It makes a curious kind of sense that Tony Curtis arrived in Hollywood during the waning glory days of legendary studio moguls like Louis B. Mayer, because just like Mayer and other self-made titans from the East, Curtis too was fueled by a desperate desire to outrun his past. Curtis did in fact achieve the worldwide success he so desired, but in his intermittently absorbing autobiography American Prince, it's not the glitter of Tony Curtis's Hollywood that fascinates but rather the tales of his hard-knock childhood as Bernie Schwartz of the Bronx.
Curtis's rise to fame and fortune may itself resemble a Hollywood melodrama, but his childhood in New York City actually reads more like something out of Dickens. In the book's most engrossing sections, he details an upbringing spent in poverty, one utterly lacking in love or the slightest hint of emotional support. So joyless was his parents' marriage, and so dire were the finances, that after surviving a stint living in an abandoned building, Curtis's parents dropped Bernie and his younger brother Julie at an orphanage, with no explanation other than a cursory "We'll be back soon" ("soon" turned out to be two weeks). It's no wonder Curtis developed an instinctive belief that he "couldn't count on anyone else" and escaped his unhappy life by virtually living at the movies. Out of such desperate circumstances was born his overwhelming desire to become an actor -- or, more precisely, a star.
Curtis escaped his miserable surroundings by faking his age and enlisting in the Navy in 1942, when he was only 16. There may have been a world war raging, but in the eyes of Bernie Schwartz, the Navy provided him with a surrogate family: "[F]or the first time ever I felt like I had a purpose." Released from the service after years in the Pacific, he was greeted by his mother with an oblivious "So how was Paris."
After agent Joyce Selznick arranged a screen test at Universal, Curtis parlayed his good looks and sex appeal into a long-term contract at the studio and a nearly instantaneous status as a teen heartthrob. Curtis maintains enough perspective to wryly admit that his biggest weapon in the early 1950s may well have been his hair. In those pre-Elvis days, his own carefully coiffed long hair "took on a life of its own." With no formal training as an actor (he lasted one day at the Actors Studio), Curtis relied on his exuberance and boyish charms to attract steadily bigger roles, as well as a marriage to actress Janet Leigh.
Curtis is strong on interesting anecdotes from those far-off studio system days: he was offered $30,000 to marry Piper Laurie because their movies together had been successful, an offer that presented just one problem -- he didn't much care for Laurie. One of the odd charms of the book is the fact that Curtis is, if nothing else, bluntly honest in his assessment of his costars. Terming Shelley Winters a "pain in the ass -- a real yenta" and Danny Kaye "bitter and mean," he does effusively praise both Gene Kelly and Jimmy Stewart ("an incredibly nice person"). Taking pains to dispel the myth that he actually bellowed the Bronx-inflected words "Yonda lies the castle of my fadda" in Son of Ali Baba, he relates that the line actually took on a life of its own when snidely relayed as fact by Debbie Reynolds on a television talk show.
It's ironic that the book begins to suffer just as Curtis's career swings into high gear with the first of his hit starring vehicles -- Houdini (1953) and Trapeze (1956); the anecdotes may intrigue, but there is no context to the stories, no true attempt to dig deeper and understand the repeated patterns of misbehavior -- and repeated they were. Worried that Janet Leigh was having an affair with Bob Fosse, Curtis rationalizes, "Sure I had had affairs myself, but for one thing they always made me feel very guilty and for another I made damn sure that Janet would never find out about them." When Curtis later blames the collapse of the marriage on Janet's "love affair with the bottle," his own infidelity does not appear to have entered into his analysis of the events.
Which is not to say that the stories he spins, particularly about his best films, don't exert their own pull. Finally taken seriously as an actor after starring in the knife-edged Sweet Smell of Success, Curtis went on to film 1958's The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier and earned an Oscar nomination in the process. He reached a career peak with a terrific performance in the following year's Some Like It Hot, the classic Billy Wilder film serving to reunite Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, with whom he shared a tender relationship years earlier when both were unknown. He delivers a succinct analysis of what caused Monroe to be so difficult and why the two actors clicked: "Marilyn just couldn't relax... Being comfortable was just not something she did very well" -- traits Curtis instinctively recognized in himself. Dispelling the myth that he was serious when wisecracking "kissing Marilyn is like kissing Hitler," Curtis acknowledges his costar's difficulties but treats her with admirable restraint and dignity.
