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Leading Men of Hollywood: Tony Curtis

Published: September 11, 2017

This article and other features about the stars of Tinseltown can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Golden Age of Hollywood. This edition can be ordered here. 

As far back as he can remember, Tony Curtis always wanted to be a movie star. It was not, of course, a very unusual dream, particularly for a boy who grew up in poverty and felt himself a misfit, an outcast. What is somewhat surprising—and not least of all to Curtis himself—is that the dream came true.

Tony was born Bernard (Bernie) Schwartz, on June 3, l925, the son of Hungarian Jews who had come to America after the World War I, met here and married. Manny Schwartz was a tailor who wanted to be an actor. But acting jobs were scarce during the Depression, especially for a man with no experience; and Manny supported his family with a succession of tailoring jobs. He was a good tailor, Tony thinks, but his heart was never in it; and the family was constantly moving as Manny went from one job to another.

Probably this constant moving was the first cause of young Bernie’s insecurity—he never stayed in any one place long enough to feel that he belonged. As a boy he was small and skinny, and the bigger boys used to pick on him—“not because it was me,” Tony says, “but a new kid in any neighborhood would be picked on. So I said, ‘I gotta find a way of not getting my nose punched every time, because it gets to be a drag.’ So I said, ‘How do I do it?’ And I got it: I was going to be the crazy new kid on the block.”

Slight as he was, Bernie had good coordination and a kind of flamboyant daring, and he developed a trick of swinging aboard a fast-moving trolley by running alongside, then grabbing the handrail and letting the trolley’s momentum whip his feet off the ground step. “Now this was a remarkable test,” he says, “and I used to do it in every new neighborhood.” He would pick his time—after school was out and when two or three of the neighborhood kids were watching and maybe nudging each other, saying, “There’s our mark.” And he would do his trick with the trolley and then sass the motorman—“which would break up these kids,” he says, and from then on they wouldn’t fool with me.

Then, when Bernie was 13, his 10-year-old brother Julius was killed. Losing his brother was bad enough, but far worse was the fact that Bernie blamed himself for Julius’s death. Like all children, he carried in his conscience an accumulation of real and imagined sins. Tony says, “I was sure this was my God’s way of punishing me for being a bad kid. I remember going down to the East River and asking God: If he would return my brother, I wouldn’t tell anybody that he’d been returned—just let me see him.”

But the one place where he could forget his guilts and fears was in the movie theater. Looking back, Tony says, “My whole culture as a boy was pictures. For 11 cents you could sit in the theater, right in the front row, and sit for 10 hours, which I did constantly.” His particular idols were Cary Grant, Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn. “Each of these fellas,” he says, “gave me a different feeling when I left the theater. Cary Grant made me feel chic and smart. Jimmy Cagney made me feel cocky. Humphrey Bogart made me feel mean. Errol Flynn made me feel dashing and swashbuckling. And I remember I would come out of a movie and I would be choking with the desire to do what these fellas had done on the screen. I started hitching rides on trolley cars, but I used to do it the way I imagined Errol Flynn would leap on a trolley car. It was never just to get a ride; I was off to conquer something.”

The spell of movies colored everything he did. “Each day,” he says, “when I went out into the world it was a whole new experience. What will I run into? What will I find? Do I dare go out by myself? And we would go all over Manhattan, two or three of us—like knights, close together—just waiting for the situation to come up. Run! We had to hide, steal. We did everything. And it really was thrilling.”

Finally, in the spring of l948, Bernie was given the chance to join the pictures for real when Universal-International Pictures signed the 23-year-old actor to a seven-year contract with a starting salary of $l00 a week.

The first thing the studio did was change his name.

Almost from the start Tony attracted a quite remarkable fan following. Prodded by his popularity with the fans, the studio decided to try Tony in starring roles. The first of these, released in l95l, was an Arabian horse opera called The Prince Who Was a Thief. Tony, of course, was the prince—and not a very regal one, according to The New York Times. One of the troubles, no doubt, lay in the fact that, while Tony had by then greatly improved his diction, traces of New York did occasionally creep into his speech. “I had one scene with Piper Laurie,” he recalls, “sitting on top of a hill, looking down at this beautiful castle. I had my arm around Piper, and I said, ‘Yonder lies the castle of my fodder.’ And it’s still in the movie!” This breaks him up.

