‘The woman,’ says thrice-married Tony, ‘holds the key in any marriage’
He isn’t the last (and is certainly no longer a young one), but Tony Curtis is an angry man. During his 32-year Hollywood career he has made some 100 movies—enough bombs to earn a listing in the new Golden Turkey Awards book, but enough classics to make him a Hollywood fixture. He was one of the first stars to disclose his real name: Bernie Schwartz. He’s always been upfront about his troubled marriages (three) and his problems with his children (six). He’s never hidden his brushes with drugs or his trips to the shrink. But now, at 55, Tony Curtis can’t get no respect.
“I really have heavy, acute depressions,” admits Curtis, who says his new psychiatrist has prescribed “mood elevator” pills for him. “I have to blame somebody or something. I bawl out my wife or blame one of the kids. Or I moan, ‘I didn’t get the part.’ ” One part he did get is movie mogul David O. Selznick in this week’s The Scarlett O’Hara War, part of NBC’s six-hour version of Garson Kanin’s Hollywood novel Moviola.
Yet Curtis is still smoldering over being dumped by playwright Neil Simon and director Herbert Ross from the lead of Simon’s new play, I Ought to Be in Pictures, just before its recent Broadway debut. “It was the despicable way they did it,” grouses Tony. “You’d think the mothers could have told me I wasn’t going to New York. I learned I was being replaced [by Ron Leibman] from the stage manager.” Curtis retaliated by walking out between acts during his final L.A. performance.
That tactic, of course, just turned up the volume on whispers that Curtis had been dropped because he was constantly on drugs. “I heard the rumors too,” snaps Tony, whose 1970 London conviction for possessing half an ounce of marijuana got more press than most of his movies. “They probably used it as an excuse to replace me. But I took absolutely nothing during the play. I used to smoke marijuana years ago, and 1979 was the last time I touched cocaine. Six months ago I took Percodan because my tooth was hurting. Now these mood elevators calm me down. I sleep at night. Nothing can disturb me.”
Except, perhaps, his seesaw 12-year third marriage to ex-model Leslie Allen, 35. “This marriage definitely isn’t going to last forever,” says Tony. “My wife tells me she needs space. Well, I’m going to see that she gets it.” They still share the same home, but Leslie will be taking their sons, Nicholas, 9, and Benjamin, 7, for a Cape Cod vacation this summer—without Tony.
Curtis is openly hostile toward his two ex-wives. “I don’t speak to them,” he says, “and, God willing, I’ll never have to.” When his five-year second marriage, to German actress Christine Kaufmann, ended in 1968, Curtis won custody of their daughters, Alexandra, 16, and Allegra, 14, claiming Kaufmann was an unfit mother. His first marriage, in 1951, to frequent co-star Janet Leigh, was more famous—and bitter. The union lasted 12 years and produced daughters Kelly, 23, now a businesswoman, and actress (Halloween, The Fog) Jamie Lee, 21. Curtis partially blames Janet for his long estrangement from Jamie. “She had heard that I was arrogant, uninterested, a rake, a womanizer, a drunk and a dope-taker,” he complains. Janet denies the charge. “I never knocked Tony to Jamie,” she says. For her part, Jamie feels closer to her stepfather, stockbroker Bob Brandt, but believes she has achieved a fragile reconciliation with Curtis. “I understand him better now,” she says, “perhaps not as a father but as a man.”
Tony is nothing if not opinionated. “Marriage is difficult,” he offers. “Very few of us are fortunate enough to marry multimillionaire girls who have 39-inch busts and have undergone frontal lobotomies.” As for his fame as a lady-killer, Tony humbly admits it is deserved: “I’ve left my mark on thousands of girls across the country.” He adds, with a rueful smile, that if he had had his vasectomy when he first arrived in Hollywood, rather than after the birth of his youngest son, “I would have been the wealthiest man in town.”
Born in Manhattan’s tough Hell’s Kitchen, Curtis grew up in the Bronx, the son of a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant tailor. Tragedy as well as poverty stalked the family. Older brother Julius was killed at 12 by a truck. Younger brother Robert, now 40, has been institutionalized as a schizophrenic most of his life. A high school dropout after one year, Curtis served a Navy hitch in World War II, including two years aboard the submarine Dragonette. While later studying acting in New York on the Gl Bill, he attracted a Universal talent scout and landed a $50-a-week contract. He soon was adorning costume epics like 1951 ‘s The Prince Who Was a Thief. His ripe Bronx delivery—though he insists he never said his most famous line, “Yonda lies de castle of de caliph, my fadder”—insured him a kind of immortality.
With seasoning, however, came fine performances in such films as 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success with Burt Lancaster, 1958’s The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier, and the classic 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe. Though most of his movies remained lightweight, Tony was making $400,000 per flick. Then in the 1970s, after two failed TV series (The Persuaders and McCoy), his career seemed to founder. “I’m not bitter,” he says unconvincingly, “but I felt let down by producers and agents. When things were hot and heavy for me, they were always around. When things cooled, I couldn’t get them on the phone.”
But if Curtis was down, his net worth was up. “I’m a millionaire who doesn’t have to worry anymore,” he observes airily. “I’ve also been called the best amateur real estate man in town.” In addition to his sprawling, five-bedroom home on two prime Bel Air acres (its value has quadrupled since he bought it for $280,000 in 1972), Curtis’ holdings include an L.A. condo, a London flat, a Cape Cod home, five percent of the pro basketball Phoenix Suns, a production company and 180 acres in California’s Perris valley.
His interests are surprisingly eclectic. He has been a passionate collector of cars (though his stable now includes only a Rolls, a station wagon and a TransAm), antique furniture and paintings, including works by Picasso and Braque. He swims daily to help keep his 5’10” frame to 164 pounds. His friends include producer Allan Carr, director Billy Wilder and millionaire Jim Randall (Marisa Berenson’s ex). Despite critical raps for his 1977 first novel, Kid Andrew Cody and Julie Sparrow, he’s putting the finishing touches on a second, Star Struck, about five young actresses. Even his career is beginning to look up. Two new films, It Rained All Night and Title Bout, axe in the can, and next month he starts the London shooting of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d. After his Moviola turn as Selznick, Tony is up for a role as Mike Todd. “I may end up working the rest of my life portraying moguls,” smiles Curtis. “A lot of good things can still happen for me.”