After the first-rate Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus and a strong performance in the title role of 1967's The Boston Strangler, life began to spin out of control for Curtis. While still dealing with his parents and schizophrenic younger brother Bobby, Curtis married and divorced two much younger women in quick succession; the demands of alimony and child support caused him to accept substandard roles, with junk roles begetting more junk roles until, finally, there were no offers at all. Prone to depression ever since childhood, Curtis developed a severe cocaine addiction, and he relates a chilling scene in which he stands outside the hospital room of his dying mother, still filled with such anger and resentment toward her that he can't bring himself to enter the room and say goodbye. Although highly amusing on the unexpected perils of filming 1980's Sextette with the octogenarian Mae West, the Curtis of this time was so lacking in perspective that even now he blithely writes that with his third marriage in a mess, he went to live for three months in the one place he felt would give him stability -- Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion...
Finally kicking his cocaine habit, Curtis seemed to stabilize in the 1990s, but family problems persisted. Indeed it's one of the shortcomings of American Prince that Curtis devotes no meaningful time or space to a discussion of his (troubled) relationships with his children until page 325 -- seven pages before the book ends. He recognizes the gulf that still separates him from daughters Jamie Lee and Kelly, as well as son Benjamin, but simply offers a wan "I guess I wasn't wired to be a good father" by way of explanation.
It is only with his fifth wife, Jill, whom he married in 1996, that Curtis seems to have gained any sense of peace, moving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and developing an acclaimed career as an artist. One receives the distinct impression that Curtis would leave Vegas in a heartbeat for a return to the movie set and a place at the center of the action, but he appears to have made a somewhat grudging peace with the fact that his acting days may be over. In the end, Curtis sums up his life by musing, "When I could set aside my insecurities, I appreciated -- and was grateful for -- each and every second of my good fortune." Would that he could have done so more often, in life and autobiography alike. --Tom Santopietro
Tom Santopietro is a contributor to the Barnes & Noble Review.
Read an Excerpt
All my life I had one dream, and that was tobe in the movies. Maybe it was because I had a pretty rough childhood, or perhaps it was because I was always more than a little insecure, but as a kid I longed to see myself ten feet tall on the big screen. Through no fault of my teachers, I received almost no formal education, but after I spent three years in the Navy during World War II, the GI Bill allowed me to go to acting school on the government’s nickel. I may not have had much schooling, but it turned out I had a gift for acting. When I walked out on that stage, it felt like a hand in a velvet glove. I wasn’t scared; I wasn’t even nervous. I just loved being the center of attention, just like I’d always known I would.
I performed in summer stock, and I acted in Clifford Odets’s play Golden Boy exactly twice over a single weekend, but before I knew it I had been summoned to meet a studio executive at Universal Studios. It was the spring of 1948. I was excited, but
I wasn’t surprised. Going to Hollywood had been my life’s plan since I could remember, and I was too naive to know it almost never works out that way.
I got myself out to New York’s Idlewild Airport (now JFK) and boarded a TWA Super Constellation, a four-engine prop plane bound for Los Angeles. I had never been on a Super Constellation before, but I knew all about it from movies and magazines.
I was served a little lunch. The stewardesses were real nice to me. One of them was very pretty, so I had a chance to flirt. I was just a kid, but already I loved flirting. Mostly I succeeded in sparking some kind of response, which was what I lived for.
On my first flight to LA, I sat in coach. In those days the sections weren’t partitioned, so I could see into first class, where a man with a mustache and a herringbone suit was being tended to by what was clearly a personal assistant. The guy in the suit would whisper something to the other man, who would jump up and do his bidding.
To my surprise, a little while after we took off the assistant came over and asked me, “Could you join my friend in first class?”
“Sure,” I said. I got up and walked forward to Herringbone Suit. I had no idea who he was, but he was cordial and expressed interest in why I was going to LA.
“I’m going to be an actor.”
“I figured you might be,” he said.
“I’ve got a meeting at Universal,” I said.
“Do you know anything about the other studios?” he asked.
