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November 29, 2002 - Image 79

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2002-11-29

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being taunted because I was Jewish,"
says Curtis.
"This kid, Frank, would push me
into • the street hoping I would get hit
by a car. There were also Nazi march-
es, where German kids would march,
and my friends and I would go on the
rooftop of the tenements and throw
things down on'them. We did every-
thing we could to ease our pain."
Still, Judaism remained an impor-
tant part of the Schwartz family's life.
"My father was an Orthodox Jew
and my mother kept kosher," recalls
Curtis, who went to services regularly
with his father until age 13 when he
became a bar mitzvah. "My father was raised very
In 1990, Curtis visited his father's modest home
and dilapidated synagogue in Mateszalka, near the
Russian border, where the Schwartz family lost
members in the Holocaust.
When asked to be the spokesman for a fund that
helps renovate Hungarian synagogues, Curtis set up
the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture,
named in memory of his father, to rebuild Jewish
institutions in his family's homeland.
The fund helped repair the central synagogue in
Budapest, where his father once prayed.
(Simultaneously, Curtis' daughter actress Jamie Lee
Curtis served as honorary chairperson of a fund that
established the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial
Park in Budapest.)
When Curtis was growing up, his family
spoke only Hungarian at home; Curtis didn't
learn to speak English until he started school.
However, school wasn't one of his priorities.
"It was the 1930s, and we were very poor
and lived in the back of my father's tailor
store and moved around a lot, so I barely fin-
ished elementary and never went to high
school," says Curtis: Instead of going to class-
es, he delivered clothes for his father and
wandered the streets of New York.
'Also, when I was 12 and my brother Julius
was 9, he was hit by a truck and killed, and
that put a great burden on my family." Curtis
was the one wh'O had to go to the hospital to
identify his brother. (His parents later had
another son, Robert, who passed away in

Tony Curtis and Janet
Leigh with daughter Jamie
Lee Curtis during the
filming of 1960s "Who
Was That Lady?" The
couple, who divorced
shortly after the filming,
was constant fodder for
the fan magazines.

Tony Curtis plays a New
World Jewish gangster, -
and Milton Berle is his
Old World father, in
1975's "Lepke."

Angeles to live near him.
He knew it was his face that got him into the
movies. "I was the best-looking Jewish kid in the
world," he once said, "and that also includes the
goyim," he quipped.
His screen debut was the movie Criss Cross, with
Yvonne de Carlo. Before long, the handsome Curtis
became a teen idol.
A list of some of his unforgettable films includes
The Outsider, Sweet Smell of Success, Houdini, Trapeze,
Spartacus, The Boston Strangler and The Defiant Ones,
for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
Early on, he knew he'd have to change his name
and chose Curtis after one of his Hungarian relatives
named Kertesz. He anglicized it to Curtis, then chose

That Face

At age 17, Curtis joined the Navy and was
Stationed in the Pacific. During his two-year
stint, he earned his high school diploma.
When the war ended, he returned to New
York and, dreaming of becoming a movie
star, enrolled in acting school on the GI Bill.
It didn't take long for his dream to come
"An agent named Joyce Selznick saw me in
a play and sent me to Hollywood and I got a
seven-year contract [at Universal. Studios]
without even having to kiss up to anyone,"
says Curtis, who brought his parents to Los

Curtis with some of his brightly colored acrylics: "I started
painting as a way to express my feelings and ideas when I was
a little kid and could speak only Hungarian," says Curtis.

Anthony as a first name, later shortening it to Tony.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Curtis' personal life made
good copy for fan magazines. His marriage to actress
Janet Leigh in 1951, and divorce 11 years later, were
both well publicized, as was the birth of their
daughters Kelly and Jamie Lee. (He had six children
in all, two each from three of his four ex-wives, and
now has six grandchildren.)
There was always a tremendous interest in the suc-
cesses and woes of the superstar who, in the early 1980s,
battled and then overcame substance abuse. Curtis lost
his youngest son, who was 23, to drugs in 1994.

Still Vital

In 1998, Curtis married Jill Ann VandenBerg, 32,
an almost 6-foot-tall blonde equestrian, who helped
him learn his lines for Some Like It Hot.
They enjoy their life in Las Vegas, where Curtis
spends much of his free time painting, a longtime
hobby. His bright acrylic canvases with Matisse-like
colors are sold on his Web site, www.tonycurtis.com,
and at galleries around the country.
"I have been painting all my life," says Curtis. "I
started painting as a way to express my feelings and
ideas when I was a little kid and could speak only
Probably more than any other question, Curtis is
asked what it was like working with Marilyn
Monroe on Some Like It Hot.
"She had emotional problems much of the time
and was having a difficult time working," he says.
"Her life was very strained — she was married to
Arthur Miller at the time. But she was a kind and
sweet woman."
Curtis may be just a few years away from becom-
ing an octogenarian, but he wants everyone to know
he is "still in his prime." Even now, he is ready to
take on new roles.
"But there are some things I will never do," he
says. "I won't grow old on the screen. I won't play
doctors or lawyers or grandfathers or people like that.
"I'll only play guys like myself, who are vital and
active, and enjoy the living experience." El

Some Like It Hot runs 8 p.m. Tuesdays-
Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays and 2 p.m.
Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 3-22, at
Detroit's Fisher Theatre. $35-$70. To charge
by phone, call (248) 645-6666.




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