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went from heartthrob to respected actor
Bernard Herschel Schwartz was born in Bronx, New York, on June 3, 1925, the eldest of three children of Helen (Klein) and Emanuel Schwartz, Jewish immigrants from Hungary. His parents were constantly fighting over money, and Bernard began to go to movies as a way of briefly escaping the constant worries of poverty and other family problems. In 1935, Bernard's parents decided that their children would have a better life under the care of the state and briefly had him and his brother Julius admitted to an orphanage; they "reclaimed" them after a few weeks. Where the third son, Robert, was during this time is unknown, but it is known that he eventually ended up in a mental institution.
Tragedy struck the Schwartz family in 1938, when 12-year-old Julius was struck and killed by a truck. Shaken by the loss of the family member he was closest to, Bernard became determined to do something positive with his life and began attending Seward Park High School on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Enlisting in the U.S. Navy after graduation, he spent World War II in the Pacific aboard the submarine U.S.S. Proteus. Following his honorable discharge in 1945, he used his G.I. Bill to pay for acting lessons at the New School for Social Research, where his classmates included fellow Seward Park alumnus Walter Matthau.
Schwartz's acting career started in 1947, when he was accepted into the New York Dramatic Workshop. He then began to pay his dues by appearing in a slew of stage productions, including "Twelfth Night" and "Golden Boy." His movie career began when, in 1948, theatrical agent Joyce Selznick arranged for him to meet with her uncle David O. Selznick at Universal Studios. His good looks got him a seven-year contract, and it was then that he changed his name to Tony Curtis (which he got from the novel Anthony Adverse and a cousin of his named Janush Kertiz).
Curtis began making a name for himself by appearing in small, offbeat roles in small-budget productions. His first notable performance was a two-minute role in Criss Cross (1949), with Burt Lancaster, in which he makes Lancaster jealous by dancing with Yvonne De Carlo. This offbeat role resulted in him being typecast as a heavy for the next few years, such as playing a gang member in City Across the River (1949). It wasn't until late 1949 that he finally got the chance to demonstrate his acting flair, when he was cast in an important role in the action western Sierra (1950). On the strength of his performance in that movie, Curtis was finally cast in a big-budget movie, Winchester '73 (1950). While he appears in that movie only very briefly, it was a chance for him to act alongside a Hollywood legend, James Stewart.
Thanks in large part to his high-profile marriage to Hollywood beauty Janet Leigh in 1951, Curtis began getting more substantial roles. His first starring role was in Houdini (1953), in which Leigh was his co-star. A string of successful movies followed, including Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958), Operation Petticoat (1959), Some Like It Hot (1959), and Spartacus (1960). His portrayal of a white racist escaped convict handcuffed to a black escapee, played by Sidney Poitier, in The Defiant Ones earned him his only Academy Award nomination.
Curtis's star began to fade in the early-60's, and by the 1970's he was struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. He kept himself busy by appearing in a variety of low-profile films and on various TV shows, but eventually headed to rehab in 1982 and reinvented himself as a fine art painter. He also wrote published two autobiographies during this time: Tony Curtis: The Autobiography (1994) and American Prince: A Memoir. In 2002, he toured in a musical adaptation of Some Like It Hot. His final film was David & Fatima (2008). By then, however, he was struggling with frequent health issues, which included heart bypass surgery in 1994 and a recurring battle with obstructive pulmonary disease. He died in Henderson, Nevada, on September 29, 2010.
Marriages and Children
Janet Leigh -- June 4, 1951 - September
14, 1962 -- divorced -- 2 children (Jamie Lee and Kelly)
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This page was last updated on 06/02/2017.