I had heard the same Hollywood gossip as everyone else, but I had paid special attention to it, knowing that this was where I would work one day. So I said, “Warner Brothers is a tough studio to work for. Twentieth Century Fox makes action pictures. At MGM you have to sing and dance a little bit. RKO wants actors who are stable. And Universal wants young people. So that’s where I’m going.”
We talked for a few moments, and then I went back to my seat and fell asleep. After we landed, I went to pick up my luggage and there was Herringbone Suit, waiting for his assistant to fetch his bags. He saw me and said, “Can I offer you a ride?”
“That would be great, thanks. I’m staying at the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel.”
He said, “My driver will take me home first, then he’ll be happy to drop you off at your hotel.”
We drove through the winding streets of Beverly Hills for a while before finally pulling up to a big metal gate. Barely visible through the trees and groomed shrubbery was a tasteful mansion.
After we pulled up to it and my benefactor’s bags were unloaded, he reached over and shook my hand.
I said, “Well, it was a pleasure meeting you. And thanks for the ride. My name is Bernie Schwartz. What’s yours?”
“Jack Warner,” he said. “Let me tell you something, kid. If Universal ever drops you, come see me. I’ll change your name to Tyrone Goldfarb and make you a star all over the world!”
We both laughed. Warner got out, and his limo driver took me to the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, where I slept like a baby.
The next morning I walked from the hotel to a big intersection at Highland Avenue, where a trolley took me into the San Fernando Valley, up the middle of the street, ending up at Universal Studios. After I got off, I walked under a bridge with the freeway overhead until I came to the Universal lot.
I walked right up to the gate. Now it was starting to hit me.
This was an absolutely thrilling experience for a twenty-twoyear-old kid fresh from the streets of New York. My whole life I had dreamed of being an actor in a movie studio, and here I was about to walk through the entrance of Universal Pictures as a prospective employee. I pinched myself, but the dream continued.
The gatekeeper told me to go to a door marked casting. I walked through it and up to a big, gleaming desk. “I’ve been invited to come to the studio for a meeting,” I said.
A girl behind the desk looked up at me and said, “What’s your name?”
“Bernie Schwartz.” Now I had my heart in my throat. I thought, Suppose this is a big fucking joke? I was pretty sure it had to be more than that because the studio had sent me a plane ticket. But what was a hundred and twelve dollars to a movie studio? So I held my breath for the long moment before she said, “Yes. Here you are on the list. Welcome to Universal Studios, Mr. Schwartz. You have an appointment this morning with Mr. Goldstein. To get to his office, turn right when you come out of the gate across from the barbershop, go up the path, and you’ll see his name on the door.”
I was amazed. Not only had she known my name, but she was sending me directly to the office of the man who ran things at Universal. As soon as I left her, though, I got completely lost, so I figured maybe this was an opportunity to make a spur-ofthe-
moment detour. In New York I had gone to see some filming of The Naked City, a Universal picture. Howard Duff was the star. While I stood there watching the location shoot, I struck up a conversation with the propman. We talked, and I told him I
wanted to be in the movies.
He laughed, but not unkindly. “Don’t break your heart,” he said to me. “Just enjoy going to the pictures and don’t even think about working in the business. It’s just too tough. You have no chance at all.”
So while I was wandering around lost on my way to see Mr. Goldstein, I decided to see if I could find my friend the propman.
It turned out the props department was right nearby, and there he was.
He remembered me. “Hey, kid. How are you? How did you get in the lot?”
“I’m here to sign a contract,” I said.
He was genuinely happy to see me and took obvious pleasure in my good fortune. He gave me directions to Bob Goldstein’s office, and not long after that I arrived at the studio’s inner sanctum, where all the executives had bungalows interspersed with perfectly groomed lawns. I walked along the path to an office marked goldstein, where a well-dressed woman looked me over coolly.
“Mr. Schwartz?” No one had ever called me Mr. Schwartz before.
“That’s me,” I said.
“Just a moment, please.”
The door opened. Bob Goldstein was in town for a couple of days and was using his brother Leonard’s office. Bob sat me down, and we talked. He showed me my contract and said it would be good for seven years, with options renewable every six months, at the studio’s discretion. Each time they renewed I’d get a raise. My starting salary would be seventy-five dollars a week.
“I’ll take it,” I said. He laughed. I picked up the pen to sign the last page, and he said, “Never sign anything until you read it.”
