Tony Curtis' Hollywood legacy
He was nominated for only one Oscar, but Tony Curtis leaves behind a big-screen legacy as few other actors have or, for that matter, probably ever will.
The actor, who died late Wednesday night at the age of 85 at his home in Nevada (you can read The Times' obituary here), was shortlisted by the academy for his role as a racist convict in "The Defiant Ones."
It was one of numerous parts that epitomized Curtis' career and shaped a filmgoing zeitgeist throughout the 1950s and '60s. In "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957), Curtis played a slick and shady press agent to Burt Lancaster's equally unscrupulous Broadway publicist. In the Blake Edwards' World War II comedy "Operation Petticoat" (1959), Curtis inhabits the role of a submarine officer with unorthodox motives and methods.
Billy Wilder's 1959 comic romp "Some Like It Hot" had Curtis and Jack Lemmon as struggling Chicago musicians who fled town while dressed as women to escape the Mafia. (A funny scene from that film, with Curtis and Lemmon in drag, is below.) In the screwball comedy "Sex and the Single Girl" (1964), Curtis plays a reporter for a men's magazine who impersonates a psychologist to get closer to a successful author (Natalie Wood).
Later in his career, the 1968 drama "The Boston Strangler" saw Curtis taking on the heady character of a disturbed serial killer.
The actor with the pin-up looks continued working well past the point when most performers would have hung it up and simply accepted lifetime achievement awards. (He was slated, at least according to some databases, to take on a role in an upcoming adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story "Morella.")
In his personal life, Curtis was almost as colorful as he was on screen, from his humble beginnings as the son of immigrants in the Bronx to numerous marriages, a stint in rehab, a second career as a painter and a stubborn refusal to go quietly into old age. Curtis' life and Hollywood history are permanently entwined -- he played opposite iconic actors as diverse as Sidney Poitier and Marlyn Monroe. And of course he was married to Janet Leigh, with whom he fathered Jamie Lee Curtis.
But what's perhaps most remarkable about Curtis' career was his fluid ability to move between comedy and drama, and our willingness to embrace him in both. In the current era of typecasting, few even try, and those who do rarely succeed.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco in 'Sweet Smell of Success.' Credit: United Artists
[For the record, 6:10 a.m.: An earlier version of this post said Lauren Bacall played the successful author in "Sex and the Single Girl." She played the married woman who lives next door to Curtis; Natalie Wood played the author.]
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