Tony Curtis, a classically handsome movie star who came out of the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s to find both wide popularity and critical acclaim in dramatic and comic roles alike, from “The Defiant Ones” to “Some Like It Hot,” died Wednesday at his home in Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas. He was 85. The cause was cardiac arrest, the Clark County coroner said.
Mr. Curtis, one of the last survivors of Hollywood’s golden age, became a respected dramatic actor, earning an Oscar nomination as an escaped convict in “The Defiant Ones,” a 1958 Stanley Kramer film. But he was equally adept in comedies; his public even seemed to prefer him in those roles, flocking to see him, for example, in the 1965 slapstick hit “The Great Race.”
Behind the pretty-boy looks was a dramatically potent combination of naked ambition and deep vulnerability, both likely products of his Dickensian childhood in the Bronx. Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, to Helen and Emanuel Schwartz, Jewish immigrants from Hungary
At 17, he enlisted in the Navy, serving 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” at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
It was there that he was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout and, by age 23, was under contract with Universal for $75 a week.
“I got into movies so easy it was scary,” he told the Denver Post in 1996.
He changed his first name to Anthony and his last to Curtis — an Anglicized version of a Hungarian family name, Kertész. But before long, he was known simply as Tony Curtis.
His acting career got its first boost with a bit part as a gigolo in the 1949 movie “Criss Cross,” in which he did a brief dancing scene with the star, Yvonne De Carlo, that brought in a rash of fan letters. Soon Curtis had a bigger role in “City Across the River.”
He made standard studio fare for many years for Universal, finally getting better roles when he linked up with powerhouse agent Lew Wasserman. After that, he starred with Lancaster in two well-regarded films, “Sweet Smell of Success” and “Trapeze.”
In “Sweet Smell of Success,” he played slimy publicist Sidney Falco to Lancaster’s evil and all-powerful gossip columnist, J.J. Hunsecker.
“Curtis makes Sidney’s naked ambition so tangible, you can almost feel his clammy palms, and it’s Curtis’ unsentimental, caffeinated study in amorality that gives ‘Sweet Smell’ its potent, bitter aftertaste,” Entertainment Weekly said in a 2002 listing of the 100 best performances not nominated for an Oscar.
Curtis had the foresight to get a percentage of his movies when that wasn’t common practice, and he later said that he had 34 movies that he collected on. He said he had made $2.5 million on “Some Like It Hot” alone.
His final screen appearance was in 2008, when he played a small role in “David & Fatima,” an independent budget film about a romance between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim. His character’s name was Mr. Schwartz!