The death of Tony Curtis (June 3, 1925 – September 29, 2010) inspired me to think of his place as an icon in my life. I never met the man, but he is very much a fabric of my culture due to his starring role in the film “Trapeze”. I did meet his daughter, the actress Jamie Lee Curtis, on the set of “Fierce Creatures”, but that was about as close I got to an individual who – along with Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, James Stewart and, more than anyone, Burt Lancaster – represented “my people” in a good light on the silver screen.
The interesting thing about Tony Curtis was that he played the Hollywood game and seemingly won. I liken him to a favourite rock rebel icon of mine, Alice Cooper, in that he lived to tell the showbusiness story. He made mistakes that others rarely came out of – both personally and career-wise. He arrived in the age of the Marlon Brando, James Dean and Elvis Presley, the rebels and the pin-ups for the emerging teen generation. However, he somehow missed all the pitfalls of his contemporaries. He never sold out on his image with schmaltzy hypocritical morality projects and yet he was never drawn on the tragic road of either untimely demise or unintended self parody. Curtis indulged in excesses and certainly had more than his fair share of personal problems that we associate with Hollywood. By the 1960s he was heavily into drugs and alcohol. He had as many wives as that regal symbol of excess Henry VIII and one cannot say that he didn’t compromise his artistic integrity. Curtis did a large number of cheque-please performances in less than substandard productions. However, through it all he never really seemed to lose the smile and be liked.
The thing is that for all his good looks, charisma and general likeability, Curtis could actually act. Such an ability might be overlooked by those who have seen many of the bad films he appeared in or even his hamming it up with Roger Moore in the enjoyably cheesy Anglo-American crime fighting series “The Persuaders!”[i] However, critics tend to point his doubters towards “The Sweet Smell of Success”. Journalist Tony Parsons considers this to be his greatest role and proof that he could compete with Steve McQueen or Paul Newman in acting ability.
I recognize that also ably handled playing the Orlando Bloom type character very well. Curtis brilliantly complimented Kirk Douglas’s alpha male in both “The Vikings” and “Spartacus”. Both performances carried a certain amount of risk for mainstream pictures and for a mainstream star. In “The Vikings” Curtis’s character, Erik, is the obvious good guy hero and yet is subordinate to Douglas’s anti-hero. However, this is no comment on Curtis’s charisma, as his character inspires sympathy through his various plights and should be noted as the most recognizable amputee hero in western cinema before Luke Skywalker. In “Spartacus” Curtis was involved in a far more controversial role that inspired a certain scene to be cut from the film open its original release. Playing the part of a slave who joins Spartacus’s rebellions, Curtis flees his master, Crassus (Lawrence Olivier), when the latter tries to seduce him. This scene was only added three decades later when a rare print was found. Curtis, then 68, reprised his role by reading the dialogue for the scene and Anthony Hopkins read for Olivier’s part. Both “The Vikings” and “Spartacus” formed two of my second largest childhood memories of Tony Curtis.
Many years later I appreciated the breadth of Curtis’s ability when I realized he starred as Albert DeSalvo, the serial killer known as the Boston Strangler, in a film based on his crimes. Some good looking actors dive into grittier projects to either prove they are not, as the cliché goes, “just a pretty face” or to salvage their career as age starts catch up on them. Curtis was in his forties by this time, so both criticisms could have been levelled at him. However, he still retains his good looks and resembles DeSalvo in many ways, and this performance he gives is one of the most under-rated I have ever seen.
However, for me and numerous others born into the world of circus, Tony Curtis will always be Tino Orsini. I have had friends, who work in trapeze troupes, born decades after “Trapeze” was released who reference the film with huge reverence. Curtis’s co-star was the great Burt Lancaster who actually worked in the circus as part of an acrobatic duo with Nick Cravat.[ii] For the circus people, Tony Curtis came from a time when films featuring circuses worked in close collaboration with actual circuses. The result would often be films that either presented an almost religious ideal of the circus that we all happily bought into or at the very least a fairly accurate portrayal of traditional circus life.
[i] For some great anecdotes on the behind the scene shenanigans on the latter I point you towards Roger Moore’s entertaining autobiography “My Word is My Bond”.
[ii] I know people who worked alongside Lancaster and Cravat. I have yet to hear a bad word said about him. For them, the fact that he loved his work and only retired from the circus to at first reluctantly pursued an acting career he is a virtual saint. Furthermore, many of them remarked about the way Lancaster never forgot his co-worker, getting him work in films whenever he could. Traditional circus, being an industry built from families, loyalty is an ethic held in very high regard.
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