It is spring 1950. In an office in the publicity building at UniversaI-International a publicist and a writer are idly batting the breeze. Enter a long and dark young man named Tony Curtis. He wears battered dungarees, a striped T shirt and a sleepy grin. Business of introductions and the hearty handshake.
Tony: Just thought I’d drop by. Anything doing?
Publicist: Not much, Tony. Things are quiet.
Tony: Well, I’ll be around. Don’t forget me. Be seein’ ya.
Publicist: (acting like eager publicist) Put that name in your notebook. Tony Curtis. The boy’ll be big some day.
Writer: (acting like cynical writer) He’s real pretty.
Publicist: He’s got talent, too. Remember that.
Writer: He’s a dreamboat. They’re four-bits a dozen in Hollywood.
Publicist: Don’t say I didn’t tell you.
Writer: Let’s go to lunch.
Six months later. In a projection room the writer and the publicist watch a screening 0f a new picture, The Prince Who Was a Thief. It stars Tony Curtis.
From time to time as the picture unfolds the publicist nudges the writer with enthusiasm. Every now and then the writer mutters to himself: "Well, I’ll be damned." When the picture is ended the publicist just sits there and grins.
Writer: Go ahead and say it. You told me so.
Publicist: Let me know one thing. Is the boy good?
Writer: He’s great! I admit it.
Publicist: And will he be a big star?
Writer: (nodding vigorously) He can’t miss.
Publicist: (forefinger upraised) Eureka! You have seen the light!
In these two scenes, ranging from doubt to conviction, you have one writer’s experience with Tony Curtis, the newest young star in Hollywood. His rise in popularity has been likened to the speed of a guided missile. Or as one word-juggler aptly put it: "He’s hotter than a hog’s back at hay time."
There are several standard patterns for success in Hollywood. One story concerns the young actor who struggles and struggles against overwhelming odds. Finally, through perseverance, grit and sheer hard work he gets his big break and lands at the top.
Equally popular is the yarn about the unknown youngster who steps into a plum role and becomes a smash hit overnight. But now something entirely new has been added. For Tony Curtis seems to have become a star without much struggle and without a major part in any film.
Actually The Prince Who Was a Thief is Tony’s ninth movie. However, in the previous eight his appearances on the screen were as fleeting as a snowflake at a barbecue. In fact by his own count he has averaged a fast ninety seconds of screen time in each picture.
"I was curious," says Tony with a wry grin, "so I decided to get the statistics. But I didn’t need an adding machine. The total. for the eight pictures came to exactly twelve
minutes. That’s some career!" All the more remarkable is the fact that as a result of these brief performances, plus some fairly wide coverage by magazines and newspapers, Tony’s fan mail far exceeds that of some of the long-established stars at his studio. And it is now so large it has been necessary to hire an extra secretary to handle it.
For those who may have come in late here are the brief facts in the Curtis story. Tony arrived in Hollywood and signed his studio contract on his 23rd birthday, which was June 3, 1948. His first picture was Criss Cross and the audience saw nothing but the back of his head.
But the fans got a good look at him in City Across the River and what they saw they liked. They started to write letters to him at the studio.
Tony appeared briefly in another picture and more letters came in. He was seen on the pages of MOTION PICTURE and other magazines and the volume of his mail picked up. He met Janet Leigh and he fell in love with her. They were a constant duo around town at parties and at premieres.
When the fans saw them together they screamed and hollered and demanded autographs. When Tony made some public appearances they raised their voices some more. They also tore off parts of his clothes. And the mail kept coming in. Finally this filtered through to the top brass at the studio. They elevated their eyebrows and inquired: "What gives?" The eventual result was that Tony was cast in the leading role of The Prince Who Was a Thief.
When a well-known producer was asked about Tony’s phenomenal popularity he summed it up thus: "Let’s face it. ..it’s sheer personal magnetism, ..which is otherwise known as sex appeal. You know what happens when a gunner’s mate with shore leave gets a glimpse of Betty Grable in a snug bodice and a pair of opera length nylons? The emotional chemistry begins to churn. So that also takes place with females and Tony Curtis. It comes out just like springtime all the year ’round. Oh, it’s a wonderful thing."
But let it also be noted that all this super-charged wallop is happily combined with considerable ability as an actor. And added to this is a bubbling pixie-type sense of humour that makes him a real triple-threat to the bastions of future stardom.
Tony’s relaxed acting talents are grounded on extensive training and a measure of good hard work. Shortly after he was discharged from submarine duty with the Navy he used his rights under the GI Bill to join the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research.
