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Actor rose from harsh childhood to Hollywood stardom

TONY CURTIS: 1925-2010

Claudia Luther

Tony Curtis was a strikingly handsome 23-year-old native New Yorker playing the lead in an off-Broadway production of "Golden Boy" in 1948 when he was spotted by a Universal Pictures talent scout. Sent to Hollywood for a screen test, he signed a seven-year contract at $75 a week.

"I got into movies so easy it was scary," Curtis told the Denver Post in 1996.

The former Bernie Schwartz went on to become one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the 1950s and 1960s, one whose early reputation as a "pretty boy" tended to blur recognition of his range as an actor who starred in some of his era's landmark films.

Curtis, who died of cardiopulmonary arrest Wednesday night at his home in Henderson, Nev., at age 85, delivered memorable performances in films such as Billy Wilder's classic comedy "Some Like It Hot" and dramatic roles in "The Defiant Ones" and "Sweet Smell of Success."

He also lived like a movie star and was married six times, most notably to actress Janet Leigh, a union that produced another movie star, Jamie Lee Curtis.

His wildly undefinable cast of characters ranged from a Roman slave leading the rebellious cry of "I'm Spartacus" in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic "Spartacus" to a jazz age musician wooing Marilyn Monroe while disguised as a woman in "Some Like It Hot."

Curtis made the well-regarded "Houdini" in 1953 and from 1956 to 1959 starred in a string of critical and popular hits: "Trapeze," "Mister Cory," "Sweet Smell of Success," "The Vikings," "Kings Go Forth," "The Defiant Ones," "The Perfect Furlough," "Some Like It Hot" and "Operation Petticoat."

In 1959, Curtis received his only Academy Award nomination, in Stanley Kramer's 1958 "The Defiant Ones," a powerfully provocative film at the time. He portrayed a Southern bigot who escapes from prison chained to a black convict played by Sidney Poitier. Poitier always credited Curtis for insisting that the black actor get his first star billing.

Curtis failed to receive an Oscar nomination for another strong role, one that he felt sure would finally win him an Academy Award: Albert DeSalvo, "the Boston Strangler." That 1968 film of the same name provided Curtis with the last of his major roles.

"After that, the pictures that I got were not particularly intriguing," he told the Seattle Times in 2000, "but I had lots of child-support payments."

For many film fans, Curtis' most memorable role was in "Some Like It Hot," the 1959 film in which he and Jack Lemmon played small-time jazz musicians who pursued by gangsters, posed as women to escape with an all-female jazz band bound for Miami. In 2000, the American Film Institute named "Some Like It Hot" the best comedy of the 20th century.

Curtis made more than 60 feature and TV films after "The Boston Strangler," including "The Mirror Crack'd" in 1980 with Angela Lansbury and a string of forgettable movies, such as "Lobster Man From Mars" and "The Mummy Lives." He also frequently appeared on TV shows.

Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, in New York City, the oldest son of Jewish Hungarian immigrants. The family was marked by tragedy: One of Curtis' brothers was hit by a truck and died at 9, while the other suffered from schizophrenia and was in and out of institutions throughout his life.

In 1933, at the height of the Depression, his parents found they couldn't properly provide for their children, and Bernard and one brother were placed in a state institution. Returning to his old neighborhood, Bernard became caught up in gang warfare and the target of anti-Semitic hostility.

At 17, he enlisted in the Navy, serving aboard the submarine tender USS Proteus in the Pacific during World War II. After leaving the service, he used the GI Bill for acting classes at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research in Manhattan.

That led to some work in the Borscht Belt in the Catskills and later to Yiddish theater in Chicago. He ended up back in New York doing "Golden Boy." And then it was on to Hollywood where Bernie Schwartz became Tony Curtis.

Additional material from The Washington Post, The New York Times and Associated Press.