Tony Curtis interview: The Champ
The boxing analogy is one Curtis likes and I can see why. Sitting across from me in the sumptuous surroundings of the bar at the Dorchester Hotel (ever the movie star, Curtis always stays here when he's "in town"), Tony Curtis is 83 and has something of the air of a once-great champ, whose glory days may be behind him, but in his head he is still thinking through the moves, the fancy footwork, the killer punch.
Wearing short white tennis shorts, a white cable-knit sweater and a white Stetson, his skin is soft and tanned and although age has hidden that famous bone structure, there's an unmistakable twinkle in those blue eyes.
Curtis is in a wheelchair. He can walk, but after a serious bout of pneumonia in 2006 it's a struggle so he prefers to sit, using his heels to manoeuvre himself around. As we talk, Curtis sipping a glass of orange juice, he scoots nearer me for emphasis, further away to draw me into the stories he tells.
Meeting Tony Curtis is as close to being in a movie as I'll ever get. Partly it's the way he sounds – that New York accent that's only softened a little since Frank Sinatra used to call him "Boinie" (Curtis started life as Bernie Schwartz, first from Manhattan and then, briefly, the Bronx) – partly it's the setting, enveloped in the chocolate brown cocktail bar opened especially for us but, most of all, it's because Curtis breathes, thinks and speaks movies. They are his life. Settings, scenes, shots, Curtis looks at life, both now and then, like a director setting up a shot or an editor viewing a rough cut.
"There's nothing I did that I'm ashamed of," he says. "I'm trying to think real hard, about the way I treated people and the way I was treated by people. I don't find anywhere that I didn't do good. I'm not looking for everybody to like me, or think of me as a boy scout, I'm just saying that's the way I see life – smiling, being happy, giving everybody the best of my ability."
Curtis is into his eighth decade but he's sharp and flirtatious. He knows that's the Tony Curtis that people, that I, want to see and as the consummate professional, the champ, he delivers. There are quips and laughs, but now and then something a little more wistful creeps in, not so much about the past ("I make no recriminations. I'm not angry") but perhaps a little uncertainty about now. The inevitable anxiety of old age. But no sooner has it appeared than it's gone again, replaced by the easy charm and the never-ending supply of anecdotes.
Curtis's autobiography, American Prince, is a frank account of an extraordinary life. The toughest of childhoods, his desire to be in the movies, stardom, countless affairs, drug addiction, depression. It's a proper Hollywood fairy tale, full of highs and lows, the latter presented in full, if not glorious, technicolour.
HE WAS BORN IN NEW YORK IN 1925, and his childhood was difficult, marred by poverty and violence. Living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, his father, Manny, a tailor, and his mother, Helen – second generation Hungarian immigrants – were unhappily married and, to their eldest son, Bernie, terrifyingly volatile. His mother, later diagnosed as a schizophrenic, regularly beat him and his younger brother, Julius.
"It was horrendous," he says. "Very tough. I was resilient enough to survive it. It didn't stop me. I didn't realise it at the time but living has been the ultimate answer. Toughness is something you make. If you're not prepared or knowledgeable about what's around you, you'll get your legs broken. Things will be happening to you and you won't even know why. People will shove you around and you won't even know why they're mad at you. As a kid I was aware of everything. I'm happy about the kind of kid I was. I didn't know it then, but I know it now."
When Curtis was 13, Julius, who was then nine, was hit and killed by a truck. His parents sent Curtis to identify the body. It's an experience that left an indelible mark on him. It triggered depressions that have affected him throughout his life. I ask him if the lessons he learned as a child shaped the man he has become?
"Not the lessons that you learn from parents," he says. "Those were worthless to me."
Curtis didn't often go to school, where he was bullied for being Jewish, and instead found respite in the cinema. He loved movies. Cary Grant was the reason he wanted to be on screen; he wanted to be just like him. He even joined the navy to emulate his hero in Destination Tokyo.
"He was a unique man," he says, eyes glistening. "There was no one quite like him. He had a wonderful way of doing things. I watched him and watched him and watched him. I got a sense of who he was. I was really enamoured of him. He instilled in me what movies were all about."
Years later, when Curtis had made a few movies, he got the chance to work with Grant on Operation Petticoat. "When I found out I was going to meet him I got very excited," he says. "He knew how much I liked him and he was very, very generous with me. I stole a big photograph of him that used to be on the wall in the United Artists office in New York City. I went up there a few times for a meeting and there he was – this fabulous photograph. So when no one was looking, I unhooked it, put it under my arm and walked out with it. Then when we were in California I got him to autograph it for me."
Grant wrote him a long message. The gist of it was that success was like a streetcar and Grant hoped that Curtis would stay onboard for as long as he wanted.
"It was the middle of the 1950s. I still have it now. He was an outstanding figure of a man."
