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Screen legend Tony Curtis dead at 85

Played schemers in such classics as 'Some Like It Hot'

Tony Curtis, who grew beyond his start as a studio-groomed matinee idol to play snappily seductive schemers in such 1950s classics as "The Sweet Smell of Success" and "Some Like It Hot," died Wednesday evening of cardiac arrest at his home in the Las Vegas-area city of Henderson, Nev. He was 85.

"He died peacefully here, surrounded by those who love him and have been caring for him," his wife, Jill Curtis, told the Associated Press outside their home. "All Tony ever wanted to be was a movie star. He didn't want to be the most dramatic actor. He wanted to be a movie star ever since he was a little kid."

A flamboyant personality with a ribald wit and zest for the high life, Curtis epitomized the storied glamour of old Hollywood. Widely known for his onscreen sizzle and his offscreen personal life -- he and first wife Janet Leigh were an irresistible glamour couple that the fan magazines followed breathlessly -- he also was a multitalented performer whose talents and wide range of roles defied typecasting.

Curtis hit his peak as a movie star and critically admired actor during the late '50s and '60s, turning in an impressive array of performances. His breakout role, in which his athleticism was on full display, was as a daring aerialist in 1956's "Trapeze," in which he starred with Burt Lancaster. He played a slippery publicist in "Sweet Smell of Success," a swashbuckling marauder in "The Vikings," a bitter convict in "The Defiant Ones" and a lecherous serviceman in "Operation Petticoat." In the classic 1959 comedy "Some Like It Hot," which also starred Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, he played in drag most of the film but also turned in a dead-on Cary Grant impersonation.

During the course of their 11-year marriage, he and Leigh had two children, daughters Jamie Lee Curtis and Kelly Curtis, both actresses.

After his divorce from Leigh, Curtis married four more times and had four other children, including Allegra Curtis, also an actress, with second wife Christine Kaufman. In 1998, he married his last wife, Jill Vandenberg Curtis, who operates Shiloh Horse Rescue, a nonprofit refuge for abused and neglected horses.

Living in Nevada, Curtis, while still taking acting jobs, pursued a second career as an artist, creating Matisse-like still lifes.

"My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages," his daughter Jamie Lee Curtis said Thursday. "He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him and a wife and in-laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world."

Born Bernie Schwartz on June 3, 1925, in the Bronx to immigrant parents, he was a rowdy youth. "I was always the new kid on the block, so I got beat up by the other kids," Curtis recalled in 1959. "I had to figure a way to avoid getting my nose broken. So I became the crazy new kid on the block." Early on, he sought escape from his family's problems by going to the movies.

After serving in the Pacific during World War II and being wounded at Guam, he returned to New York and studied acting under the G.I. Bill. He appeared in summer-stock theater and on the Borscht Circuit in the Catskills. Then an agent lined up an audition with a Universal-International talent scout. In 1948, at 23, he signed a seven-year contract with the studio, starting at $100 a week.

The studio changed his name to Anthony Curtis, which later was changed to the feistier-styled Tony Curtis.


Curtis perfected his craft in such forgettable films as "Francis," "I Was a Shoplifter," "No Room for the Groom" and "Son of Ali Baba" before breaking through with "Trapeze."

While under studio contract, he aggressively fought to be cast in a diverse set of movies: "I started in tit-and-sand movies at Universal," he once said. "If I hadn't fought and made a pain of myself, I'd still be doing 'Ali Baba.' "

During the '60s, he went on to star in such films as "Spartacus," where he famously traded double entendres with Laurence Olivier, "Taras Bulba," "The List of Adrian Messenger," "Sex and the Single Girl" and "The Great Race."

In 1968, he played accused serial killer Albert DiSalvo in "The Boston Strangler." Over time, he turned in against-type performances like his portrayal of an impotent, struggling studio executive in 1976's "The Last Tycoon."

During his later years, he performed frequently on TV, playing mobster Sam Giancana in "Mafia Princess" and mogul David O. Selznick in "The Scarlett O'Hara Wars." From 1978-81, he had a recurring role on the series "Vegas."

In 2002, Curtis toured in "Some Like It Hot" -- a revised and retitled version of the 1972 Broadway musical "Sugar," which was based on the film. In the touring show, the actor graduated to the role of Osgood Fielding III, the part played in the movie by Joe E. Brown.

Overcoming an addiction to drugs and alcohol, Curtis eventually found satisfaction in his painting, his extended family and looking back over his long showbiz career.

He also penned the novel "Kid Andrew Cody and Julie Sparrow" in 1977 and an autobiography, published in 1993.

Wife Jill told the AP that Curtis had been hospitalized several times in recent weeks for treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung problems she blamed on his smoking 30 years ago. She said he recently returned home, where he died in his sleep.

"His heart survived things that Tony would always say would kill an ordinary man," she said. "This time, his heart was ready to go and ready to be at peace."

Longtime friend and casino executive Gene Kilroy said memorial services would be held Monday in Las Vegas, with a reception at the Luxor hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.