Tony Curtis

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Last Update : 15/6/15

The man christened Bernard Swartz led quite a life, Hollywood stardom, narcotic addiction, promiscuous sex, and alienation from his children when they were growing up.

For millions, he was a superb lightweight comedian and matinee idol, but for me, there was always the promise of so much talent that he squandered in pure celluloid froth. I defy anyone to watch The Sweet Smell of Success,’ and even more importantly, The Boston Strangler without acknowledging a powerful actor with the ability to convey the widest range of emotions.

Unfortunately the man, better known as Tony Curtis, seemed more preoccupied with ‘fucking himself senseless’. One can only wish he had encountered a three legged woman early on to satisfy his sexual curiosity. Perhaps only then, the wrangling and bitter arguments surrounding his life, and last will & testament – six children by six wives – might have been avoided.

Interviewed by Bob Lardine of “People” magazine in the late spring of 1980, Curtis was typically forthright, clearly astute, more than aware of the superficiality of fame, and yet seemingly incapable of stepping off his own personal treadmill.

Lardine wrote: Tony Curtis is an angry man. During his 32-year Hollywood career he has made some 100 movies—enough bombs to earn a listing in the new Golden Turkey Awards book, but enough classics to make him a Hollywood fixture. He was one of the first stars to disclose his real name: Bernie Schwartz. He’s always been upfront about his troubled marriages (three) and his problems with his children (six). He’s never hidden his brushes with drugs or his trips to the shrink. But now, at 55, Tony Curtis can’t get no respect.

“I really have heavy, acute depressions,” admits Curtis, who says his new psychiatrist has prescribed “mood elevator” pills for him. “I have to blame somebody or something. I bawl out my wife or blame one of the kids. Or I moan, ‘I didn’t get the part.’

By 1980, he was free of a decade long narcotic problem that had first garnered press attention when his London conviction for possessing half an ounce of marijuana received more coverage than most of his movies. “I used to smoke marijuana years ago, and 1979 was the last time I touched cocaine. Six months ago I took Percodan because my tooth was hurting. Now these mood elevators calm me down. I sleep at night. Nothing can disturb me.”

Except, perhaps, his seesaw 12-year third marriage to ex-model Leslie Allen, 35. “This marriage definitely isn’t going to last forever,” he stated at the time. “My wife tells me she needs space. Well, I’m going to see that she gets it.” They still shared the same home, but Leslie was planning a Cape Cod vacation that summer without Tony. Their two sons, Nicholas, 9, and Benjamin, 7, would be with her.

Curtis remained openly hostile toward his two ex-wives. “I don’t speak to them,” he maintained, “and, God willing, I’ll never have to.” When his five-year second marriage, to German actress Christine Kaufmann, ended in 1968, Curtis won custody of their daughters, Alexandra, 16, and Allegra, 14, claiming Kaufmann was an unfit mother. His first marriage, in 1951, to frequent co-star Janet Leigh, was more famous—and bitter. The union lasted 12 years and produced daughters Kelly, then 23, and working as a businesswoman, and actress (Halloween, The Fog) Jamie Lee, then 21. Curtis partially blamed Janet for his long estrangement from Jamie. “She had heard that I was arrogant, uninterested, a rake, a womanizer, a drunk and a dope-taker,” he complained during the interview. Janet denied the charge. “I never knocked Tony to Jamie,” she said. For her part, Jamie felt closer to her stepfather, stockbroker Bob Brandt, but believed she had achieved a fragile reconciliation with Curtis. “I understand him better now,” she said, “perhaps not as a father but as a man.”

As the interview progressed, Curtis would betray some eighteenth century views on the fairer sex.
Offering up his views on commitment, he was quoted as saying: “Marriage is difficult. Very few of us are fortunate enough to marry multimillionaire girls who have 39-inch busts, and have undergone frontal lobotomies.”