“There are a lot of pages,” I said.
“I don’t give a shit,” he said. “Sit down and read it. I’ll be back in an hour.”
I didn’t have the patience to read every page, but I flipped to the section that related to payment: if they were renewed, my six-month options would go from a starting salary of seventy-five dollars a week up to twelve hundred a week at the end of seven years. Other than that all I could make out was page after page of whereofs and wherefores. When Goldstein came back to his office I was reading magazines, having spent all of four minutes scanning the contract. I’m sure he knew that. I signed on June 2, 1948, one day before my twenty-third birthday. I was officially under contract. Bernie Schwartz was in the movies.
Now that I knew I was going to live in LA, at least for six months, the first thing I had to do was find a place to live. The studio had been picking up my tab at the Knickerbocker Hotel, but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. I had heard about a rooming house on Sycamore Street where five or six other Universal actors lived. I could get breakfast and a room there for thirty dollars a month, which I could swing on my seventy-five dollars a week and still have some money left over for a car.
I moved in with whatever I had in my suitcase: a toothbrush, a comb, and some clothes. My room contained just two pieces of furniture—a bed and a dresser—but the location was perfect.
After a three-block walk to Highland Avenue, I could get on the trolley and ride twelve minutes into the San Fernando Valley to Universal Studios. The trolley also went to the Beverly Hills Hotel and from there to the Pacific Ocean. Along the way you could see big, beautiful homes in the pastel palette of Southern California, with their emerald expanses of manicured lawn.
I was required to join the Screen Actors Guild, so Bob Goldstein made me deduct twenty dollars a week from my paycheck until I paid my union dues. Bob didn’t want me to wait until I got my first movie role and then be stuck having to pay a big lump sum. He was very kind to me. He made sure I was smart about my money, and I was grateful to him for that.
I got all dressed up for my first day of work at the studio, and I was sent with a photographer to meet various executives, including Wally Westmore, the famous makeup man, and the head of the props department. When I heard that Jimmy Stewart was going to be coming onto the lot, I walked down to the front gate and waited for him to arrive.
When he drove in, the guard at the gate greeted him: “Good morning, Mr. Stewart.”
“How are you, Irving?”
“There’s a new kid here who just signed with the studio. Would you like to meet him?”
“Sure,” Stewart said. He got out of his station wagon, walked to the little kiosk where I was standing, and greeted me graciously while the studio photographer captured the moment. Then Jimmy Stewart got back in his car and went to work. This was my first photograph with a major star—and I had been signed with the studio for less than twenty-four hours!
I started attending acting classes provided by Universal. Richard Long, a young actor who would become a friend of mine, was in one of my classes, along with a half dozen other actors and actresses. The instructor was Abner Biberman, who had acted in a movie with Cary Grant. Abner kept making passes at all the pretty girls, but he seemed to take special pleasure in showing me up. It couldn’t be that I was Jewish, because he was too; maybe it was just that I was young, good-looking, and under contract.
But oh, did I catch hell from this guy! You could tell that he had it in for me, so he was doing what he could to make sure I’d get dropped by the studio.
After a few weeks of this, I went to Leonard Goldstein and told him what Biberman was up to. I was smart enough to know I needed the ear of somebody like Leonard, who had the clout that came from being Universal’s most prolific producer. Leonard told me that he had received other complaints about what Biberman was doing and that he wasn’t going to let anyone dump on me for any reason. A short time later, the studio fired Biberman and replaced him. And I stopped being singled out.
The best thing about moving to California was that I was enjoying total freedom for the very first time. Though I had been on my own in the service, Uncle Sam had still kept his watchful eye on me. Out here in sunny California, I was single, young, and being paid while I was training for a movie career. There were great-looking girls everywhere, so I decided it was time to start developing my knowledge of the opposite sex.
The trolley was no way to take a girl on a date, so I went out and bought a used pale green Buick convertible, with Dynaflow Drive, from Sailor Jack’s on Lancashire Boulevard in the Valley. I paid very little for it, and it wasn’t long before I discovered why. One day I pulled up the rubber mat on the driver’s side and found a hole that had rusted right through the floorboard. I could see the street below, but I didn’t care. I had wheels.
From the Hardcover edition.