Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Tony, Tony, Tony

by Leonard Maltin
September 30, 2010 7:47 AM
13 Comments
  • |

A Some Like It Hot reunion: Curtis, Lemmon, and Wilder.

Tony Curtis insisted on top billing.

Let me explain: in the early 1990s, the American Film Institute held a screening of Some Like It Hot and asked me to moderate a panel afterwards with Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis. Naturally, I leapt at the opportunity, all the more so when I learned that I would get to have dinner with them and other invited guests before the q&a session. It was a glorious night, both at the dinner table (where Curtis, then recovering from abdominal surgery, insisted on showing off his scars by lifting up his white ribbed shirt) and onstage, where in answer to a question Wilder deadpanned that he owed a lot to Tootsie.

I was warned, however, that Curtis would not participate unless he received top billing when I—

—announced the guests. Why? Because when they made the film, he was the major star, and Lemmon was still on the cusp of real success. In the intervening years their fortunes had reversed, but Curtis didn’t want people to forget that once upon a time, he was king of the hill.

A costumed Laurence Olivier chats with Curtis during a break in the filming of Spartacus (1960).

A decade later, Curtis and Lemmon were scheduled to appear on a commentary track for the 40th anniversary DVD of their movie, but Lemmon took ill. (In fact, he died in June of 2001, a month after the disc was released.) As a fallback, I was hired to interview Curtis at the Formosa Café on Santa Monica Boulevard, which for years was a hangout for anyone who worked at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio a block away; that’s where Some Like It Hot was filmed.

I warned the folks from MGM Home Video that Tony was something of a loose cannon, and one never knew what to expect. Since my first encounter with him I’d met him casually on a number of occasions and shot several interviews, as well. (When his autobiography was published we did a piece for Entertainment Tonight at a local bookstore. He couldn’t have been more buoyant, but he took over the director’s post and his energetic personality wore us all out. I was later told by someone close to him, “He sucks the air out of a room.”)

But when he showed up for our taping he was in great spirits and as we shot the interview he was very focused, going beyond the stock anecdotes he’d told hundreds of times and challenging his memory for interesting material. He even spoke about the fact that Wilder decided to dub his voice as Josephine—which he hadn’t been open about in years past.

He also revealed, off-camera, one reason he was happy to be part of the upcoming DVD: he owned a healthy piece of the picture. That’s how hot he was in 1959. In fact, he continued to derive income from several of his enduringly popular films from that period, when he was one of Hollywood’s top box-office stars.

A New Years Eve studio publicity shot of then married Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis: "Hollywood's ideal young couple."

I can’t think of another actor who enjoyed a winning streak quite like his—after starting off the decade of the 1950s as nothing but a “pretty boy” with a pronounced New York accent. By the time he made Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, Operation Petticoat, Some Like It Hot, Spartacus, and The Outsider there should have been no question of his talent. Yet I do believe Curtis was taken for granted during his heyday, and it’s only in recent years that people have looked back and realized just how much he achieved.

It couldn’t last, and it didn’t, especially given Curtis’ ego, addictions, multiple marriages, and bad choices. It took a grim and committed performance in The Boston Strangler to restore his reputation with critics and moviegoers, but he never regained the momentum he had in the late 50s and early 60s.

What he did retain was the unmistakable air of a movie star. He knew how to make an entrance, and when he first started dating the striking, Amazonian blond Jill Vandenberg (who later became his devoted wife) the two of them turned heads wherever they went.

He was every inch the movie star—but let it never be forgotten that he was also a damn good actor.

  • |

More: Journal

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

13 Comments

  • proby | October 6, 2010 9:52 AMReply

    Curtis WAS sensational in "Some Like It Hot". And his "light" comedies, in spite of all the bull that is said and written about them, are all fantastic. Rest in peace.

  • Michael Powers | October 5, 2010 1:36 AMReply

    In my closing line a moment ago, of course I meant to write, "But he was sensational in 'Sweet Smell of Success.'" Not "Some Like It Hot." He was not sensational in "Some Like It Hot," although since the entire rest of the cast was, most people didn't notice.