Lardine went onto describe Tony’s business acumen, that would become the focus of such attention after his death in 2011.

‘With seasoning, however, came fine performances in such films as 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success with Burt Lancaster, 1958’s The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier, and the classic 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe. Though most of his movies remained lightweight, Tony was making $400,000 per flick. Then in the 1970s, after two failed TV series (The Persuaders and McCoy), his career seemed to founder. _“I’m not bitter,” he said unconvincingly, “but I felt let down by producers and agents. When things were hot and heavy for me, they were always around. When things cooled, I couldn’t get them on the phone.”

But if Curtis was down, his net worth was up. “I’m a millionaire who doesn’t have to worry anymore,” he observed airily. “I’ve also been called the best amateur real estate man in town.” In addition to his sprawling, five-bedroom home on two prime Bel Air acres (its value had quadrupled since he bought it for $280,000 in 1972), Curtis’ holdings included an L.A. condo, a London flat, a Cape Cod home, five percent of the pro basketball Phoenix Suns, a production company and 180 acres in California’s Perris valley.

His interests were described as surprisingly eclectic. He was a passionate collector of cars (his stable including a Rolls, a station wagon and a TransAm), antique furniture and paintings, including works by Picasso and Braque.

Under construction

In the spring of 2011, just six months after his death, it was widely reported that Curtis had singularly chosen to leave his children not a solitary cent of his fortune — estimated by some to be worth as much as $60 million (around £37 million). The fallout over his will was seismic – his eldest child, Kelly, quickly failing in her legal action to oppose it, and a second daughter, Alexandra, also contemplating further legal action. The actor’s last will and testament, written just five months before his death in September 2010, was reportedly the latest in a long line of such testamentary documents. Curtis himself, had always said that there would be money for his children and grandchildren
However, his last document explicitly — and extraordinarily — cut them out completely. It read: ‘I acknowledge the existence of my children . . . and have intentionally and with full knowledge chosen not to provide for them in this last will and testament.’ In a rather predictable outcome, his entire estate was left to his sixth wife, the 6ft former lingerie model Jill Vandenberg.

The will decreed that the fortune be left to a trust, to be administered by Jill as his ‘personal representative.’ She would have ‘absolute discretion’ over the money, specifically including all of his property portfolio — including homes in Hollywood, Nevada and Hawaii — which she could sell should she want to.

Interviewed at the time, Christine Kaufmann – the German starlet who was Curtis’s second wife and mother of daughters Alexandra and Allegra, was suitably forthright: ‘Everything the children should have, Jill has. I do believe that deep down inside he was a nice Jewish father, and you know that nice Jewish fathers do not disinherit their children. Tony was on strong painkillers at the end, and they make you really stoned.’

She would claim that Curtis loved his children deeply, as they did him, despite his failings as a father. She also added that there had been no falling out that would explain their omission from the will. Suspecting that any money Vandenberg inherited was being spent on her Nevada horse sanctuary, Kaufmannadded: ‘Jill has lots of three- legged horses that she has to take care of, which are very expensive.’

Marina Modlin, an estate-planning lawyer in Campbell, California, says as many as 30 percent of her clients disinherit a family member from a will. Since she only handles cases in probate court if they are uncontested, she does not know how many of the wills she prepares are challenged, but she suspects it happens fairly often across the United States.

“It’s one of the most unreasonable areas of the law,” she says. “With business contracts, they’re grounded in fact, but here, you have people just getting upset, and they start basically suing because they have hurt feelings. Disinheriting someone can be a way to haunt a family member from beyond the grave, but there may be pragmatic reasons involved.”

Matters would worsen amongst the Curtis clan when his widow auctioned off many of Tony’s personal possessions, ass the following link explains:

Public opinion will always be divided about the trials and tribulations of a star’s siblings. One can sympathise about the sale of items of sentimental value, but the subject of hard currency engenders different emotions. If, for example, the argument raging had been merely over the acquisition of rights to bequeath the late actor’s capital to various charities, would the principle of the issue have been sufficiently important for both parties to go to court. I very much doubt it.

