What makes a Tony Curtis performance so compelling is you never know what to expect. Tony Curtis has always been an actor who has refused to play it safe, and has devoted his working life to performing in a vast array of characters, as Curtis has alternatively played the handsome leading man, the sidekick, the comic relief, the villain and a host of other roles that demonstrate how versatile he is. Yet what stands out about all his performances in the inner vulnerability and humility he finds in his unsy... more
What makes a Tony Curtis performance so compelling is you never know what to expect. Tony Curtis has always been an actor who has refused to play it safe, and has devoted his working life to performing in a vast array of characters, as Curtis has alternatively played the handsome leading man, the sidekick, the comic relief, the villain and a host of other roles that demonstrate how versatile he is. Yet what stands out about all his performances in the inner vulnerability and humility he finds in his unsympathetic characters and the never-say-die attitude of the heroes he plays. However, his unique ability to tap into what makes his characters tick comes as no surprise, seeing as how Curtis' own life was also one of triumph over adversity and fighting the odds.Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on the 3rd of June, 1925, the eldest of three children to immigrant parents, Emanuel and Helen Schwartz. Curtis himself admits that while he had almost no formal education, he was a student of the "school of hard knocks", and learned from a young age that the only person who ever had his back was himself, so he learned how to take care of both himself and younger brother Julius. Curtis grew up in poverty, as his father Emanuel, who worked as a tailor, had the sole responsibility of providing for his entire family on his meager income. This led to constant bickering between Curtis' parents over money, and Curtis began to go to movies as a way of briefly escaping the constant worries of poverty and other family problems.The financial strain of raising two children on a meager income became so tough that in 1935 Curtis' parents decided that their children would have a better life under the care of the state, and briefly had Tony and his brother admitted to an orphanage. During this lonely time the only companion Curtis had was his brother Julius, and the two became inseparable as they struggled to get used to this new way of life. Weeks later Curtis' parents came back to reclaim custody of Tony and his brother , but by then Curtis had learned one of life's toughest lessons: the only person you can count on is yourself.In 1938, shortly before Tony had his bar mitzvah, tragedy struck when Tony lost the person most important to him, when his brother Julius was killed after being hit by a truck. After this tragedy, Curtis' parents became convinced that a formal education was the best way that Tony could avoid the same "never knowing where your next meal is coming from" life that they had. However, Tony rejected this as he felt that learning about literary classics and algebra wasn't going to advance him in life as much as some real hands-on life experience would.Tony was to find this real life experience a few years later when he enlisted in the Marines in 1942. Tony spent the next three years getting the life experience he desired, as he did everything from working as a crewman on a submarine to honing his future craft as an actor by performing as a sailor in a stage play at the Navy Signalman School in Illinois.In 1945 Curtis was honorably discharged from the navy and when he realized that the GI Bill would allow him to go to acting school without paying for it, Tony now saw that his lifelong pipe-dream of being an actor might actually be achievable. Tony auditioned for the New York Dramtic Workshop, and after being accepted on the strength of his audition piece (A scene from 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' in pantomime) Tony enrolled in early 1947. Tony then began to pay his dues by appearing in a slew on stage productions, including "Twelfth Night" and "Golden Boy". Tony then saw a small theatrical agent named Joyce Selznick, who was the niece of film producer David Selznick. After seeing his potential, Sleznick arranged an interview for Tony to see David Selznick at Universal Studios, where Tony was offered a seven year contract. After changing his name to what he saw as an elegant, mysterious moniker 'Tony Curtis' (Named after the novel 'Anthony Adverse' by Harvey Allen and a cousin of Tony's named Janush Kertiz), Tony began making a name for himself by appearing in small, offbeat roles in small-budget productions. Tony's first notable performance was a two minute role in 'Criss Cross' (1949), with Burt Lancaster, in which he makes Lancaster jealous by dancing with Yvonne De Carlo. This off-beat role resulted in Curtis being typecast as heavies for the next few years, such as playing a gang-member in 'City Across the River'.Curtis continued to build up a show-reel by accepting any paying job, as he acted in a number of bit-part roles for the next few years. It wasn't until late 1949 that Tony finally got the chance to demonstrate his acting flair, as he was cast in an important role in an Action-Western, Sierra (1950). On the strength of his performance in this, Tony was finally cast in a big-budget movie, Winchester '73 (1950). While Tony only appears in this movie very briefly, it was a chance to for him to act alongside a Hollywood legend, Jimmy Stewart.As his career developed, Curtis wanted to act in movies that had some kind of social relevance, movies that would challenge audiences, so he began to appear in movies such as Spartacus and The Defiant Ones. Tony was advised against appearing as the subordinate sidekick in Spartacus, playing second fiddle to the equally as famous Kirk Douglas. However, Curtis saw no problem with this as the had recently acted together in dual leading roles in The Vikings. Off-Screen, Curtis became equally famous for his romantic escapades, as he had relationships with a number of famous actresses, including Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, and of course, Janet Leigh.Despite having worked in movies for sixty years, Curtis' performances continue to resonate with the same spark they had when he was just starting out. It's been said that the closet thing America has to royalty are genuine movie stars, and Curtis is a prime example of one. Despite having an extremely tough childhood full of tragedy, much like many of the characters he has portrayed, Curtis refused to do what was expected of him and follow his father's footsteps, and all of his experiences, whether it be the death of his brother or living in an orphanage, contributed to Curtis' driving ambition that would not sway.