Even 50 years after the event, Tony Curtis could be heard reminiscing about fondling Marilyn Monroe. The 1950s Hollywood pin-up boy famously said that an amorous moment with Monroe was like kissing Hitler.
Renowned for his love affairs with Hollywood starlets, Curtis maybe remembered more for his six marriages and fathering Jamie Lee Curtis, than for his acting abilities. Ever the tease, he fuelled his own myth throughout his life, stating in a memoir released in 2009 that Monroe miscarried a child he had given her. His relationship with the blonde bombshell, something that has remained one of Hollywood’s great mysteries much like the life of Monroe herself, became the focus of his book The Making of Some Like It Hot. About their on-off love affair he said: “When I was in bed with Marilyn I was never sure – before, during or after – where her mind was. She was an actress. She could play a part. She could give the part what she thought a man wanted. I never asked for more.”
Curtis’ off-screen antics may have grabbed the headlines but after a shaky start to a career that eventually spanned eight decades and over 100 films, he deserves to be remembered for what he did in front of the camera. Adept at likeable funny-man roles in Some Like It Hot and Operation Petticoat (under the guiding hands of Billy Wilder and Blake Edwards), Curtis could also play it straight with key dramatic turns in film noir Sweet Smell of Success (which earned him an Oscar nomination), The Defiant Ones alongside Sidney Poitier, and his own personal favourite The Boston Strangler.
Outside of film Curtis became a prominent painter commanding over £15,000 for individual works.
Curtis passed away peacefully on 29th September 2010 at his home in Nevada aged 85. Daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, paid tribute to her father, saying, “He leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings.” She added: “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.”
Sir Michael Parkinson, who interviewed Curtis on many occasions, said: “He was an extraordinary man. Hollywood tried to make him into a sex symbol in the 1950s and 1960s but he was his own man. He was a great chat show guest and was wonderfully indiscreet but he was very bright and did not take himself too seriously.”
Once asked what he’d like written across his gravestone, Curtis quipped: “Nobody’s perfect”. It appears a well-suited measure of his light-hearted, self-deprecating personality, and a summation of his often turbulent on-screen and off-screen career.
10. Spartacus (Kubrick, 1969)
Tony Curtis can be found among a sea of greats in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.
9. The Vikings (Fleischer, 1958)
Kirk Douglas is again the star (as he was in Spartacus) but this time Curtis has equal footing as feuding brothers in 10th century Britain who want the throne and the girl.
8. Insignificance (Roeg, 1985)
Curtis manages to have a little fun with his own persona playing The Senator in Nicolas Roeg’s visual feast.
7. The Outsider
Curtis gives a strong, restrained performance in Delmot Mann’s film about bravery and public fascination.
6. Sex and the Single Girl
Curtis plays the womanising reporter in Richard Quine’s box office hit comedy. Natalie Wood, Lauren Bacall, and Henry Fonda also star.
5. Operation Petticoat
Blake Edwards directs Tony Curtis and Cary Grant in this comedy about a World War II submarine.
4. The Boston Strangler
Curtis said many times his performance in The Boston Strangler was the finest of his career. Indeed, he delivers a fine, gritty performance as strangler Albert DeSalvo opposite Henry Fonda and George Kennedy.
3. The Defiant Ones – See also our top 10 films about race and prejudice
Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are the escaped convicts chained together in this tale of discrimination in pre-Civil Rights Act America.
2. Sweet Smell of Success
Curtis is brilliantly against type as Sidney Falco in Alexander Mackendrick’s film noir Sweet Smell of Success.
1. Some Like It Hot
Tony Curtis’ most memorable role has to be as cross-dressing Joe (and Josephine) opposite the brilliant Jack Lemmon and the alluring, almost mythical presence of Marilyn Monroe. One of the best comedies ever made.