If we return therefore, to the central issue of cash and real estate, the position remains unclear. On page 283 of his biography, Michael Munn writes of Curtis; ‘He savoured the still too-rare moments with his children. His first born. Kelly, had enjoyed some small success as an actress, and when she married a theatrical producer the couple formed a company. But the marriage didn’t last and she gave up acting to work for Jamie Lee. Jamie and her husband Christopher adopted two children, Annie and Thomas. When Christopher inherited the barony of Saling in the county of Essex on the death of his father in 1996, she became Baroness HadenGuest of Saling. When Tony read about it in a newspaper, he declared, “How about that? Queen for a day!”

Alexandra quit acting and became a child therapist. Allegra went from being a hair and make up consultant to designing jewellery for a home-shopping company in Germany. She also has a son, Raphael. Benjamin shunned show business and went to work as a carpenter. He and his father became estranged after a series of arguments about Ben’s son, Nicholas; as of 2008 they were still not talking.’

Why were the actor’s moments with his children all too rare? After all, he had sufficient money to pay their travelling expenses, if the cost of regular journeying was prohibitive to them. Did they disapprove of his recent marital partners? His last three unions had, after all, not borne him further children, so their likely inheritance had not been detrimentally affected. Where then, did the ultimate responsibility lay for this infrequent contact? Only his surviving siblings can answer this question.

Ultimately, what remains astonishing is not that he disinherited his children – which frankly happens often enough to avoid sensationalist headlines – but that he chose to do so publicly when it would have been so easy to privately leave his estate to his widow, Jill Vandenberg Curtis. As ‘’ so aptly put it in 2011:

“INSIDE EDITION has obtained the will, written five months before his death from cardiac arrest last year at age 85. His children are listed by name, including Jamie Lee. Then there’s this statement: “I acknowledge the existence of my children…and have intentionally and with full knowledge chosen not to provide for them.” Instead, Curtis leaves his estate to his widow, Jill.”

Ignore for a moment that Tony Curtis has joined a long line of celebrities who fail to consider the ramifications of the Probate process.

Instead, consider this: Tony Curtis could have accompished the exact same thing, disinheriting his children and leaving his entire estate to his wife, and done it privately, without his widow and children being exposed to our prying eyes.

If Tony Curtis had made a trust, then his will would simply direct that his entire estate be distributed to the trust. Then, in the trust document, which would remain private, he could direct that everything be distributed to his wife. Voila! The exact same result, but without dragging the family through the tabloid mud. After all, it’s really none of our business.

Furthermore, by using a trust, he could have easily left something to his favorite charities, to particular friends, or to his grandchildren or great-grandchildren, who one assumes are too young to have voiced disapproval over Mr. Curtis’ life choices. It begs the question: was the omission intentional? Did he actually desire this result, or did he just not ask anyone’s advice? I think it was the latter – most people simply don’t know the right questions to ask.

Ironically, Jill Curtis’ response to the tabloid reports was: “Tony’s last will and testament and his passing wishes . . . are private family matters.” Sadly, they’re not private at all. But they could have been.

Recommended viewing

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

“I would hate to take a bite out of you,” Lancaster snarls at Curtis, “you’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

That, he most assuredly is – Tony delivering a career high performance as Sidney Falco, an unprincipled press agent who enjoys his work. Like a number of business people I’ve had the misfortune of knowing, he’s the sort you’d throw out of a six floor office building whilst offering the trial judge the meekest excuse possible that ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’.

There’s a rancid smell to the film, whilst the deliciously unsavory dialogue reflects the ‘dog eat dog’ world of 1950’s Manhattan. Filmed in monochrome, with a backdrop that highlights the incessant rising nicotine smoke, the film is distinguished less by its story-telling than by the atmosphere of clubs, curbsides, and penthouses, where professional character-assassins lust after their baby sitters, and men pimp out women to other men. Peccadilloes aside, these low-lifes remain fixated on the wholesale destruction of their rivals.

