Tony, Tony, Tony

A Some Like It Hot reunion: Curtis, Lemmon, and Wilder.

Tony Curtis insisted on top billing.

Let me explain: in the early 1990s, the American Film Institute held a screening of Some Like It Hot and asked me to moderate a panel afterwards with Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis. Naturally, I leapt at the opportunity, all the more so when I learned that I would get to have dinner with them and other invited guests before the q&a session. It was a glorious night, both at the dinner table (where Curtis, then recovering from abdominal surgery, insisted on showing off his scars by lifting up his white ribbed shirt) and onstage, where in answer to a question Wilder deadpanned that he owed a lot to Tootsie.

I was warned, however, that Curtis would not participate unless he received top billing when I—

—announced the guests. Why? Because when they made the film, he was the major star, and Lemmon was still on the cusp of real success. In the intervening years their fortunes had reversed, but Curtis didn’t want people to forget that once upon a time, he was king of the hill.

A costumed Laurence Olivier chats with Curtis during a break in the filming of Spartacus (1960).

A decade later, Curtis and Lemmon were scheduled to appear on a commentary track for the 40th anniversary DVD of their movie, but Lemmon took ill. (In fact, he died in June of 2001, a month after the disc was released.) As a fallback, I was hired to interview Curtis at the Formosa Café on Santa Monica Boulevard, which for years was a hangout for anyone who worked at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio a block away; that’s where Some Like It Hot was filmed.

I warned the folks from MGM Home Video that Tony was something of a loose cannon, and one never knew what to expect. Since my first encounter with him I’d met him casually on a number of occasions and shot several interviews, as well. (When his autobiography was published we did a piece for Entertainment Tonight at a local bookstore. He couldn’t have been more buoyant, but he took over the director’s post and his energetic personality wore us all out. I was later told by someone close to him, “He sucks the air out of a room.”)

But when he showed up for our taping he was in great spirits and as we shot the interview he was very focused, going beyond the stock anecdotes he’d told hundreds of times and challenging his memory for interesting material. He even spoke about the fact that Wilder decided to dub his voice as Josephine—which he hadn’t been open about in years past.

He also revealed, off-camera, one reason he was happy to be part of the upcoming DVD: he owned a healthy piece of the picture. That’s how hot he was in 1959. In fact, he continued to derive income from several of his enduringly popular films from that period, when he was one of Hollywood’s top box-office stars.

A New Years Eve studio publicity shot of then married Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis: “Hollywood’s ideal young couple.”

I can’t think of another actor who enjoyed a winning streak quite like his—after starting off the decade of the 1950s as nothing but a “pretty boy” with a pronounced New York accent. By the time he made Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, Operation Petticoat, Some Like It Hot, Spartacus, and The Outsider there should have been no question of his talent. Yet I do believe Curtis was taken for granted during his heyday, and it’s only in recent years that people have looked back and realized just how much he achieved.

It couldn’t last, and it didn’t, especially given Curtis’ ego, addictions, multiple marriages, and bad choices. It took a grim and committed performance in The Boston Strangler to restore his reputation with critics and moviegoers, but he never regained the momentum he had in the late 50s and early 60s.

What he did retain was the unmistakable air of a movie star. He knew how to make an entrance, and when he first started dating the striking, Amazonian blond Jill Vandenberg (who later became his devoted wife) the two of them turned heads wherever they went.

He was every inch the movie star—but let it never be forgotten that he was also a damn good actor.

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April 2024