By Tony Dayoub
Tony Curtis lived the Hollywood dream. Born Bernard Schwartz not too far from where I now write this, in the Bronx, he changed his name when he started getting film gigs.
His matinee idol looks and youthful energy usually saw him cast opposite older stars as the hotheaded rival in early films like Trapeze (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and The Vikings (1958). Curtis' perfectly coiffed black pompadour, in fact, inspired Elvis to dye and style his own hair in the same manner. But knowing his looks wouldn't last forever drove his need to play more substantial parts.
Curtis would quickly earn an Oscar nomination for just such a role as an escaped convict chained to another criminal played by Sidney Poitier in Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958). As he aged, he continued to search for ways to stretch, proving as adept at comedyas he was at drama, most notably in Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959), where he played a gangster forced along with partner Jack Lemmon to disguise themselves as women in an all-female band. Here he would also play opposite Marilyn Monroe. In the sixties, his exotic features helped him fit perfectly in films like Spartacus (1960) and Taras Bulba (1962). But he would continue to rely on comedies to stay in the spotlight throughout that decade.
My favorite role of Curtis' was as the title character in Houdini (1953), a biopic about the escape artist made back in the day when such films need not bear any relation to the stories they were based on. No matter, his charm and vigor have never been highlighted better than in this movie, perhaps because it was the first to costar his glamourous first wife, Janet Leigh. The film would help establish him as a leading man, and the couples' union would produce two daughters, famed actress Jamie Lee Curtis and her sister, actress Kelly Curtis.
Another role which surprises many to this day is his performance as serial killer Albert DeSalvo in 1968's The Boston Strangler. Playing against type, he chillingly dials down his typical exuberance to portray a man perturbed by inner demons. The darkness which emanates from Curtis' usually sparkling eyes is still a haunting thing to think about.
He died yesterday at the age of 85.
Recommended Films -Houdini, Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, The Vikings, The Defiant Ones, Some Like It Hot, Operation Petticoat, Spartacus, The Outsider, Sex and the Single Girl, Boeing Boeing, The Boston Strangler