Suave and sophisticated, Grant was everything that Curtis wanted to be. And handsome too. "The looks helped," he says. "He was a very handsome man. And he wasn't embarrassed by his looks – he wore them very well."
Curtis was taunted throughout his childhood for being pretty. What age was he when he realised he was good looking?
"I was 13 or 14. I remember one night I was going out. I finished dressing in the house. I had no room, no place, I did it all in the living room. My father sewing or reading the paper, my mother doing something else and I'm in between them, getting myself shaved and putting on what clothes I had. I walked up 62nd street where there were a lot of shops, a lot of glass where you could see your reflection. I walked past a place where there was a mirror, then the glass and then me. I stopped. I could see myself in that mirror ten feet away from me. I looked so nice. I looked so good – my face, my style. I looked at myself for a long time. I remember saying to myself in my mind, 'Go on, do it. Nobody does it better than you'. I've never forgotten that."
Curtis's good looks landed him a contract at Universal in 1948 on the eve of his 23rd birthday. He made four films a year for the next ten years and slept with most of his leading ladies, as well as any other girl who caught his eye. The first was Marilyn Monroe, when she still had red hair and was called Norma Jean.
"Who else you gonna fall in love with?" he asks, one eyebrow raised. "They're around all the time, you've got scenes to do together and sometimes you'll be kissing. Where else are you going to go? I didn't think of it as something special. All of those leading ladies, every one…" his thought wanders. "Mamie Van Doren. Cleo Moore – you've never heard of her, have you? She was blonde, not too tall, and she had the figure of a Czechoslovakian washerwoman."
Curtis casts a fairly unflinching eye over his life (it's been "very human" he tells me). He never felt guilt about having affairs because he simply couldn't resist and he was always discreet. His wives, all five of them, seldom felt the same. He's married now to Jill Vandenberg, a woman 46 years his junior, whom he calls Jillie. They live together in Las Vegas where Vandenberg runs a shelter for rescued horses.
"I'm just so happy to be where I am now," he says. "It doesn't make me want to quit, it doesn't make me want to do something else. I like it just here." And then his face changes. "I'm the last man standing," he says. "Nobody left but me. So what, I've got to go out and make new friends? I don't know. All the friends I had were people I admired. I'm sure that there are some that I admire now but I haven't gone into it."
For all the modern squeamishness about fame, Tony Curtis is having none of it. It was his generation who created the concept of celebrity. Of course, there was a studio system to keep tight rein on journalists and no hordes of paparazzi waiting around every corner. But still, Curtis loves fame.
"So many actors and actresses play the game of 'oh I don't want to go out there, too many fans'. And they'd refuse to sign autographs. Paul Newman used to say that. OK, no autographs, so what else you going to give them? Oh I know, you're going to give them a good performance in a movie? Bullshit.
"I love fame. People don't understand that, you've got to be as famous as me to understand it. To put on that coat of fame," he gasps, "you put it on and do up the zip or the buttons," he corrects himself as his fingers mime doing up the coat. "Buttons, it doesn't have a zip, and the colour is just right …" he smiles and the eyes twinkle a little bit more. "Just what I did just now, it made me feel great. I love it because I want to be the most famous man in the world. It's egotistical to talk this way, but I don't mind."
In the book he seems disappointed in the movies he's made, disappointed he never got an Oscar, that the roles dried up. It's ironic since he's starred in films that are considered classics: Spartacus, The Vikings, Trapeze and, of course, Some Like It Hot. Today he's feeling more forgiving. "Some of the early movies I made, when I think back on them, I love them. That's where I was learning to be an actor. That's where I was learning what it meant to be in the movies. I loved it, honey.
"When I started in movies I wanted to be a champ. I wanted to be the perfect middle-weight fighter – my weight was perfect for it, my mental attitude was perfect for it. For some reason there was just a part of my head that wouldn't let me go out. I didn't make any mistakes."
He's pulled himself right in close now, he's playing the scene brilliantly. Or maybe he's just about to land the knockout blow.
"I'm 83 years old and cor blimey I don't look it," he says with a smirk. "But I mean, I'm 83 – shit!" He says it as if, no matter how often he says it, it doesn't quite ring true. "Everybody I knew was an old man at 53 and here I am at 83 – healthy, only addicted to love."
The punchline delivered by the consummate showbiz pro. And then more pensively: "How much time do we have anyway, Claire?" he asks. "Twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties. That's where it's gonna … I think about it every now and then, that subject that I don't want to get into yet, about how I'm going to disappear. I don't know yet. I don't how much time I've got."
Then the champ is back.
"That book is just a feeler for the future. Everything that goes on in that book will take me through the next few years. That's why I don't feel like I'm gonna die. It's incredible, why would I feel like that? But I feel like for eons I'll be sitting in bars talking to a good-looking woman."
I hope that happens, I tell him.
"Well, it has. I'm doing it. I've beaten the odds."
• American Prince: My Autobiography is published by Virgin Books priced 18.99.