Tony Curtis is a special kind of actor. Throughout his tenure in Hollywood he’s accumulated two Golden Globes, but no Oscar, no Emmy, and ironically no Tony Award. Do you think that bothers him? Nope, he’s still as passionate as ever about his craft and will gladly tell that to anyone who’ll listen. The actor attended a special screening for one of his most acclaimed movies at the TCM Film Festival entitled, Smell of Sweet Success and he gave the audience an earful on how he managed to stay relevant during a time when Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean were all the rage. The 1950s were filled with tough competition but Curtis stayed true to himself and let his talent do all the talking. In this rare conversation with the star there were no gimmicks, no entourage, no censors, just Tony…
Curtis was pushed into the theater in a wheelchair wearing a white cowboy hat and some shorts. He was greeted with a standing ovation and proclaimed to the audience that he was 84 years old and going strong. Even though he no longer has the boyish good looks he was known for, Curtis still has a certain level of confidence. He could still charm the skin off a cat. At one point during the panel he told a woman sitting in the front row that he loved her legs.
Curtis’ no holds barred attitude is probably one of the main things that made him so successful as an actor. He didn’t half-ass anything. He doesn’t know how. It’s not natural to him. When it comes to his career of choice he gets real serious and is very direct.
“I am the movies. I have trained myself for the movies. It’s a very overwhelming experience and I take credit for it because I love it. There’s something about being in the movies that…Jesus it knocks you out. You dedicate your life to it. That’s why so many actors marry a lot.”
Over the course of his career he’s played some pretty memorable characters like John ‘Joker’ Jackson from The Defiant Ones, Joe /Josephine from Some Like it Hot and Sidney Falco from Smell of Sweet Success. All three of those roles were completely different but his acting approach remained the same.
“I try from the beginning of making movies to become part of the person I’m playing. It’ s no miracle. It’s your self-being. How you look at things. How you see things. The way people affect you. The way you affect people. Some people you like, some people you don’t like. There’s no reason for you not to like these people but you just dislike them. There’s nothing wrong with that you know.”
While reliving his life in front of the camera he also discussed the old movie going experience. According to Curtis, seeing a film today is a lot different than it was 50 or 60 years ago. It was like a participation sport. The film would suck you into this world filled with laughter, sorrow, romance, or horror and after a 2 hour emotional roller-coaster it was over.
“The theater was…I wouldn’t say a dangerous place but you had to be aware of it. You couldn’t just get up and do what you do. That was just a minor portion of it. You saw what pictures were. You saw what the elements were. You saw how people related to each other under the dilemma of what life was like. It was not an easy experience and no one thought it was. I loved it for that. Movies were created for that.”
When he worked on Smell of Sweet Success the one person he respected more than anyone was the director of photography, James Wong Howe. He was a huge fan of his work and believed that he shot some of the most beautiful scenes to ever grace the screen.
“I loved watching him. He’s part of the creator. I feel like he should have been a part of the director’s arm because he had a motive. His motive was you better get it right or you’re off the movie. With an F-stop at 150, it better be right.”
Besides Howe, Curtis has worked with a who’s who of directors and actors. Billy Wilder, Carol Reed, Alexander Mackendrick, Stanley Kramer, Jack Lemon, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Burt Lancaster, Carey Grant, Sidney Poitier, and Laurence Olivier, just to name a few. But do you know the one co-star he always wanted but never got? He wanted space, the final frontier.
“What was the show that was so famous on television? The space show. “ Star Trek!” Would I have loved to sign up for “Star Trek.” After 20 years everything fades away except for “Star Trek.”
Even though he never landed the gig opposite William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy he still did alright for himself. He doesn’t need old episodes on TV Land to solidify him as a part of Hollywood history because his resume speaks for itself. Curtis is a character. A rambunctious character who gives just as much lip service off screen as he does on. Even though he’s in the later years of his life, the fire is still there with no signs of cooling down. After 6 decades in the business, Tony Curtis still likes it hot.
What’s your favorite Tony Curtis film?