Tony Curtis, Film Heartthrob, Dies at 85

Underappreciated actor, born Bernard Schwartz, was staple of 1950s silver screen

Actor Tony Curtis died Wednesday in his Henderson, Nevada home. He was 85.

The cause of death was cardiac arrest, the Clark County coroner said yesterday.

Tony Curtis - AP - Sept. 30, 2010

Curtis, who molded himself from a 1950s movie heartthrob into a respected actor, was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925, the son of Hungarian Jews who had immigrated to the United States after World War I.

His father, Manny Schwartz, had yearned to be an actor, but had trouble finding work with his heavy accent.

Curtis was never accorded the acclaim he deserved. He was nominated for an Oscar only once, for his role in the 1958 Stanley Kramer film "The Defiant Ones." He played an escaped prisoner who was shackled to a black man played by Sidney Poitier. The film was a milestone for racial relations in the United States.

Curtis grew up in a poor family, and had little formal education. In his three autobiographies, he described his youth on the violent streets of the Bronx and his attempts to earn money however he could in order to support his family.

From a young age, Curtis dreamed of being a movie star. After serving in the Pacific during World War II and being wounded at Guam, he returned to New York and studied acting under the G.I. Bill. He appeared in summer stock theater and on the Borscht Circuit in the Catskills.

Then an agent lined up an audition with a Universal-International talent scout. In 1948, at 23, he signed a seven-year contract with the studio, starting at $100 a week. He got the contract primarily because of his good looks, as opposed to his acting ability.

Bernie Schwartz sounded too Jewish for a movie actor, so the studio gave him a new name: Anthony Curtis, based on his favorite novel, "Anthony Adverse," and the Anglicized name of a favorite uncle. After his eighth film, he became Tony Curtis.

The studio helped smooth the rough edges off the ambitious young actor. The last to go was his street-tinged Bronx accent, which had become a Hollywood joke.

In the 1950s, he appeared almost exclusively in exotic adventure films, roles that he later said deprived him of the ability to prove his acting skills. His big break came in 1957 in his role in "Sweet Smell of Success," opposite Burt Lancaster. The film wasn't a commercial hit, but it is now considered a classic. It was followed by roles in hits including "The Vikings," "The Defiant Ones" and "Some Like It Hot."

Curtis' ability to transition from dramatic acting to comic roles was one indication of his skill as an actor.

At the end of the 1960s, his career began to wane. He later turned to writing, producing a 1977 novel, "Kid Cody and Julie Sparrow." In 1993, he wrote "Tony Curtis: The Autobiography." In his books, he described his bitterness over his treatment by Hollywood, which he attributed to his Jewishness and his contention that he was never taken seriously because of his good looks.