Star of the Month: Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis Survives the Streets of New York, Joins the Navy, Inspires Elvis, Has AMAZING Hair, Loves Beautiful Women, and Can Paint!

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I’ll be completely honest: I’ve never been a huge Tony Curtis fan.

Much of that feeling stems from the fact that as a nine-year-old Marilyn Monroe mega fan, I was well aware of Tony’s now infamous remarks made about Some Like It Hot (1959) that compared kissing Marilyn to kissing Hitler.

Tony and Marilyn in Some Like It Hot (1959). Tony would compare kissing Marilyn to "kissing Hitler," but it was a comment taken out of context by the press.

Finally a Tony Curtis Fan

Over the years, I was never intrigued enough by Tony or his performances to seek out his side of the story on this comment, and I’ve always rallied to Marilyn’s defense. (As it turns out, Tony didn’t really mean that line, and truthfully found kissing Marilyn to be an out of this world experience, as most of us would expect!)

But, when I reviewed Some Like It Hot earlier this year, the Tony Curtis bug finally bit me: while reading his 1993 autobiography [aff. link], I became utterly intrigued by the intelligence and humor Tony brought to each page of his story.  This was a guy whose ambition, looks, talent, and work ethic took him from the impoverished streets of New York to become one of Classic Hollywood’s biggest stars.  

If that’s not admirable and intriguing, I don’t know what is.  

Researching Tony Curtis

I found myself wanting to learn more about this star who I’d all but ignored throughout my near lifelong obsession with Classic Hollywood.

So I was thrilled to discover that TCM selected Tony to be our July Star of the Month.  Tony’s a bit of an enigma—rough around the edges despite his polished look, a man permanently scarred by his difficult childhood who still projected an aura of carefree confidence, a man who thrived on the attention of beautiful women and couldn’t choose just one to love, but had a hard time accepting similar behavior from his wives…

Here are a few things about Tony Curtis you didn’t know:

He Had a Rough Childhood

Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925 in Manhattan.  Young Bernie and his little brother, Julius, were first generation Americans—his parents Emanuel and Helen were Jewish-Hungarian immigrants to the US.

The living Emanuel made from his work as a tailor was barely enough for the Schwartz family to get by.  Tony would later recount in his 2008 autobiography [aff. link] that

“At one point we lived in the back of my father’s tailor shop in a building that had been condemned by the city.”

Hungarian was the language spoken at home, and Bernie wouldn’t learn English until he began elementary school.

Young Bernie Schwartz, who would grow up to be Tony Curtis.

A Difficult Childhood

It was a rough childhood.  Bernie was teased at school by anti-Semitic classmates, yet he couldn’t find solace at home, where his mother, who would later be diagnosed as a schizophrenic, abused him.

“The only person I can honestly say I liked was my brother Julius, who was four years younger than I was.  When I was six or seven, my parents let me know I was responsible for Julie, and I took that very seriously.  I knew I was his surrogate father.”

The bond between ten-year-old Bernie and six-year-old Julie would grow even stronger when, at the height of the Great Depression, Helen and Emanuel dropped their two boys off at Sycamore House, a government sponsored orphanage.  Bernie and Julie would spend a month at the orphanage, not knowing when or if their parents would come back for them.  Tony would later remember that:

“I had no idea where they were going or why, and it frightened me to death.”

Young Bernie Schwartz already sporting the Tony Curtis trademark hair.

A Life-Changing Tragedy

If you thought going to an orphanage wasn’t hard enough, Bernie experienced even greater tragedy when, just a few years later, his beloved little brother was hit by a truck and killed.  Thirteen-year-old Bernie, not his parents, was called upon to identify the body.  Though no way involved in the accident, Tony Cutis would feel responsible for his brother’s death the rest of his life: in Tony’s mind, he was Julie’s protector, and should have been there to save his brother.

Experiences such as this molded young Bernie into a tough, street smart kid.  Tony Curtis, movie star, would look back and put just about as positive a spin as possible on the tragic events of his childhood.

“Over time I learned to cope, mostly by realizing that I couldn’t count on anyone else, which later on would have the unexpected benefit of making me resourceful and independent.”

It was a sad realization, but Bernie was a survivor who would find solace and escape from his loneliness and bouts with depression through the movies and art.

Sixteen-year-old Bernie Schwartz forged his mother's signature so he could join the Navy.

He Was In The Navy

At age 16, Bernie Schwartz needed an escape:

“I so desperately wanted to get away. I knew if I hung around much longer, I’d never escape.  So I decided to join the Navy and see the world.”

