The (Not So) Wonderful Life of Tony Curtis


Tony Curtis never thought he would not be famous. Almost from the day he was born, he became the center of attention, drawing praise from family, friends and neighbors alike for his dusky good looks. As he grew into adulthood and won the attention and affections of older women, he began to recognize his powers over the opposite sex and did all he could to exploit it. Arriving in Hollywood in the late 1940s, his winning personality and good fortune in meeting the right people, opened more opportunities for him as he cut a swathe through ingenues and starlets of the movie industry, leaving, in his own words, “no skirt unmoved.”

Curtis, though, was not just a pretty boy and did possess considerable talents as an actor. When he finally began to produce good films,such The Defiant Ones (1958) and Some Like It Hot (1959), he seemed poised to transform from playboy into serious actor with an Oscar win inevitable. He married upcoming actress Janet Leigh and the magazine industry touted the two as America’s sweetheart couple.

Unknown to most of his admirers in these years, Curtis was neither the faithful husband, nor doting father his publicity machine portrayed him to be. In fact in the 1950s , by his own reckoning, he bedded every A-list actress in the country, the lurid details of which are recounted in his memoir, American Prince.

Perhaps his notoriety engendered some ill feeling from cuckholded producers, for by the mid 1960s the good roles had dried up and Curtis was soon being regarded as something of a has been. He divorced Leigh after a highly publicized affair with Natalie Wood and other actresses

As he aged, Curtis lost the public’s attention. He married five more times, and produced five children, most of whom he rarely saw. He fell into alcoholism and drug addiction and almost died from a cirrhosis of the liver in 1995. His relationships with his many children evaporated, and one of them even died from a heroin overdose in 1993.

Yet his 2009 memoir American Prince does not dwell of any of these problems and the great unhappiness he brought to others’ lives. In that book Curtis instead spent 500 pages regaling his readers with details of his sexual conquests and evening scores with long dead producers, directors and fellow actors. A thread of bitterness runs through this autobiography as Curtis, who many would believe lived one of the most charmed existences in America, reveals his intense insecurity and essential shallowness.

And so Tony Curtis, at the end of his life, missed an important opportunity. He failed to share any recognition that celebrity and fame can be soul crushing steam rollers that offer little lasting happiness if the opportunities they profer to help others are never taken up. Curtis might have summarized at the end of American Prince ” Yes I was a red hot lover, but so what? What lasting happiness did it bring me and those near and dear to me? In my self absorption, had I done anything to improve the lives of others? ”

That kind of introspection was seemingly beyond Tony Curtis. He died at his home in Henderson, Nevada on Friday at the age of 85, remaining a study in American narcissism. That is too bad. He might have taken a leaf from fellow actor Paul Newman’s book, whose tireless assistance of the needy was often performed anonymously. He seemed to know, as Curtis did not, that only giving and not taking brings ultimate happiness on this earth.

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