Here he served his apprenticeship in the broad field of the theater. He worked in the prop department, as a scenery builder and designer, as stage electrician and stage manager. At the same time he appeared on stage in the works of Shakespeare and Moliere and in other classics such as Lysistrata and Voipone.
Tony’s personal brand of humour emerges when he recalls this phase of his career. Says Tony: "I was in a succession of plays for a solid year and a half without ever wearing a pair of pants." Of course he means that they were all costume dramas in which he wore tights or Grecian robes.
He also grins at the memory of his recital of the immortal lines of Shakespeare and Aristophanes with a diction that was richly larded with accents of the Bronx.
"But our audiences didn’t seem to mind;’ says Tony. .’In fact I think they liked me more because I was a local boy who had been born on the East Side."
Later he appeared in a number of modern dramas, and finally a production of Golden Boy was witnessed by a U-I talent scout and he was invited to come to Hollywood.
Now begins the build-up that is standard procedure with new young players. Tony took more dramatic training and he was given a few small parts to get him used to the idea of appearing in front of a camera. Dramatic coach Sophie Rosenstein also spent considerable time with the "dese, dem and dose" aspects of the idiom that marks Tony’s beginnings.
"Not that there’s any thing wrong with a Bronx accent," Tony hastens to point out. "It’s just that an actor is supposed to speak a sort of universal language. Then he is not restricted in the variety of parts he can play ."
Nevertheless, Tony feels that his background will have a definite influence on his career. It will naturally limit him to roles that are in accord with his native environment.
"For example," says he, "no matter how hard I might work and study I would never be able to play in Noel Coward comedies. I just wouldn’t be believable. On the other hand I could play the city-bred characters that Clifford Odets usually writes."
Tony also is convinced he must be entirely honest with himself and with his fans. This is important to him.
"Look," says he with intensity, "I am called Tony Curtis because it will look fine on a theater marquee. But everyone must know that my real name is Bernard Schwartz and I am proud of it. Also, I am the son of a Jewish tailor and we were very poor. We lived in tenements and I grew up on the streets of the Upper East Side of New York. So that is what I am. I must never forget it."
Of course his role in The Prince Who Was a Thief is the high spot of Tony’s career to date. Before he was given the part he made a long screen test in full costume and in Technicolor. Ann Blyth played opposite him in this.
Then followed a waiting period of three weeks. Tony says: "This was the worst three weeks of my life. The agony of uncertainty was awful."
But he got the part and settled down to work. He spent two weeks rehearsing the dialogue, and two more weeks practising the action sequences of the film. In the evenings he looked at the old silent costume pictures of Douglas Fairbanks and studied the way he made his leaps and the technique of his swordplay. Tony thinks that Fairbanks is the greatest of all the exponents of the action drama. He hopes that some day he will be able to approximate the grace and ease of the great Doug’s performances,
Finatly the first day of shooting arrived and Crony says he was really nervous. "My mouth was dry and my tongue was like a piece of gray flannel. The butterflies were nesting in the pit of my stomach. What a time we had!"
Director Rudy Mate also recalls that Tony was a little jittery at first. "But it was only natural," says he. "He used to blow his lines, and sometimes he’d forget and walk right out of camera range. But he was just eager. After a few days he relaxed and we all settled down and then it was clear sailing."
With the picture finished Tony was told that he and his co-star Piper Laurie might invite a few friends to see a special screening. This was to be held in a projection room on the lot and it was expected that perhaps forty or fifty guests might be there.
But they reckoned without the enthusiastic Tony. He invited everyone on the lot including grips and waitresses and publicity people, together with some special friends like Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis and of course Janet Leigh.
So the place was jammed and they had to crowd in extra seats. But "Tony’s mother had brought a batch of home-made cookies and they served coffee and everyone had a wonderful time.
Recently an inquisitive interviewer asked Tony some pretty impertinent questions. Had he definitely asked Janet Leigh to marry him? If so, had she turned him down?
Tony’s answers were without evasion. He said: "I don’t think I ever made a formal proposal of marriage. But Janet and I have talked about it a lot. We have agreed to postpone such important decisions until we see how things shape up with my career. In the meantime it’s wonderful to be together."
Tony admits he broods about his future and whether his fans will continue to like him. But he doesn’t let it get him down. He’s given his best effort and now it’s up to the public. For the present he’s happy just being alive.
"I’ve got a new Buick and it’s nearly paid for. The other day I bought six new suits and four pair of shoes and some tailor-made shirts. Man, I’m really flipping my rocker!"
That’s Tony Curtis. And it’s only the beginning.
Article from "Motion Picture Magazine" July 1951
Written by Don Allan