Volatile Facts About Tony Curtis, Hollywood's Dark Heartthrob

March 28, 2023 | Byron Fast

Volatile Facts About Tony Curtis, Hollywood's Dark Heartthrob

Tony Curtis may be best known for dressing up like a woman in Some Like It Hot, but his long career also had turns in westerns, film noir, and epics like Spartacus. It was his off screen life, however, where he really turned up the heat with six wives (!), six kids and a boatload of affairs. Break out the eye-liner and take a look at Tony Curtis’s wild ride through Hollywood.

1. He Grew Up Hungry

Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in 1925 and raised in a tiny room at the back of his father’s tailor shop in the Bronx. It was a hard childhood for the Schwartz family. At one point, Curtis’s parents had to send their sons to an orphanage for a month because they had no food to feed their own child. Sadly, things would only get worse from there.


2. He Had A Tragic Childhood

Curtis's childhood was so horrific that it seems like the poor boy was cursed. Less than five years after being carted off to an orphanage, Curtis lost his beloved brother when a truck ran the poor boy over. He was only 12 when he passed. Then, as though that wasn't enough, even more tragedy lay ahead. Mental illness ran in Curtis's family, leading not one but two of his relatives to incredibly dark places.

Tony CurtisFlickr

3. Mental Illness Plagued His Family

As you might have been able to tell, life was hard for the Curtis family—but Tony's mother had an especially difficult time. She became increasingly deranged as the years went by, with her mental issues manifesting in horrific ways. Curtis says that his mother would often beat him and his siblings. Eventually, it all came to a disturbing climax.

Tony CurtisGetty Images

4. His Mother Suffered A Dark Fate

After yet another crisis, Curtis's mother was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia. But somehow, not even this marked the end of the Curtis family's unhappiness. Years after his mother went into treatment, Curtis's brother Robert learned that he had inherited his mother's mental illness. He also had schizophrenia and was even institutionalized.

Tony CurtisGetty Images

5. He Protected His Assets

With his chilling home life, it's not a surprise that Curtis was a bit of a tough guy on the streets of the Bronx. He dabbled in gang life, but always made sure to protect his face during street fights. Curtis must’ve been clairvoyant because it was his handsome face that eventually got him discovered—and helped him trade the Bronx for Hollywood.

Tony CurtisFlickr

6. An Agent Discovered Him

Curtis was taking acting classes and driving a truck to make ends meet when a talent agent spotted him and saw star potential. And in a lucky twist, it just so happened that this talent agent was also the niece of Gone With The Wind producer and Hollywood heavyweight David O. Selznick. Soon enough, Curtis was on his way to becoming a star.

Tony CurtisFlickr

7. He Changed His Name

Bernard Schwarz moved from to Hollywood and immediately changed his name to Anthony Curtis. Selznick got him under contract at Universal and they gave him small parts in films and fencing and riding lessons. Curtis didn’t have much hope that he'd make it big. He was just after a little money and some female attention. Well, he got the latter in a big way.

Tony Curtis

8. He Dated A Legend

Long before he shot Some Like It Hot with screen legend Marilyn Monroe, Curtis and the then unknown star dated. Curtis remembers having barbecues and more with Monroe on the beach. However, as we'll see, their relationship wasn't always this cozy. But for the time being, Monroe wasn’t the only woman who saw something in Curtis...

Tony CurtisWikipedia

9. He Romanced A Film Goddess

There were few stars as bright and attractive as Janet Leigh. She famously appeared in the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Curtis must’ve been on cloud nine when the two started dating. They became the Hollywood "it" couple and were ready to tie the knot. However, there was one ginormous obstacle blocking their path down the aisle.

Tony CurtisFlickr

10. His Marriage Had A Huge Obstacle

Curtis was under contract with Universal-International, and the execs spent three days trying to talk Curtis out of marrying Leigh. They knew that Curtis's appeal lay in his heartthrob status and actually wanted him to marry his frequent co-star Piper Laurie, hoping to pitch them as Hollywood's next super-couple. Desperate, the studio threatened to send him back to the Bronx as a failure.

Unfortunately for them, Curtis's rough and tumble childhood meant that he knew how to deal with a threat.

Tony CurtisWikipedia

11. He Made A Run For It

Curtis and Leigh didn’t want to deal with the angry execs at Universal-International, so in 1951 they secretly ran off to Connecticut and got married. It was a tiny ceremony with Curtis’s friend and actor Jerry Lewis as the witness. After the wedding they returned to Hollywood ready to face the fallout for their elopement...

Tony CurtisFlickr

12. He Hit Cinematic Gold

Instead of ruining his career, his hasty marriage to Janet Leigh immensely helped both of them in Hollywood. Their time together brought out the best in each other and the audiences agreed. They were the toast of the town—well, for the time being. Soon enough, Curtis's personal demons would turn his promising career into a downward spiral.

Tony CurtisFlickr

13. People Laughed At Him

Around this time, Curtis started taking on comedy roles. While audiences loved his sense of humor, though, he did suffer an infamous mishap. In Son of Alibaba, Curtis went the Old Hollywood equivalent of viral for his painfully bad accent. In particular, one line had audiences in stitches for all the wrong reasons: "Yonder lies the castle of my father".
Curtis was supposed to sound like he was in medieval Persia, but the way he said "Yondah" and "Faddah" made movie-goers think of Bronx cab drivers.

