From dressing in drag to posing nude for his 80th birthday, Tony Curtis truly was a defiant one.
He overcame early typecasting as a lightweight pretty boy to become a serious actor in such films as “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Spartacus” and “The Defiant Ones,” the latter earning him an Academy Award nomination.
He resisted obsolescence, continually reshaping himself and taking lesser roles to find steady work in a business that prizes youth. He subdued alcohol and drug addictions, lived through six marriages and five divorces, and found peace with a new art as a painter.
Curtis, whose wildly undefinable cast of characters ranged from a Roman slave leading the rebellious cry of “I’m Spartacus” to a jazz age musician wooing Marilyn Monroe while disguised as a woman in “Some Like It Hot,” died Wednesday night.
The 85-year-old actor suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas, the coroner said Thursday.
“My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages,” Jamie Lee Curtis _ his daughter with first wife Janet Leigh, co-star of “Psycho” _ 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.”
Starting his career in the late 1940s and early 1950s with bit parts as a juvenile delinquent or in such forgettable movies as the talking-mule comedy “Francis,” Curtis rose to stardom as a swashbuckling heartthrob, mixing in somewhat heftier work such as the boxing drama “Flesh and Fury” and the title role in the film biography “Houdini.”
Hindered early on by a Bronx accent that drew laughs in Westerns and other period adventures, Curtis smoothed out his rough edges and silenced detractors with 1957’s “Sweet Smell of Success,” in which he played a sleazy press agent who becomes the fawning pawn of a ruthless newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster).
“Curtis grew up into an actor and gave the best performance of his career,” critic Pauline Kael wrote in her book “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”
A year after “Sweet Smell of Success,” Curtis was nominated for a best-actor Oscar in “The Defiant Ones” as a white escaped prisoner forced to set aside his racism to work with the black inmate (Sidney Poitier) to whom he is handcuffed.
“He’s one of those actors who in the ‘50s was a beautiful, charismatic leading man, who became sort of iconic as a sex symbol. Not somebody who you originally thought had a lot of depth. He was just charming and funny and yet he revealed himself to be quite complex and gave some great performances,” said actor and director Tony Goldwyn, son of film producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr.
Curtis and Lemmon starred as 1920s musicians who disguise themselves as women in an all-girl band to hide out from mobsters after they witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.