Sixteen-year-old Bernie was too young to join the Navy without parental consent, so he forged his mother’s signature on a permission form, and officially joined the Navy.  For the first time in his life, young Bernie felt like a person of value: he excelled in signalman school and learned Morse code before deciding to pursue submarine training, where he was promoted from Seaman First Class to Signalman Third Class.

Young Bernie Schwartz would spend three years in the Navy before being honorably discharged in 1945, shortly after witnessing General Douglas MacArthur sign the peace treaty with Japan.  Tony Curtis would view his time in the Navy with fondness and say

“I enjoyed the Navy because our country looked after us—I don’t know how else to put it.  The Navy was my surrogate family…I have to say that I totally enjoyed the Navy experience.”

Tony would remain a lifelong supporter of the Navy, and would sponsor the US Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. in his later years.

He Always Wanted to Be in the Movies

Tony Curtis would begin his 2008 autobiography [aff. link] by stating that

“All my life I had one dream, and that was to be in the movies.  Maybe it was because I had a pretty rough childhood, or perhaps it was because I was always more than a little insecure, but as a kid I longed to see myself ten feet tall on the big screen.”

It was this dream that got Bernie Schwartz through his difficult childhood, and gave him direction and purpose after his Navy service.  Young Bernie would study acting at the New School under the GI Bill before getting his big break in 1948 when a Universal Studios executive saw him perform in an off-broadway production of Golden Boy.  His raw performance and good looks struck the executive, and Bernie Schwartz was brought out to California for a screen test.  He signed a standard seven year contract with the studio, and changed his name to “Tony Curtis” shortly thereafter.

The Rumba Made Tony Curtis Famous

Tony would share in his later years that

“Going to Hollywood had been my life’s plan since I could remember, and I was too naive to know it almost never works out that way.”

But for Tony Curtis, it would work out, thanks to a two minute rumba dance sequence in the 1949 film noir, Criss Cross.  Quite literally, all Tony did in the film was dance the rumba with Yvonne de Carlo for two minutes, but Tony’s gyrating dance moves stole the show, and proved his ticket to bigger roles at Universal:

Tony dances the rumba with Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross (1949), the film that brought him to the attention of moviegoers.

“I was supposed to do the rumba, whatever that was.  I just shook my body like crazy, and everyone loved it…I was going to dance, dammit , girl or no girl.  So I kept on going.  They liked that too…

I’d been on screen exactly two minutes, but they turned out to be the most important two minutes of my life.”

Tony's hair was unique in the age of crew cuts, and reportedly inspired a young Elvis Presley.

The Guy with Tony Curtis' Hair

The other thing about that two minute rumba sequence that brought Tony Curtis to the attention of moviegoers was his hair: in the age of crew cuts, here was this attractive kid with a full head of hair, slicked back on the sides and worn long and curly on top.

Tony viewed his hair as a “weapon in my arsenal that no-one else had.”  In fact, between 1949 and 1951, Tony Curtis’ hair was more famous than Tony Curtis!  Young men around the country began styling their hair like Tony, including one youth by the name of Elvis Presley.  Tony would look back on this time of his career and say that

“You can’t imagine the publicity my hair generated.  The studio didn’t have enough money to pay for that kind of publicity.  My hair took on a life of its own…I felt like introducing myself to people as ‘the guy with Tony Curtis’s hair.’”

The crazy thing is, Tony’s hair would still be considered extremely stylish and desirable today.  Fashion truly comes full circle, and Tony Curtis definitely started a recurrent trend with with his perfect hair.

He Knew He Was Attractive. And He Liked to Look GOOD.

As a boy, Bernie Schwartz noticed that his appearance earned him special attention, and sometimes that wasn’t so good: Tony would speculate as an adult that perhaps the reason why his mother beat him while he was growing up was because she couldn’t understand why her son “looked nothing like her.”

It wasn’t until a kind doctor, who treated teenaged Bernie for an injury, told him to use his appearance to make something of himself that Bernie realized he could use his looks to his advantage:

“It was the first time anyone had told me that I was good-looking, or that I should make something of my life.  But both thoughts stayed with me.  I think I’ve aways been vain, but this is when I first became fully aware of it…I loved the way people looked at me.  Underneath all that hair was a good-looking face.  I’ve always been a little ashamed of acknowledging that I was handsome, but the truth is that I took real pleasure in looking good.”

A Sharp Dresser

And with a father who was an expert tailor, Tony Curtis’ desire to look good didn’t stop at his face and hair: Tony would always have an admiration for sharp dressers, like Cary Grant.  After years of poverty and being teased by his classmates for wearing hand-me-downs, Tony Curtis would revel in the fine clothes and fashions he was able to finally afford as a Hollywood Star.  Tony would even attribute the importance he placed on fine clothes and his appearance after stardom to those early years of poverty and teasing:

“It’s funny how life works sometimes.  Just because this one kid baited me about my clothing, I would become very meticulous about how I dressed and take great pleasure in looking good.”

