GOOD night, sweet prince: Tony Curtis (1925-2010)

by Mark Burger


I met Tony Curtis and I’m going to write about him, and if you aren’t interested in reading an appreciation of an old-school movie star, feel free to cast your gaze elsewhere. There’s plenty more to read in this paper.

What’s more, I’m not even going to talk about his best-known film, Some Like It Hot (1959), which is considered by many to be the funniest comedy in Hollywood history.

As for Tony Curtis, I talked to him, interviewed him and had a great time with him.

And, like many others last week, I was very sorry to see him leave us at the age of 85.

He was born Bernard Schwartz in Brooklyn — “a nice Jewish boy,” as my stepfather Bob Feldman called him. Bob knows a thing or two about nice Jewish boys from Brooklyn, being one himself.

Not every Jewish boy from Brooklyn becomes the top box-office attraction in the country, however. Tony Curtis did. For an actor who only earned one Oscar nomination (Best Actor in 1958 for The Defiant Ones), weathered his fair share of less-than-stellar vehicles, overcame the demons of drug and alcohol abuse, and managed to survive being interviewed by the likes of me, Tony was one of a kind. He worked hard, played hard and came out of it a true survivor and a true symbol of the Hollywood that once was.

My time with Tony, such as it was, emanated from the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, a splendid event which I covered to award-winning effect for several years in the 1990s. Tony was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the festival in 1996, and yours truly got the plum assignment to interview him for the South Florida Newspaper Network’s annual cover story.

Telephone interviews are always a tricky business, but mine with Tony was a joy. We talked movies (of course). We talked co-stars and directors and the festival, and we laughed a lot.

The cover story, I’m happy to say, turned out very well indeed, and the director of the festival, one Gregory von Hausch (a great guy, he) asked if I’d like to introduce a screening of The Boston Strangler, one of the films being screened in his honor. Tony himself couldn’t introduce it, but his girlfriend Jill Vandenburg

would be in attendance.

I graciously and gratefully accepted. After an introduction (which I daresay was pretty good), what followed was an unmitigated, unparalleled disaster. The theatrical print of the film, supposedly taken from the very vaults of Twentieth Century Fox, was in tatters. Even worse, it was missing a full reel — the very reel that depicted the capture of self-confessed stranger Albert DeSalvo, the character Tony played.

After I explained the missing reel to the audience in attendance (none too happy, they), and after having slunk so far into my seat during the screening that I wanted to strangle someone, a mortified and legitimately sympathetic Greg von Hausch asked if I wouldn’t mind introducing Sweet Smell of Success.

Embarrassment vanished. Grumpiness dissipated.

“Could you do it in the next 20 minutes?” How much time would that allow me to hit the hospitality tent outside for a quick (and complimentary) cocktail? Not much….

Don’t worry, Greg assured me, this was a newly struck print — as sharp and clear (if not better) than the day the film was released.

My introduction before a (pretty) full house was, to my thinking, not bad at all. I spoke of my long-standing affection for the film, and then it was time to introduce the star of the film, Tony Curtis.

With a bravado so smooth you could cut glass, Tony took the microphone from my hand and patted me on the cheek. “That’s a good boy,” he said.

In a split-second, I realized that there were perhaps five people on the face of the planet who could make that move without me wanting to plant a haymaker.

One of them was Tony Curtis. The print truly was a marvel, and the movie always has been. A notorious critical and box-office flop upon its release in 1957, Sweet Smell of Success has undergone one of the more remarkable critical reassessments in Hollywood history. It’s the story of a ruthless show-biz columnist named JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster, in perhaps the most vile role of his career) and Sidney Falco (Tony), a sycophantic press agent who worships at JJ’s feet.

“Match me, Sidney,” orders JJ, brandishing an unlit cigarette.

It was thanks to Tony Curtis — and the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, lest we forget — that I enjoyed a personal highlight when I was able to invite my mother and stepfather to meet him at a private party in Fort

Lauderdale, hosted by the festival. Tickets were going for as much as $500 a pop. I got the three of us in for considerably less than that. Even my parents were impressed.

After all, Tony Curtis was much more a superstar of their generation than mine. During the 1950s, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh were the golden couple of Hollywood. “Are you kidding me?” my mother said. “He was gorgeous. She was gorgeous. Everybody wanted to look like them. Everybody liked them. Everybody wanted to be them.”

This was the 1990s, when the “golden couples” of Hollywood included Bruce and Demi, Tom and Nicole, Alec and Kim….

Those golden romances ended, as so it was that Tony and Janet’s ended in 1962, yet theirs seemed to end with a lot less rancor than Hollywood couples do today. When I interviewed Tony, I mentioned (quite genuinely) how nice it was that he spoke so warmly about Janet in his first autobiography. As a child of divorce myself, I know full well how rare compliments between former spouses can be.

Why would I say anything negative about Janet? Tony asked rhetorically, before answering. “She is a great lady and a great mother” — noting how proud he was of their daughters Jamie Lee and Kelly, and, indeed, how proud he was of all his children.

He also spoke about his recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, and about his son Nicholas, who had died of a drug overdose less than a year before. It should be noted that I did not ask about Nicholas’ death, nor did I have any intention to. (It wasn’t that kind of interview.)

At the time, nearly 15 years ago, Tony had no illusions about regaining his status as the leading man. At the festival, he was promoting a low-budget, independent Hollywood satire called The Continued Adventures of Reptile Man, which was barely heard or seen from since. (Not a bad movie, though — and Tony gives it his all.)

Tony Curtis never won an Oscar. He never even received an honorary one, although there were rumors a few years back that he was seriously being considered.

Maybe that’s because Tony made it look easy. He was charming. He was handsome. He thrived in comedies because, quite simply, he was funny. That he never got more opportunities to display his dramatic abilities might have cost him more serious critical recognition, but even as he told me: The critics don’t buy the tickets, the public does. And he basked in that affection, not in a self-aggrandizing, obnoxious way but in a genuine, appreciative way. For most of his career, people bought tickets to Tony Curtis movies to forget about their troubles.

Deep down, Tony Curtis found the perfect role to play: Tony Curtis. The nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who hit it big in Hollywood, rode the show-biz rollercoaster (for a lot longer than most — check the credits), and came out of it ahead of the game… and maybe a bit more.

Hell, who didn’t want to be Tony Curtis?