Just luxuriate in every sordid moment.

The Defiant Ones (1958)

Kings go Forth (1958)

Some like it hot (1959)

The Boston Strangler (1968)

The noted US film critic Roger Ebert, championing the film’s celluloid qualities in October 1968, remained singularly unconvinced of its moral dimension. At the core of this literary unease was De Salvo’s split personality, a rare psychological and medical history uniquely distinct from the traditional social environment in which such unconscionable behavior thrives. As Ebert elaborated, devoid of such socio-economic factors, no added insight or remedial programme could have altered the trajectory of the strangler’s actions, thus saddling both the movie’s cinéma vérité quality and the gravity of its subject matter, with an inappropriate ‘entertainment’ label – a regrettable and unforeseen consequence of the project’s genesis.

Thankfully, despite Ebert’s misgivings, The Boston Strangler is more than rescued by its individual elements – an innovative split screen technique, strong supporting cast and best of all, Curtis firing on all four cylinders, despite the initial opposition to his casting. Displaying a hitherto unrevealed resourcefulness, the actor had broadened the bridge of his nose with putty, forwarded a photo to director Richard Fleischer and sealed the deal. What followed was a thoughtful, forceful performance as a family man battling mental illness and losing. The role would garner him a Best Actor Golden Globe award the following year – his last major cinematic role before the lure of small screen stardom beckoned.

The Persuaders (TV Series) 1971

There’s little doubting their on-screen chemistry and happily – so long as Tony was suitably stoned -
the Moore and Curtis partnership worked equally well off-set.

The marvellous tongue-in-cheek quality that has made The Persuaders! such a popular show down the years was always producer Robert Baker’s intention. “This was never going to be a hard-boiled, edgy thriller,” he says. “In the first episode, you have these two guys fighting over how many olives you have in a drink. You’re not going to take it seriously from that point onwards.”

Recommended reading

Tony Curtis - Empire Magazine 2011

Back in 2001, Empire’s Chris Hewitt interviewed Curtis for the magazine’s Hall of Fame. A brutally honest and bittersweet interview, Tony doesn’t pull any punches about his career highs and lows and the women – especially the women!!!

Tony Curtis - Nobody's Perfect (Michael Munn) 2011

Munn’s publisher would have us believe that this is the definitive ‘word’ on Curtis the man, and his career. I’m dubious. Just how on earth does one condense a life in the public eye down to approximately three hundred pages?

The recent bar in movie biographies has been raised with the publication of “Dirk Bogarde” (John Coldstream) and Tom Rubython’s “And God created Burton.” In the case of both volumes, there’s an overwhelming sense of dedicated application, a desire on the part of the biographer to truly understand his subject, and to reconcile the public and private image.

Interviewed in the early 90’s, Curtis was asked whether being overlooked by the Academy Awards committe throughout his career had hurt him. His response bore the hallmarks of a seasoned professional, a man fully capable of contextualising a public career with other aspects of his life:

“Nothing hurts me deep inside. That is only one part of my life. I have a cornucopia of living – I am a painter, I am an author, I am a father and a lover, and I’ve had a lot of girlfriends, a lot of guys I know I like, I’ve got six children, I’ve got a big living experience. If the movies were the only thing I lived for, I would be devastated. You would die in this community, you’d be checking to see if your name was in the trade papers or what part you were going to get, and who’s going to get it. But you can’t live like that.”

It’s baffling therefore, that the musings of a seemingly well adjusted man, should be so at odds with a life of such excess. For me personally, Munn doesn’t completely get to grips with this central issue, despite the advantage he has over Coalstream and Rubython, who neither met nor interviewed their subjects in real life.


Tony Curtis Estate