By now everybody has heard of the death of this former matinee idol and Hollywood icon. He came a long way from his humble beginnings as the son of Hungarian immigrants; he served in the US Navy, and was proud to be present in Tokyo Bay on 9/2/45, witnessing the Japanese surrender and the official end of WWII. Back in New York after the war, he took acting classes at The New School, where he was spotted by talent scout Joyce Selznick and whisked to Hollywood. Curtis always believed he was chosen because he was the best looking man in the school, and with Walter Matthau and Rod Steiger as his classmates, he probably was.
He underwent one of the more famous Hollywood Name Changes of the era (his given name was Bernard Schwartz), and began his career with a series of lower budgeted films. During the early and mid-50s, his forgettable movies included I Was a Shoplifter, No Room for the Groom, The Son of Ali Baba, and the first film in the Francis the Talking Mule franchise. During this period, he struggled to lose his Bronx accent; his performance in the medieval potboiler The Prince Who Was a Thief has become film legend. In one aurally challenging moment in the film, Curtis turns to costar Piper Laurie and proclaims, "Yonduh lies the castle of my fodduh."
In 1957, The Sweet Smell of Success proved Tony could transcend his matinee idol status and deliver a sharp performance. The film ushered in a fertile period in his career, during which he became an A-list star. In 1958, he was shackled to Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones and won his only Oscar nomination. He provided smouldering good looks to the all-star epic Sparticus, though his most infamous scene was removed from the final cut of the film, to be restored decades later. Director Stanley Kubrick filmed a bath scene with Laurence Olivier, playing a rich Roman patrician, and Curtis, playing a slave; it's said that, while filming, Olivier and Kubrick kept Curtis in the dark about the implied homoeroticism, fearing he would refuse to play the scene. The seductive segment did not survive the studio sensibilities of 1965. When the scene was restored to the film in 1991, the dialogue had to be re-dubbed; Tony provided his own voice to the restoration, but Olivier had already died, so his voice was imitated by Anthony Hopkins.
Curtis's film career waned in the late 60s, though he continued to make numerous appearances on television and talk shows. He provided his own voice for the Flintstones character which parodied his persona, Stony Curtis, decades before it became fashionable for stars to voice cartoon characters. He won an Emmy nomination for his performance in The Scarlett O'Hara Wars in 1980, but never won a competitive acting award.
Tony Curtis's most famous, influential performance was in Some Like It Hot, which leads, in a very circuitous way, to this week's Dance Party. The 1959 film is considered a classic, with the American Film Institute placing it at #1 on its list of the top 100 film comedies. There is no better proof that nothing is funnier than a man in a dress.
Some Like It Hot was turned into a stage musical in 1972, with a score by the Funny Girl team, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Sugar was only a moderate success, as it was an old-fashioned musical trying to find a place in the new Sondheim world. It took 20 years for the show to be performed in London, when the piece was reworked a bit and took on the name of its source material, Some Like It Hot. Ten years later, in 2002, a national tour was organized, with the intention of landing on Broadway. The producers again gained access to the original's title (it is thought that one of the reasons Sugar was not an initial hit was the fact that the public could not tell from the title that it was the musical version of Some Like It Hot). In what must have seemed like a casting coup, the producers persuaded Tony Curtis, at age 77, to make his musical stage debut in the piece.
This time out, Curtis was playing Osgood, the older millionaire played by Joe E. Brown in the film, and by Cyril Ritchard in the original Sugar.
I saw this tour when it came through Baltimore and can verify that putting Tony Curtis onstage in a singing role was the worst idea since Teri Hatcher toured in Cabaret. The two leading men were charming and energetic and delivered the bouncy score with panache, but any time Curtis stepped onstage, the train ran off the tracks. He was badly out of his depth with the two comedy numbers which his role required, and in addition, the producers had added a ballad for him in order to beef up his part. Tony Curtis wobbling his way through "I Fall In Love Too Easily" is an experience I would not wish to repeat.
This tour never did make it to New York, so Sugar and/or Some Like It Hot has never seen a Broadway revival. I have been a fan of the show since I saw the Los Angeles production in the mid-70s. Original star Robert Morse was teamed with Larry Kert, and they were playing the heck out of the two cross-dressing leading men. The role which Curtis later massacred on tour was being played by The Lucy Show's Gale Gordon (and being played damn well). In the clip below, Morse and his original co-star, Tony Roberts, reteam to deliver what was originally a huge showstopper in Sugar, the first moment when we see our heroes in drag. Sadly, this clip was taken from one of those PBS concerts which are produced for the express purpose of being interrupted by pledge breaks. It's from "Broadway's Favorite Leading Ladies," and it was someone's bright idea to open this concert with two men in drag. I wish I could have found a clip of Morse and Roberts from the original production, because here, they are too old and clearly under-rehearsed to deliver the goods. It's hard to reconcile this hammy performance by Robert Morse with the sedate, subtle one he is currently giving on Mad Men.
But still, in honor of the passing of Tony Curtis, and of his contribution to Some Like It Hot, here is this week's Dance Party; try to imagine Robert Morse and Tony Roberts younger, more agile, and singing on-key: