Here is actor Tony Curtis, who died this week at 85, with his then-wife, Janet Leigh, and our friend Barbara Rush. The three starred together in a crazy 1954 guilty pleasure called “The Black Shield of Falworth” that takes place in the 1400s. Tony and Barbara play a brother and sister who are living as peasants but are secretly of royal blood. Both of them fall in love with unsuitable partners and high drama ensues. Today the film is mostly forgotten except for its three claims to fame: it was Universal’s first film in widescreen Cinemascope, it was the first of six films to feature the happy newlyweds, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, and it supposedly provided the line that was used to make fun of Tony Curtis’s Bronx accent and acting ability for years to come: “Yonda lies da castle of my faddah!”
But there will be no making fun of Curtis’s acting chops here, and not just out of respect for his passing. I thought Tony Curtis was a brilliant actor (with the right material) and classed up every film he was in. I am especially grateful that I got to meet him last April at the Turner Classic Movie Festival that I was “covering” for General Motors. I actually walked the red carpet with Curtis on opening night. Here’s the photo I took of him. He was all over the festival, attending screenings and introducing two of his best films, “The Sweet Smell of Success” and “Some Like It Hot.” I must have seen the latter film several dozen times and yet I was still transfixed by Curtis’s brilliance in the triple role of Joe, Josephine, and the Shell Oil magnate. While the wonderful Jack Lemmon looked like a bad female impersonator as the lovable Daphne, Tony Curtis had such pretty movie star features back in the 50s that his Josephine was actually a knock-out!
Before the film last April, he told many funny stories about the making of “Some Like It Hot,” including his costume fittings with famed designer Orry-Kelly. The designer measured Curtis and Lemmon first and then Marilyn Monroe walked into the session, wearing only panties and a barely-buttoned white blouse. As Curtis remembered this image, he practically started hyperventilating. When Orry-Kelly was measuring Monroe and got to her bottom, he cracked, “Tony Curtis has a better ass than you, Marilyn.” Monroe then opened up her shirt and said, “Maybe, but he doesn’t have these.”
Curtis was full of ribald stories that night, and, at 84, was still hitting on anything that moved, even though his sixth wife was at his side. He talked about shooting the kissing scene with Marilyn on the yacht. Things got so hot and heavy that Marilyn asked him if he had an erection. “No, honey,” he replied, “but I can get one for you if you like.” The two had an affair ten years earlier when both were just starting out and it wasn’t so hard to pick up where they left off. Like his contemporary Eddie Fisher, who died just a few weeks ago, Curtis was a major womanizer. Both married America's sweethearts (Janet Leigh and Debbie Reynolds) and both had talented, intelligent daughters (Jamie Lee Curtis and Carrie Fisher) from whom they were sometimes estranged (but not at the end, happily).
Tony Curtis left an amazing body of work. I was talking to my brother earlier and we both admitted that as kids our favorite was his portrayal of the flamboyant “Houdini.” And, or course, the actor was immortalized as Stony Curtis on what is probably my favorite episode of “The Flintstones.” My friend Helena, who is a member of the Academy, had been trying to get that group to host a reunion screening of “The Vikings,” the film that cast two Jews as its Viking leads, Bernie Schwartz (Tony Curtis) and Issur Demsky (Kirk Douglas)! I also enjoyed Curtis in "The Defiant Ones" (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award and fought to get Sydney Poitier proper screen credit), "Operation Petticoat," "Spartacus" (oy, that scene when Curtis is bathing his master Laurence Olivier!), "The Great Impostor," "Sex and the Single Girl," and many others.
Ironically, at the very moment Tony Curtis was leaving this mortal coil, we were with Barbara Rush who was being honored at the American Cinematheque in Santa Monica. They showed two of her films and she spoke in a delightful Q&A between the films. Barbara talked about her many co-stars, from Curtis to Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, James Mason, Frank Sinatra, and many others. She was good friends with Tony and Janet Leigh back in the day, and although she didn’t yet know about Curtis’s passing, remarked about how hard it is to lose so many friends at her age. (The audience gasped when Barbara said she was about to turn 84—she looks decades younger than that.)
Barbara introduced my mother-in-law Betsy in the audience. She starred in the successful play version of Betsy’s novel, “A Woman of Independent Means” and toured with it for years, and she also had a great run with Kendall’s dad’s play “Father’s Day.” If you promise not to call DCFS, I’ll tell you that Charlie enjoyed his first double feature (until midnight!), but why wouldn’t he—Barbara Rush is his favorite actress! Now I can’t wait to introduce him to the films of Tony Curtis!