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 of cardiac arrest at his home in Henderson, Nevada, outside Las Vegas, where a memorial service is planned for Monday.
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.”
Curtis, who was born Bernard Schwartz in New York to poor Hungarian immigrants on June 3, 1925, got off to a rocky professional start. In one of his first major roles, playing an Arabian in “Son of Ali Baba” in 1952, he wrote in a memoir 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 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 was for “The Defiant Ones,” playing a racist prison escapee chained to a black man played by 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. 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.
The actor’s sixth wife, Jill Vandenberg, told celebrity news show Inside Edition that Curtis died peacefully in his sleep. “His heart survived many things that would have killed an ordinary man,” she said. “This time his heart was ready to go.”
In Hollywood, fans turned out on the Walk of Fame to lay flowers by Curtis’ star.
Curtis started acting after serving on a Navy submarine tender during World War Two. He 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. The first of his six marriages was to actress Janet Leigh — 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 wife Jill was 45 years younger than Curtis.
Kirk Douglas, who starred with Curtis in “Spartacus” and two other movies, said his passing was a personal loss.
“Tony and I were two Jewish kids from poverty-level families who could not believe our luck in making it as big Hollywood stars,” Douglas said in a statement to “Entertainment Weekly.”
Kim Novak, who appeared with Curtis in “The Mirror Crack’d” in 1980, called Curtis “such a charming man. He always had an upbeat outlook on life,” and Hugh Hefner took to Twitter to write the actor’s death “was a real shocker.”
Roger Moore, who worked with Curtis on the early-1970s TV series “The Persuaders,” told BBC Radio that Curtis denied ever saying that working with Marilyn Monroe “was like kissing Hitler.”
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 where he and Jill operated the Shiloh Horse Rescue and Sanctuary for horses that were abandoned or abused. In 1989, he released an exercise videotape for people past age 50.
A memorial service will be held on Monday at 11 a.m./1700 GMT at the Palm Mortuary - Green Valley in Henderson. A reception will take place afterward at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.
Editing by Bill Trott and Philip Barbara