LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Tony Curtis, whose dark hair and good looks made him a Hollywood star well before he became an accomplished actor in hit movies such as “Some Like It Hot” and “The Sweet Smell of Success,” died Wednesday night at his home in Nevada. He was 85.
Curtis, one of the biggest box-office stars of the 1950s and 1960s and one of Hollywood’s busiest playboys, died a natural death due to cardiac arrest with his doctor at his bedside in Henderson, Nevada, outside Las Vegas, the Clark County coroner’s office said.
The handsome leading man starred in more than 140 films including the classic gladiator drama “Spartacus,” and he received an Academy Award nomination for 1958’s “The Defiant Ones.”
Yet, his career got off to a rocky start. In one of his first major roles, playing an Arabian in “Son of Ali Baba” in 1952, he wrote that he was roundly mocked for proclaiming in a thick New York accent, “Yonduh in the valley of the sun is my fadder’s castle.”
Still, Universal Pictures’ star-making machinery and teen fan magazines managed to make him a heartthrob, and movie-goers loved his dark-haired sex appeal and impish grin.
Within a few years, Curtis had improved his skills enough for Saturday Review magazine to call him “a rare phenomenon, an authentic screen personality who, through hard work, has made himself into an actor of considerable subtlety and some breadth.”
Two of his most enduring performances came in “Some Like It Hot” as he teamed with Jack Lemmon — playing cross-dressers opposite Marilyn Monroe — and “The Sweet Smell of Success,” in which he played a fawning press agent.
His Oscar nomination came for “The Defiant Ones,” in which he played a racist prison escapee chained to Sidney Poitier. Other notable films included “Houdini,” “Trapeze,” “Operation Petticoat,” “The Boston Strangler,” “The Vikings” and “The Great Imposter.”
When the leading movie roles dried up, Curtis struggled with cocaine and alcohol abuse. But he eventually overcame those problems and transformed from leading man to character actor, taking roles on TV. He also turned to painting and art to fill his days.
“My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages,” his daughter, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, said in a statement.
By mid-morning on Thursday, as word of his death spread through Hollywood, fans turned out on Hollywood’s walk of fame to lay flowers by Curtis’ star.
Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in New York to poor Hungarian immigrants on June 3, 1925. He quit school to join the Navy in World War Two, serving on a submarine tender, and pursued acting after his discharge.
Curtis was known to be demanding at the height of his stardom and television producer Lew Gallo called him “an impetuous child.”
His fans were as fascinated by Curtis’ private life as they were his movies. He was an inveterate womanizer whose girlfriends included Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood. He was married six times, starting with actress Janet Leigh in a union he later admitted was partially motivated by publicity value. After divorcing Leigh, he married Christine Kaufman, who was 17 years-old when they met while filming “Taras Bulba.”
Curtis was once quoted as saying, “I wouldn’t be seen dead with a woman old enough to be my wife.” His sixth wife, Jill Vandenberg, was 45 years younger than Curtis.
“He’ll be remembered as a very good actor when people start reflecting on the amount of work he did both in drama and comedy,” actor Roger Moore told BBC radio. “He certainly was wonderful in ‘Some Like it Hot’ and he was quite brilliant in ‘Boston Strangler’ and in the film that he did with Sidney Poitier ‘The Defiant Ones’.”
Moore, who worked with Curtis for 15 months on the early-1970s TV series “The Persuaders,” said Curtis “denied ever saying that (working with Marilyn Monroe) was like kissing Hitler.”
Curtis’ children included actress Jamie Lee, who was estranged from him for much of his life, and he admitted he was a failure as a father.
As his acting career waned, Curtis concentrated on painting and in 1989 he sold more than $1 million worth of his art in the first day of a Los Angeles exhibition.
“Painting is more meaningful to me than any performance I’ve ever given,” he told an interviewer.
Curtis eventually moved to Las Vegas. In 1989, he released an exercise videotape for people past age 50.
He operated the Shiloh Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, a refuge for horses that were abandoned or abused, on the California-Nevada border with wife Jill.
Editing by Bill Trott and Philip Barbara