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Tony Curtis, From Pretty Boy to Pretty Good

Updated on February 2, 2014

Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis enjoyed a long screen career of over 60 years and appeared in more than 100 movies of all types including wonderful comedies like 'Some Like It Hot' alongside Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon, and serious dramatic pictures such as 'The Defiant Ones' co-starring with Sidney Poitier, as well as costume adventure movies like 'Spartacus' and 'The Vikings'.

His resilience was amazing. He started out as an undeniably handsome and photogenic 'pretty boy' but he learned his trade thoroughly and was able to be accepted for his acting ability alone. Until recently he was one of the few surviving actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was no longer a pretty boy but he certainly established the claim to be pretty good! On the way he enjoyed himself thoroughly. He made no secret of the fact that one of his motives in going into movies was to meet as many pretty girls as he could and he could truthfully say he had been the boyfriend of Marilyn Monroe.

He received an Oscar nomination in 1958 for his exceptional performance in 'The Defiant Ones' and he received the Sony Ericsson Empire Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. He also has his obligatory star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1995 he received the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Bernard Schwarz

Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925 in the Bronx, New York, and his childhood was tough and unhappy. His parents were poor Jewish Hungarian immigrants and Bernard and his two brothers, Robert and Julius, lived at the back of his father's tailors shop.

Bernard's first language was Hungarian and he did begin to learn English until he was five years old. His mother was a schizophrenic who, he claims, used to beat him, and when he was eight years old he and his older brother Julius were placed in an orphanage for a few weeks as their parents could not afford to feed them. Bernard and Julius were very close and it was a desparate blow when Julius was killed in a road accident. It was not surprising that young Bernard grew up to be a streetwise tearaway, a young entrant to the violent world of New York street gangs.

He was able to leave the street life when he joined the Marines at age 17 in 1942. He was injured while fighting in Guam but it was through the Marines that he first tasted the delights of the stage in the Illinois Navy Signalman School. After 3 years service he was honorably discharged and he had made up his mind to become an actor. He was able to use his status as an ex GI to get free acting lessons and he studied under Erwin Piscator at the New York City College Drama Workshop.

The Young Actor
The Young Actor


He appeared in many stage plays and, as an amateur, toured what is known as the Borscht circuit, made up of predominantly Jewish venues around New York. He was an exceptionally good looking young man with a mass of dark curly hair and he naturally became the center of attention wherever he played. He soon came to the attention of casting directors looking for photogenic new talent and one, Joyce Selznick, was able to arrange a meeting with her famous uncle, the producer of 'Gone With the Wind', David Selznick.

He was offered a seven year contract with Universal Studios and in 1948, aged 23 Bernard Schwarz took a new name (from the family name Kertiz, and the novel 'Anthony Adverse' by Harvey Allen) and moved to Hollywood to start his new career. Tony Curtis the Hollywood
actor had arrived.

The Young Star

He began his movie career in 1948, unbilled, in the film noir 'Criss Cross' and then in 1949 he played walk-on roles in low-budget movies such as 'City Across the River', 'The Lady Gambles' and 'Johnny Stool Pigeon', in which his name was given as "Anthony Curtis".

During his early movie career he was promoted on his dark good looks alone and he became extremely popular with young teenagers who sent in thousand of fan mail letters each week, but gradually he became accepted for his acting ability and thr roles he was offered slowly improved. In 1950 he appeared with James Stewart in 'Winchester'73' and the following year he was leading man to Piper Laurie in 'The Prince Who Was a Thief'.

In Winchester'73
In Winchester'73

In 1952 he was given an intensive coaching course which taught him some of the acting basics such as voice projection, which had previously passed him by, and in the same year he made a strong impression in the boxing movie 'Flesh and Fury'. Over the next few years he was cast in formulaic, uninspired lightweight movies such as 'Beachhead' and 'The Black Shield of Falworth' in 1954, and 'The Rawhide Years' in 1955 and it was not until 1956 when he was loaned out to United Artists to appear with Burt Lancaster in 'Trapeze' that he was able to make a breakthrough into more mature roles.

The Defiant Ones

With Sidney Poitier
With Sidney Poitier

Some Like It Hot

For the rest of the decade he rode a career peak with a succession of top quality movies including 'Sweet Smell of Success' in 1957, 'The Defiant Ones' in 1958 for which he received his only Academy Award nomination, and the adventure movies 'The Vikings' in 1958 and 'Spartacus' in 1960.

In 1959 he appeared in the movie for which he is best known - the classic Billy Wilder comedy 'Some Like It Hot', co-starring Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in which he and Lemmon memorably dress in drag in order to escape the Chicago mob after inadvertently witnessing the Valentines Day Massacre.

A Fading Movie Career

 In the following decades Curtis continued to take on a wide range of roles, becoming well known as a dependable professional. Some of the many movies he made were top quality, such as 'Sex and the Single Girl' in 1964' and The Boston Strangler' in 1968, but many were average to mediocre and by the late 1960's his movie career was fading.

He turned to television with a little more success and he starred with Roger Moore in the series 'The Persuaders!' from 1971 to 1973. He also starred, in the late 1970's in the television series 'McCoy' and Vega$'.

In his later years, he continued to make movies, many of them forgettable and even embarraassing, like 1978's 'Sextette' and 'Bad News Bears Go to Japan' but he has created a successful and lucrative second career as an artist whilst becoming a regular and articulate performer on documentaries and television shows about Hollywood's Golden Age.


Curtis's personal life has attracted attention from the early stages of his career when he was very much the young sex symbol, and as well as carrying on numerous affairs with many Hollywood beauties, he has been married six times. In June, 1951 he became one half of a very famous showbusiness couple when he married actress Janet Leigh. The marriage lasted 11 years and they had two daughters who both became actresses, Kelly and Jamie Lee Curtis.

In 1962 he married the 17 year old Austrian actress, Christine Kaufmann, the co-star of his film, 'Taras Bulba', with whom he had 2 daughters. They divorced after 4 years.

From 1968 to 1982 Curtis was married to Leslie Allen, a model, with whom he had 2 sons, one of whom, Nicholas, tragically died from a heroin overdose in 1994.

He married his fourth wife, actress Andrea Savio, in 1984. They divorced in 1992 and the following year he was married for one year to an attorney, Lisa Deutsch. He then married Jill Vandenberg, who was 42 years his junior.

After living his final years peacefully, but actively, in in Henderson, Nevada, Tony Curtis died on September 29, 2010.


The Indomitable Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis Gifts

Tony Curtis Films on Amazon


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    • pocono foothills profile image

      John Fisher 

      6 years ago from Easton, Pennsylvania

      I was never really much of a Tony Curtis fan, but I did enjoy Spartacus. Nice Hub. I wish Jamie Lee would have done more movies instead of becoming a spokeswoman for Activia Yogurt. She was smokin' when she was in her prime.

    • Andy Webb profile image

      Andy Webb 

      10 years ago

      Another great hub. Having read his biography you get a sense that Curtis’ willingness to work on any film offered, be it a good film or some rubbish, ended up being part of the reason why he was sometimes over looked for the great roles offered to his contemporaries. But that doesn’t knock the fact that when he is on his game he could rub shoulders with the best of them. Probably my favourite Curtis movie has to be “Houdini”.

    • dkrainwater profile image


      10 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming

      I didn't know the guy was still alive, great hub!!!


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