From dressing in drag to posing nude for his 80th birthday, Tony Curtis truly was a defiant one.
He overcame early typecasting as a lightweight pretty boy to become a serious actor in such films as “Sweet Smell of Success,” “Spartacus” and “The Defiant Ones,” the latter earning him an Academy Award nomination.
He resisted obsolescence, continually reshaping himself and taking lesser roles to find steady work in a business that prizes youth. He subdued alcohol and drug addictions, lived through six marriages and five divorces, and found peace with a new art as a painter.
Curtis, whose wildly indefinable cast of characters ranged from a Roman slave leading the rebellious cry of “I’m Spartacus” to a jazz age musician wooing Marilyn Monroe while disguised as a woman in “Some Like It Hot,” died Wednesday night.
The 85-year-old actor suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas, the coroner said Thursday.
Starting his career in the late 1940s and early 1950s with bit parts as a juvenile delinquent or in such forgettable movies as the talking-mule comedy “Francis,” Curtis rose to stardom as a swashbuckling heartthrob, mixing in somewhat heftier work such as the boxing drama “Flesh and Fury” and the title role in the film biography “Houdini.”
In 1959, Curtis teamed with Monroe and Jack Lemmon for a screwball landmark, Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot,” which ranks No. 1 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best U.S. comedies.
Curtis and Lemmon starred as 1920s musicians who disguise themselves as women in an all-girl band to hide out from mobsters after they witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
In a 2002 interview with the Associated Press, Curtis talked candidly about where his life was in his 50s, when he was relegated to television work and such movies as “The Bad News Bears Go to Japan” or the cheesy sex comedy “Some Like It Cool.”
“I wasn’t happy with my marriages. I wasn’t happy with the films I was getting. The next thing I know, I’m using cocaine and alcohol,” Curtis said.
He checked into the Betty Ford Center and got himself clean and sober in the early 1980s, then spent time in Hawaii, where he sought solitude and painted.
Curtis had six children from his marriages. He was estranged for a long period from his daughter, actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
Jill Curtis said her husband had been hospitalized several times in recent weeks for lung problems she blamed on smoking 30 years ago. He recently returned home, where he died in his sleep, she said.