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Born to Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Tony Curtis grew up with two brothers in the back of his father’s tailor shop in the Bronx, in a family beset by poverty and mental illness. Learning early on that his good looks could be his ticket out, he participated in high school plays and, after returning from a tour of duty in the Pacific submarine force during World War II, studied at the New School under the avant-garde theater director Erwin Piscator. In Hollywood from 1948, Curtis worked his way up in bit parts until landing the lead in the 1951 Arabian Nights adventure The Prince Who Was a Thief.
Boyish and soft-spoken, Curtis was also able to convey an inner wariness and aggression that served him well playing the series of outsiders, hustlers, and con men he came to specialize in as his career blossomed in films like Sweet Smell of Success and Some Like It Hot. He earned an Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones, but by the early 1960s had drifted into a series of undemanding comedies. After a final attempt to resurrect himself as a dramatic performer, in the title role of The Boston Stranger, failed to convince audiences, Curtis retreated into television and self-parodic appearances in low-budget movies, unable to channel his star charisma into meaningful character roles. Among the last notable creations of the classic Hollywood star system, he was one of the first casualties of the New Hollywood’s shift to naturalism.
Organized by Dave Kehr, Curator, Department of Film.