. Asked by an eager reporter what it was like to kiss the voluptuous Monroe, Curtis joked, “It’s like kissing Hitler!”
Curtis was “the rare Hollywood star whose off-screen character was often more colorful than his on-screen ones,” said EW.com. Born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx, N.Y., the son of a struggling tailor and a schizophrenic mother, Curtis spent his youth ducking blows—both from his mother and from neighborhood bullies. World War II offered an escape from his tormentors. Serving aboard the submarine tender Proteus, he witnessed through binoculars Japan’s surrender to the U.S. aboard the battleship Missouri.
Returning to New York, Curtis studied acting at the New School for Social Research, where his classmates included Harry Belafonte and Walter Matthau, said The Boston Globe. A scout for Universal Studios spotted Curtis in a play and signed him to a $75-a-week contract. Adopting the name Anthony Curtis, he starred in a series of period dramas, though his Bronx accent made him sound “like a man with a head cold sipping an egg cream.” Actors and aficionados took to impersonating Curtis delivering the apocryphal line: “Yondah lies da castle of my faddah.”
Better parts soon came his way, and in 1957 he landed the role that established him as a serious actor, the craven publicity agent Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success. But after the triumph of The Defiant Ones (which earned him an Oscar nod), Some Like It Hot, and a memorable part as a Roman slave in 1960’s Spartacus, Curtis’ star began to cool. The 1960s found him stumbling through lame comedies like Sex and the Single Girl, said The Washington Post. “Deeply upset when he was overlooked for an Oscar nomination” for the title role in 1968’s The Boston Strangler, he drifted into alcoholism and drug addiction before getting clean in the early 1980s. He married six times—his daughters by his first wife, Janet Leigh, are the actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Lee Curtis—and often boasted that Jack Lemmon was the only leading lady he didn’t sleep with. Late in life, he took up painting, and with his sixth wife, horse trainer Jill Vandenberg (43 years his junior), he operated a Nevada haven for abused and neglected horses. Curtis never stopped reveling in his film career, despite its disappointments. “Movies,” he said in 1996, “have given me the privilege to be an aristocrat, to be the prince.”