HENDERSON, NEV. (AP) - Tony Curtis shaped himself from a 1950s movie heartthrob into a respected actor, showing a determined streak that served him well in such films as “Sweet Smell of Success,” “The Defiant Ones” and “Some Like It Hot.”
The Oscar-nominated actor died Wednesday evening of cardiac arrest at home in the Las Vegas-area city of Henderson, Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy said Thursday. He was 85.
“He died peacefully here, surrounded by those who love him and have been caring for him,” his wife, Jill Curtis, told The Associated Press outside their home. “All Tony ever wanted to be was a movie star. He didn’t want to be the most dramatic actor. He wanted to be a movie star, ever since he was a little kid.”
Curtis began acting in frivolous movies that exploited his handsome physique and appealing personality then steadily moved to more substantial roles, starting in 1957 in the harrowing show business tale, “Sweet Smell of Success.”
In 1958, “The Defiant Ones” brought him an Academy Award nomination as best actor for his portrayal of a white racist who escaped from prison handcuffed to a black man played by Sidney Poitier.
The following year, Curtis donned women’s clothing and sparred with Marilyn Monroe in one of the most acclaimed film comedies ever, Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot.”
“He was a fine actor … I shall miss him,” said British actor Roger Moore, who starred alongside Curtis in TV’s “The Persuaders.”
“He was great fun to work with, a great sense of humor and wonderful ad libs,” Moore told Sky News. “We had the best of times.”
Curtis‘ first wife was actress Janet Leigh of “Psycho” fame; actress Jamie Lee Curtis is their daughter.
“My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages,” Jamie Lee Curtis said in a statement. “He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him and a wife and in-laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world.”
Curtis struggled against drug and alcohol abuse as starring roles became fewer then bounced back in film and television as a character actor.
His brash optimism returned, and he allowed his once-shiny black hair to turn silver.
Again he came back after even those opportunities began to wane, reinventing himself as a writer and painter whose canvasses sold for as much as $20,000.
“I’m not ready to settle down like an elderly Jewish gentleman, sitting on a bench and leaning on a cane,” he said at 60. “I’ve got a helluva lot of living to do.”
Actress and activist Marlo Thomas said she was saddened that Curtis‘ death so closely followed the Sept. 22 death in Berkeley, Calif., of Eddie Fisher, a superstar singer of the 1950s.