Tony Curtis Survives the Streets of New York, Joins the Navy, Inspires Elvis, Has Amazing Hair, Loves Beautiful Women, and Can Paint.
Tony Curtis: The Underrated Actor with Perfect Hair
July 3, 2020 Updated March 11, 2022
But watching several Tony Curtis films and researching his fascinating life [aff. link] finally made me appreciate this Classic Hollywood star: Tony Curtis had ambition, looks, talent, and an admirable work ethic. These traits took Tony from the impoverished streets of New York to Hollywood, where he became one of the era’s most popular stars.
If that’s not intriguing and commendable, I don’t know what is.
And, it turns out, that comment about Marilyn and Hitler was taken out of context by the press.
Tony Curtis is a bit of an enigma—rough around the edges despite his polished look; a man permanently scarred by his difficult childhood, though he projected an aura of carefree confidence.
As TCM showcases his films this month, here are a few things about Tony Curtis you didn’t know:
Tony Curtis 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.
“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 young Bernie did not learn English until he began elementary school.
Bernie and Julie
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 Helen, later diagnosed 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 grew 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 spent a month at the orphanage, not knowing when or if their parents would come back for them. Tony later remember that:
“I had no idea where they were going or why, and it frightened me to death.”
A Life-Changing Tragedy
As traumatic as the orphanage was, Bernie experienced even greater tragedy just a few years later when his beloved little brother was hit by a truck and killed. Thirteen-year-old Bernie, not his parents, was asked to identify the body. Though not involved in the accident, Tony Cutis felt 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.
The orphanage, his brother’s death, and growing up on the streets of New York molded young Bernie into a tough, street smart kid:
“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. Through the movies and art, young Bernie Schwartz found solace, an escape from his loneliness and bouts of depression.
Tony Curtis Was In The Navy
At age 16, Bernie Schwartz was desparate to leave home:
“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, Bernie felt he was 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.
Bernie spent 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 always viewed his time in the Navy with gratefulness:
“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 remained a lifelong supporter of the Navy, and sponsored the US Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. in his later years.
Tony Curtis Always Wanted to Be in the Movies
Tony Curtis begins 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 studied 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 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
In his later years, Tony shared 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:
“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.”
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, Tony had a full head of hair, slicked back on the sides, long and curly on top.
Tony viewed his hair as a:
“weapon in my arsenal that no-one else had.”
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. As Tony later shared about this time in his career:
“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.’”
Tony Curtis Knew He Was Attractive. And He Liked to Look GOOD.
As a boy, Bernie Schwartz noticed that his appearance earned him special attention. But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. As an adult, Tony speculated that the reason his mother beat him while he was growing up was because she hated that 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 looks that Bernie realized his appearance was an asset:
“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
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 reveled in the fine clothes and fashions he was finally able to afford as a Hollywood Star.
Tony even attributed the importance he placed on 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.”
Tony Curtis Loved the Attention of Beautiful Women. And Was Married 6 Times.
Tony Curtis freely admitted that, throughout his life, he thrived on the attention of beautiful women. While Tony’s philandering during many of his marriages is less than admirable, he’s refreshingly honest 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 the course of his 85 years. Here’s a quick rundown of the six Mrs. Tony Curtises:
Janet Leigh (1951-1962)
Popular actress Janet Leigh was already an established star by the time she met Tony Curtis. Janet was discovered by actress Norma Shearer, who spotted the stunning eighteen-year-old’s photo in a ski resort album. Impressed, Shearer took the photo to her home studio, MGM, and the rest is history.
Tony and Janet became one of Hollywood’s Golden Couples when they married, against the wishes of their respective studios, in 1951. Despite these worries, the marriage was extremely beneficial to both Janet’s and Tony’s careers. Moviegoers couldn’t get enough of this gorgeous couple. As Tony put it:
“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 had two daughters together, Kelly and Jamie Lee. In its final years, the dream marriage was not such a dream: Tony left Janet following a passionate affair with Christine Kauffmann, his young co-star in Taras Bulba (1962).
Christine Kaufmann (1963-1968)
Christine 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 about the twenty year age difference between Tony 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. The two divorced in 1968.
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], enjoyed being the wife of a Hollywood star. Though the marriage produced two sons, Nicholas and Benjamin, Tony and Penny divorced in 1982.
According to Tony, the marriage ultimately didn’t work because Penny was too young and he was too “messed up.” The fact that both Tony and Penny were unfaithful to each other surely didn’t help matters.
Andrea Savio (1984-1992)
There’s absolutely no information anywhere 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 Andrea in either book.
Perhaps Tony’s silence on this marriage is deafening…
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.
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 found happiness in Henderson, Nevada, where they started a horse sanctuary, Shiloh Rescue Ranch, which Jill still runs today.
The two remained married until Tony’s passing in 2010.
Tony Curtis 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 boundless energy, and made it possible to work all hours of the day and night.
Sadly, Tony became a cocaine addict in the years that followed. The drug was his coping mechanism when–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 did to becoming a star. A 1985 intervention, coupled with his time at the Betty Ford Center, proved successful.
Tony Curtis Was a Hungarian Knight
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 also founded the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture—named after his father—which works to restore and preserve the synagogues and Jewish cemeteries of Hungary.
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.”
Tony’s passion for art continued throughout his Hollywood years. When his film career was mostly finished, Tony dedicated his time to becoming a legitimate artist with great success: in April 2008, Tony had successful art shows to sold-out houses in London and Paris. Some of his work is included in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
As daughter Jamie Lee Curtis describes it, her father’s art work is:
“a little Matisse, a little Picasso, and, in color choices and brush stroke, a little van Gogh.”
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.”