But if Tony’s diction suffered a slip now and then during this period, it was probably because, since August of 1950, he had been devoting most of his energies to the wooing of Janet Leigh.

The following April, he proposed.

In many respects it was an ideal marriage, but “we had some tense moments,” Tony says.

Perhaps the most important cause of this tension at home was the fact that, little by little, Tony had started to lose his old happy-go-lucky attitude toward his work. For six years he had taken things at the studio pretty much as they came: bit parts, bigger parts—it was all fun for him. He was in Hollywood, wasn’t he? Working in pictures, living out his old childhood dream? By l954, however, as one lightweight starring role followed another, he began to realize that what he was doing wasn’t really acting at all. The studio heads and film directors never really pushed me, he says. “If I had difficulty with a scene, they cut the scene out. Everything I did fitted my personality. If I played a prize fighter or a knight in armor, it was basically the same story.”

By and large the critics gave him the back of their hand—“and they were right,” he says. But the studio wasn’t interested in making him an actor; he was a profitable commodity just as he was—as long as they could use him in low-budget pictures and finish shooting in a fast three weeks. And as Tony began to realize how precarious and, in a way, how false his position in Hollywood was, all the old insecurity came flooding back.

“Maybe,” he says, “in realizing that there was more to acting than what I had been doing, I saw the great lack I had as a performer and the great lack I had as a person. And maybe one side of me was saying, ‘Grab what you can and run with it,’ and the other side was saying, ‘You’re a schnook, and you’re distasteful, and you’re dishonest, and you’re just nothing.’ And I found myself terribly insecure, terribly frightened by life.”

REDEVOTION TO THE CRAFT
Blake Edwards, his director friend, who had been through a bad period himself, saw what was happening to Tony and sent him to his own psychoanalyst. Tony went to the doctor regularly for the better part of three years, and slowly but steadily the analysis helped, teaching him to talk out his problems. “This is the difficult thing for human beings to do,” he says, “to articulate their weaknesses. But I feel if you’re going to survive as a human being, you have to do it, because as soon as you say it to yourself, all of a sudden you realize that maybe all is not lost.”

Probably as important to Tony’s recovery as the analysis itself was the strength and support that Janet gave him. The final rung to his salvation was hammered into place when he was offered a part in Burt Lancaster’s 1956 production Trapeze. With Trapeze, Tony really started studying his craft. For the first time he was co-starred with people who knew something about acting, and it amazed him to find how much he could learn from simply watching them.

Since then, he says, “I haven’t cared about the billing. I haven’t cared about the money. I’ve just wanted to work with the masters.”

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  • Tony Curtis, without question, was one of our greatest actors in Hollywood’s Golden Age. I never knew about his past before becoming a star and the difficulties and insecurities he had.

    I admire him very much for getting the psychoanalysis he needed to get to the other side, to realize his full potential. This had to have been especially hard in the ’50s when it was probably considered a sign of weakness, or fear of being labeled mentally deficient somehow, when just the opposite is true.

    Curtis worked very well with Burt Lancaster. A favorite film of mine is ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ (released 6/27/57) where he gets in over his head as a publicist working for Lancaster’s character who’s brutally ruthless.

    The film draws you in and doesn’t let go. The brilliant dialog is filled with pyrotechnics for sophisticated, intelligent people. The full movie currently is available on YouTube, after not being so for a long time.

    He was a great dramatic actor, comic actor (‘Sex and the Single Girl’) and terrifyingly scary in the ‘Boston Strangler’. He also made you believe he was Sam Giancana in ‘Mafia Princess’ very convincingly. There are many other roles also; too many to list here. Great feature on an amazing star, born at the right time!

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