In his first days in early 1950s Hollywood, some dismissed Tony Curtis as just another pretty face. By the time of his death Wednesday at 85, the actor was perhaps best known to the younger set as Jamie Lee Curtis' dad.
But for a decade beginning in the late 1950s, Tony Curtis emanated the sweet smell of success – becoming both a screen idol and accomplished actor in string of great movies that assures him a spot as one of the last of the old-time Hollywood legends.
Curtis had a talent for playing deceivingly complicated and morally ambiguous characters (a bigoted chain gang escapee in "The Defiant Ones" and an ambitious press agent in "The Sweet Smell of Success") as well as a knack for comedy ("Some Like it Hot"). He also could pull off the understated face of evil (as killer Albert DeSalvo in 1968's "The Boston Strangler," Curtis’ last great role).
The man born Bernie Schwartz in the Bronx, in some respects, was a lightweight, American version of the man born Archie Leach in Bristol, England.
Like Cary Grant, Curtis possessed good looks and an easy charm that made women swoon, men want to be him, and a talent for humor that made everybody laugh. Curtis, like Grant, also could reach into the dark side of a character while remaining a compelling – and never repellent – screen presence.
Unlike Grant – and today's equivalent, George Clooney – Curtis didn't get near enough opportunities to show off his gifts. If Curtis is underrated in some circles (he only got one Oscar nomination – for "The Defiant Ones" – and didn't win), it's because he was under-challenged, whether because of Hollywood’s limited perceptions of his abilities, his own demons or a combination of both.
It's telling that Curtis' strongest performances came in films where he was paired with some of the best actors of his time. The tension between him and Burt Lancaster in "The Sweet Smell of Success" sizzles – nearly as much as between him and Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones," one of the first popcorn movies to address the country's racial strife.
Curtis channeled his best Cary Grant opposite Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in the classic cross-dressing comedy "Some Like it Hot," and paired with Grant himself in the submarine comedy “Operation Petticoat.”
Curtis' homoerotic turn as a slave boy opposite Laurence Olivier in "Spartacus" in 1960 added an extra level of depth to what otherwise would be remembered primarily as the last of the old-school epics. And his soulless, dead-eyed DeSalvo proved a worthy adversary to Henry Fonda's persistent cop in "The Boston Strangler."
There was plenty of likeable fluff in between – "Boeing Boeing" and "The Great Race" – and some outright embarrassing kitsch after ("Lobster Man from Mars").
But, as Joe E. Black notes at the end of "Some Like it Hot" when Jack Lemmon's character reveals that she's a he: "Nobody's perfect!"
We'll take Curtis with all his flaws, and remember him as a Hollywood great who not only turned heads, but could tap the funny bone and, occasionally, the American psyche, with the best of them.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.