He Loved the Attention of Beautiful Women. And Was Married 6 Times.

Tony freely admitted to the fact that he thrived on the attention of beautiful women all his life.  And while Tony’s philandering is less than admirable, there’s something refreshing in his honesty about his appreciation for the beautiful women he was lucky enough to be surrounded by during his years as a Hollywood Star:

“I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, because I don’t want people to think badly of me, but it’s part of my makeup, and I can’t pretend otherwise.  Some people need alcohol.  Some people need drugs.  I need the attention of beautiful women.”

Tony would marry six beautiful women over his 85 years.  Here’s a quick rundown on the six Mrs. Tony Curtises:

Tony with first wife, Janet Leigh. The two were a Hollywood Dream Couple.

Janet Leigh (1951-1962)

Popular actress Janet Leigh was already an established star by the time she met Tony Curtis.  Janet’s big break came when the eighteen-year-old’s photo was spotted by superstar Norma Shearer in a ski resort album.  Shearer was so impressed that she took the photo back to MGM, and the rest as they say, is history.

Tony and Janet became one of Hollywood’s Golden Couples when they married, against the wishes of their respective studios, in 1951.  The marriage ended up being beneficial to both of their careers, however, and moviegoers couldn’t get enough of this gorgeous couple.  As Tony himself would say:

“When Janet and I hit, we became the undisputed darlings of the Hollywood media. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor? Forget it.  Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher?  Not a chance.”

Tony and Janet would have two daughters together, Kelly and Jamie Lee—who you’ve no doubt heard of!  The dream marriage was not such a dream in its final years though, and Tony would leave the marriage after a passionate affair with Christine Kauffmann, his young co-star in Taras Bulba (1962).

Tony with Christine Kaufmann, his teenage co-star in the epic Taras Bulba (1962), and soon-to-be-wife.

Christine Kaufmann (1963-1968)

Kaufmann was Tony’s seventeen year old co-star in the epic Taras Bulba  (1962). The two began a passionate affair during filming, and married a month after Christine’s eighteenth birthday in February 1963. The Hollywood press was not kind to Curtis about the twenty year age difference between him and his teenage bride.  Accurately or not, Tony was painted as a careless man who deserted Janet and his daughters for Christine. 

Two more daughters, Alexandra and Allegra, came from this second marriage, which ultimately dissolved when Christine was seen hitting the Hollywood nightclub scene with Dean Martin’s son, Rick.  Even though Tony had his own, more discreet, infidelities during the marriage, he couldn’t take the flagrantly public affairs of his wife, and the two divorced in 1968.

Tony with wife number three, Leslie "Penny" Allen.

Leslie “Penny” Allen (1968-1982)

Leslie “Penny” Allen was a New York model eighteen years Tony’s junior.  Penny, as Tony calls wife number three in his 2008 autobiography [aff. link], would enjoy being the wife of a Hollywood star, and the two had sons Nicholas and Benjamin together during the marriage, which would end in 1982.  According to Tony, the marriage didn’t work out in the end because Penny was too young and he was too “messed up.”  The fact that they were both unfaithful to each other surely didn’t help matters.

Tony with fourth wife, Andrea Savio. Can't find a bit of info about this marriage, other than that it happened...

Andrea Savio (1984-1992)

Noooo idea about wife number four, Andrea Savio! Not only does Tony not share a thing about this marriage in his autobiographies, he doesn’t even name her in either book.  Perhaps Tony’s silence on this marriage is deafening… 

Tony with his fifth wife, Lisa Deutsch.

Lisa Deutsch (1993-1994)

Tony next married attorney Lisa Deutsch.  34 year age difference this time…it was a short union that was rife with communication problems.

Tony with sixth and final wife, Jill Vandenberg.

Jill Vandenberg (1998-his death in 2010)

If you ask Tony’s children, Jill Vandenberg is a controversial figure responsible for all six of Tony’s kids being disinherited not long before their father’s death in 2010.  But from the way Tony tells it in his 2008 autobiography, Jill was the love of his life, the one woman he loved completely, and seems to have remained faithful to.

Age difference this time: 45 years. Jill and Tony would find happiness in Henderson, Nevada, where they founded a horse sanctuary, Shiloh Rescue Ranch, which Jill still runs today. The two remained married until Tony’s passing in 2010.

It seems Tony was faithful to Jill, making her unique among his six wives.

And that, in a nutshell, covers the six Mrs. Tony Curtises!

Tony in the 1970s.

He Overcame a Cocaine Addiction

In 1974, while filming Lepke (1975), Tony Curtis had his first experience with cocaine. At the time, Tony, like many dabbling with the drug, had no idea just how addicting cocaine was.  Tony viewed it as a miracle substance that gave him the energy to keep filming and working all hours of the day and night with boundless energy.

But sadly, Tony did become addicted to cocaine in the years that followed.  The drug was how Tony coped with the fact that he just wasn’t getting the film opportunities and roles he desired any more.  In just a few short years—and for reasons that remain quite inexplicable—Tony Curtis went from A-list celebrity to barely able to find work in the industry he’d devoted his life to:

“When I first hit Hollywood I had really made a splash.  Now the phone was silent. It was as if I had died, only someone forgot to tell me about it.  It was during this time…that I began dabbling with what had become a very fashionable drug in Hollywood and other major cities around the country: cocaine.  When the cocaine craze hit, no one knew how addictive it could be.”

But Tony devoted the same energy and drive to kicking the cocaine habit as he had to becoming a star, and a 1985 intervention, coupled with his time at the Betty Ford Center, proved successful.

He’s a Hungarian Knight

Yep, Tony Curtis was knighted by the Hungarian government in gratitude for his great contributions to the country of his heritage.  In 1990, Tony was instrumental in financing the rebuilding of Budapest’s Great Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, which was severely damaged during World War II.  Tony would also found the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture—named after his father—which works to restore and preserve the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries of Hungary.

Tony began drawing and painting as a young boy, and continued throughout his Hollywood career.

He Was An Artist

As a young boy aspiring to be in the movies, Bernie Schwartz discovered that he had an artistic talent:

“To pass the hours I spent alone each day, I started to draw.  My first drawings were made on the brown paper my father used to wrap his customers’ clothes [in]….I’d draw on them using my father’s tailor’s chalk or pencils or crayons….

I found myself able to accurately copy things I saw, and then I found I could add things, and all of a sudden my artwork wasn’t just copying anymore.  It was something else again.  I liked drawing what I was thinking or seeing.  It became a driving force in my life.”

One of my favorite pieces of Tony's work.

Tony’s passion for art continued throughout his Hollywood years, and when his film career was mostly finished, Tony would dedicate himself to becoming a legitimate artist with great success: in April 2008, Tony had successful art shows to sold-out houses in London and Paris, and some of his work is included in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Daughter Jamie Lee Curtis describes her father’s work as “a little Matisse, a little Picasso, and, in color choices and brush stroke, a little van Gogh.”

Tony paints on Claudia Cardinale's dress behind the scenes of Don't Make Waves (1967).

An Artistic Legacy

 Jamie Lee is convinced that history will remember her father not as an actor, but as an artist:

“The problem being a ‘celebrity artist’ or ‘celebrity anything’ is that it is immediately assumed you can’t do it…But unlike my dad, most ‘non-celebrity’ artists haven’t been drawing since they were ten and haven’t painted two thousand canvases and didn’t collect Balthus’ Three Women Bathing at the age of twenty-five…

I honestly feel that in fifty or one hundred years, he is going to be known as a great painter.”

Another of Tony's pieces, a self-portrait titled "Gypsy King."

A sweet compliment from his daughter, and Jamie Lee just may be right.  There’s no doubt that Tony was a talented painter.

Celebrate Tony Curtis with Me!

And that wraps up my introduction to our July Star of the Month, Tony Curtis!

Don’t forget to check the TCM schedule here for all the Tony Curtis films playing this month.

Be sure to join me next week as I review my first Tony Curtis film of the month one of Tony’s best dramatic roles in 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. David Elliott

    I totally enjoyed your reporting on the life of Tony Curtis….Thank you!

    1. Shannon

      Thanks for reading David! Isn’t Tony a fascinating guy?? A true star, and such a multi-faceted man.

  2. Chris Dopson

    Thank you so much, I always enjoyed his films although heard very little about his personal life.
    It made very interesting reading!

    1. Shannon

      Thank you for reading Chris! Didn’t Tony lead a fascinating life? Makes me appreciate his films all the more. Thanks again for reading!

  3. We would sit at Nate n Als Deli. he said” if you don’t like the world your living in change worlds.” At night I would see him at Spago, then an hour later at Bal musette and then Matteos and a lot of girls and clubs.

    1. Shannon

      How incredibly cool to have a first-hand memory of Tony Curtis! A piece of Hollywood history right there, that is so awesome!

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