The actor starred in ''Spartacus'' and ''Some Like It Hot,'' but his greatest character may have been himself

October 08, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Any discussion of classic Hollywood movie star Tony Curtis, who died of cardiac arrest in Henderson, Nev., on Sept. 29 at the age of 85, is bound to begin with marveling at his classic Hollywood movie-star good looks. But then the conversation ought to move on — to marveling at the success of his only-in-America transformation from Bernard Schwartz, the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants in Depression-era New York City, to Tony Curtis, leading man and Tinseltown playboy. Coming of age in an era when the studio system scrupulously sanded away any presumably unsightly ethnic edges as actors were groomed for marquee potential, Curtis rose to celebrity status both on screen and off.

Yet he never cared who knew that he was, once upon a time, Bernie Schwartz. He didn’t care who knew that his early life was hell, with a schizophrenic mother who (he wrote in not one, but two autobiographies) was rough on him and his two brothers. He didn’t care who knew that he chased after fame, money, or (as his six marriages attest) women, many of them notably younger than their ever-ready groom.

After all, he was the one who said, ”I wouldn’t be caught dead marrying a woman old enough to be my wife.” The self-defined lothario tied the knot the first time, to Psycho‘s beautiful Janet Leigh (they were parents of next-generation actors Jamie Lee Curtis and her sister, Kelly Curtis), in 1951. With the blessing of his sixth wife, Jill Vandenberg Curtis (she was 27, he was 73 when they married in 1998), the guy marked his 80th birthday by posing nude for Vanity Fair. To the end, he boasted of his sexual prowess.

Without denying his roots, the star never lost touch with what it took to escape the Bronx and morph from Bernie Schwartz to Tony Curtis — an inner hustle that proved to be the actor’s greatest strength in so many of the roles he took. He worked in scores of movies and TV shows — a few really good, many of them really not. He also established an active second career as a serious painter with an Henri Matisse influence. Certainly, Curtis’ driving outsider’s hunger shaped his great performance in the essential, biting 1957 showbiz drama Sweet Smell of Success as the unscrupulous press agent Sidney Falco, opposite Burt Lancaster as the powerful, equally heartless gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker.

But Curtis’ willingness to do what needed to be done in order to get where he wanted to go (money! dames! respect!) also propelled him into costume dramas (including his notable turn as a beautiful slave in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 classic Spartacus) and comedy — to the eternal gratitude of audiences who will forever remember him first and foremost in a dress and lipstick in Some Like It Hot.

Only a leading man secure in his manliness and voracious in his desire to endear would dare to dress in drag as a lady musician in an all-girl band, and then quick-change into the costume of a phony Mr. Big type on a yacht, as Curtis did in that legendary 1959 comedy, directed by Billy Wilder. Pretty enough to pass as a girl (with Jack Lemmon as his partner in skirts), the star was also handsome enough to make a convincing pass at Marilyn Monroe, who played the band’s baby-doll bombshell vocalist. The result: Some Like It Hot has been crowned ”the greatest American comedy film of all time” by the American Film Institute. Curtis, meanwhile, made no secret of his disappointment that he never nabbed an Oscar. He received his one and only Best Actor nomination for his role as an escaped prisoner from a Southern chain gang in The Defiant Ones (1958) opposite Sidney Poitier.

Tony Curtis excelled at portraying characters who were restless, ballsy, and intent on outrunning their past — perhaps because he lived his life much the same way, too. And audiences loved him for it.

The Essential Curtis

HOUDINI (1953)
Curtis and Janet Leigh — then a celebrated Hollywood couple — costarred in this fancy, fanciful story of the famous escape artist who, like Curtis, had a Hungarian-American Jewish past.

TRAPEZE (1956)
Curtis and Burt Lancaster worked well together in this piquant circus-set love triangle. Curtis played Lancaster’s protégé in the air and romantic rival on the ground.

Paired with Lancaster again, Curtis was at his dramatic best in a blistering saga of showbiz/gossip-biz treachery.

Oscar nominations all around for this dawn-of-civil-rights drama starring Curtis and Sidney Poitier as escaped prisoners, shackled together and on the run in the South.

As Joe, Josephine, and the millionaire named Junior, Curtis was in top comedic form opposite Jack Lemmon in this sublime classic.

Curtis played a version of himself — a Navy man who’s a bit of a schemer — opposite Cary Grant in Blake Edwards’ hit comedy.

As the slave Antoninus who joins forces with Kirk Douglas’ title character in Stanley Kubrick’s sword-and-sandal epic, Curtis was the first one to declare ”I’m Spartacus!”

A thoughtful turn by Curtis in a biopic of Native American Marine Ira Hamilton Hayes at Iwo Jima.

Curtis reteamed with Edwards (and Lemmon) in a madcap comedy set during the 1908 three-continent car race.

Curtis stretched — and gained weight — to play serial killer Albert DeSalvo.

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