  • Michael Powers | October 5, 2010 1:31 AMReply

    Curtis gave one truly, indisputably great performance, the shamelessly driven publicist in "Sweet Smell of Success," because I think he was playing the most intense part of himself, reaching down to deliver all that horrid hunger and delivering a level of art worthy of Cagney's finest. Never happened like that again, and in most of the light comedies in which he built a career modeled on Cary Grant's minus the genius and charm, he was largely a waste of celluloid making what someone once referred to as "movies nobody remembers but everyone once paid to see." But he was sensational in "Some Like It Hot."

  • Morton Wright | October 2, 2010 4:58 AMReply

    . i agree that he was a great actor and deserved more recognition. I feel that a part of me died when Tony Curtis died. Many people have told me I looked like him, a tremendous compliment, but he was far better looking. I recommend American Prince (a very honest and interesting book)

  • Maralyn | October 1, 2010 10:38 AMReply

    In the early years, Tony Curtis was one of the best looking men around. Women fell all over him, even young girls such as I. He was Bernie Schwartz, from the ronx and I think a little part of that always came thru, even as he fine-tuned his craft. But, in Seward Park High School, on the lower east side of Manhattan, he was in my Uncle's history class. I remember my uncle telling me years later that while he was by no means stupid, he just didn't have the patience to sit in class. Whatever, he turned out to be a fine actor who made some very classic movies. I hope he rests in peace and my consolations to his family.

  • Charles Dana | October 1, 2010 10:26 AMReply

    Mr Curtis will always be remembered for those that grew up with him. I hope MR TURNER plays one of MR CURTIS movie's ever night on tbs; starting from the beginning of T.C. career. from his first to his last. that would be tribute.

    thank you

  • Charles Dana | October 1, 2010 10:24 AMReply

    Mr Curtis will always be remembered for those that grew up with him. I hope MR TURNER plays one of MR CURTIS movie's ever night on tbs; starting from the beginning of T.C. career. from his first to his last. that would be tribute.

    thank you

  • Jerry | October 1, 2010 7:19 AMReply

    Tony Curtis was very underrated as an actor. He was a real movie star b. He should have been recognized by AFI or Oscar for lifetime achievement. A movie not mentioned above was called"The Impostor"(?). He was memorable in it and virtually everything he did. His addictions(he overcame) probably kept him from more mainstream recognition. Too bad. Janet Leigh is another star who always gave excellent performances and was largely unrecognized. TCM will have movies never heard of with Janet always giving a wonderful performance. You are missed Mr. Curtis......and Miss Leigh

  • Frank | October 1, 2010 5:05 AMReply

    Thanks....

  • Frank | October 1, 2010 5:05 AMReply

    Thanks....

  • John Hewat | October 1, 2010 4:34 AMReply

    I always think it's a shame that these sorts of kind words get shared after someone's not around to hear them.

    Curtis was quite open about feeling under-appreciated as an actor and would probably appreciate your closing comment more than anyone else.

    Is there any way we can hear or read what was said at that panel with Curtis, Lemmon and Wilder? I'd love to know.

  • MR MAGIC | October 1, 2010 1:36 AMReply

    I was privviledged to produce for Tony the special weekend with Tony Curtis at the famous Magic Castle in Hollywood. Tony loved magic ( after Houdini) and the Castle. He asked me to be sure he visited there every few months. I brought him back the next year for a special tribute to him with awards and plaques from many Famous movie folks and even a special thank you letter from a synogogue he helped rebuild in his parents old country. Then Working with the Hollyywood Walk Of Fame we gave him a lifetime achievemsnt award with special honors at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. (Home of the first Academy Awards) He was thrilled and so happy. He finaly got some of the recognition he deserrved. Many of us friends and fans were glad he enjoyed these honors so very much. He deserved them as a damn good actor and friend!

  • TIM STAFFORD | October 1, 2010 1:02 AMReply

    I AM VERY SORRY FOR MR CURTIS' DEATH. I HAD FORGOTTEN SOME
    OF THOSE MOVIES YOU MENTIONED. HOWEVER, YOU OMITTED MY
    FAVORITE ONE, "THE GREAT RACE", ALSO WITH JACK LEMMON.
    REALLY A FUNNY MOVIE.

Email Updates

Latest Tweets

Follow us

Most "Liked"

  • Too Much Johnson-Joseph CottenOrson Welles Discovery Now Online
  • Hercule Poirot-David SuchetThe First and Final Days as Poirot: ...
  • New Laurel & Hardy Book: Love At First ...


leonardmaltin