The insult sounds like a light-hearted poke, but Curtis took the ridicule very hard. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the only time that Curtis starred in a flop. Far from it.

Tony CurtisSon of Ali Baba, 1952, Universal Pictures

14. He Had Back To Back Life Changing Events

Back in the days when Curtis was a big Hollywood draw, actors were commonly putting out a whole bunch of films in a single year. Well, Curtis was similar with having children. Curtis and Leigh had daughters Kelly and Jamie Lee in fairly quick succession. Sadly, as we'll see, Curtis wouldn't exactly be a picture-perfect dad...

Tony CurtisFlickr

15. He Starred In A Classic

It was around this time that Curtis booked his most famous role as a cross-dresser in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. It’s impossible to overstate the impact that this film had on Curtis’s career and Hollywood in general. But on set, things weren't so rosy.  The star Marilyn Monroe was in the middle of a personal breakdown, often refusing to come out of her trailer and dissolving into tormented wails before filming scenes.

Soon enough, Monroe and Curtis went from amicable exes to stone-cold rivals.

Tony CurtisSome like it hot, 1959, Paramount Pictures

16. He Insulted A Vulnerable Co-Star

When it was time for a kissing scene between Monroe and Tony Curtis, he cruelly said that he’d "rather be kissing Hitler". Jeez, tell me how you really feel Tony.

Tony CurtisFlickr

17. He Embarrassed His Wife

Curtis’s marriage to Leigh was on the rocks and one problem was that Leigh felt superior to Curtis. Leigh grew up in poverty too, but perhaps not as poor as Curtis. She thought Curtis lacked manners and was reportedly furious when Curtis broke a glass in front of comedic actor Ethel Merman. But there were far worse problems in this marriage.

Janet Leigh factsFlickr, kate gabrielle

18. He Cheated Constantly

Tony Curtis has a reputation for being a legendary player, so if you're thinking he wasn't exactly faithful to Janet Leigh, you'd be right. Curtis would hang out at the Playboy Mansion, was rumored to have a brief fling with Natalie Wood, and outright admitted that he was in love with his co-star Gloria DeHaven—all while he was married to Janet Leigh.

But somehow, the final straw came when Curtis did something even worse than his constant adultery.

Tony CurtisFlickr

19. His Jealousy Took Him To A Dark Place

Being married to a beautiful Hollywood star like Leigh led Curtis to experience paranoia. He was always sure she was cheating (uh, pot meet kettle?), so he would call her over and over again to check up on her. At one point, he was sure she was having an affair with, of all people, his good friend Frank Sinatra. Leigh was certainly not having an affair with Sinatra—well, at least not yet.

Tony CurtisWikimedia.Commons

20. He Drove His Wife Into Another Man’s Arms

Perhaps because of Curtis’s paranoid jealousy, Leigh and Sinatra actually did end up together. But would it’ve happened if Curtis wasn’t always insisting that they were already sneaking around behind his back? Likely we’ll never know, but it's certain that Curtis's obsessive behavior didn't help his deteriorating marriage to Leigh. In the end, they divorced in 1962.

Curtis quickly rebounded—but in the worst way.

Tony CurtisFlickr

21. He Starred In A Controversial Scene

While his marriage to Leigh was falling apart, Curtis stayed busy by starring in the swords and sandals epic Spartacus. Like his other hit film Some Like It Hot, this picture also came with a ton of backstage drama. Spartacus raised eyebrows for an extremely risqué scene where Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis's characters heavily imply (via a lot of guy-on-guy lathering) that they're attracted to each other.

Tony CurtisSome like it hot, 1959, Paramount Pictures

22. He Fought Against Producers

The producers of Spartacus were so sure that censors would cut the scandalous bath scene, that they decided they weren't even going to bother filming it in the first place. Curtis and Olivier, however, had other ideas. They fought to keep the clip in the movie. To keep the actors happy, the studio shot the scene, but were so certain they wouldn't use it that they didn’t even bother recording sound.

When the film came out, surprise surprise, the scene was nowhere to be found. But Curtis didn't give up.

Tony CurtisSpartacus, 1960, Bryna Productions

23. He Was Remarkable At The Rebound

Curtis didn’t waste any time after divorcing Janet Leigh. The following year, he hooked up with his Taras Bulba co-star Christine Kaufmann. Curtis was 38 and Kaufmann was just 17 years old. It seems that Curtis couldn’t wait to get away from Leigh, but little did he know the devastating effect that his young wife would have on his career.

Tony CurtisTaras Bulba, 1962, Harold Hecht

24. He Ruined His Own Reputation

The movie going public lost their adoration of Curtis after he divorced Leigh—and the marriage to a teenager certainly didn’t help. With screen goddess Leigh, he’d been Hollywood’s sweetheart, but with Kaufmann he just looked like a skeezy old guy with a much younger wife. But instead of laughing at him, the fans just stopped laughing.

Tony CurtisWikimedia.Commons

25. His Comedies Failed To Get Laughs

Throughout the 1960s, Curtis starred in a great number of comedies that mostly didn’t perform well at all. One thing was clear: Curtis was no longer viable as a leading man in romantic comedy movies. The problem was that he’d more or less left drama behind and was relying on the lighter films. Curtis saw the writing on the wall and made a drastic move.

Tony CurtisFlickr

26. He Went To A Dark Place

Curtis said good-bye to comedies and took on a very disturbing role. While critics had problems with The Boston Strangler’s subject matter, they praised Curtis’s performance as the infamous killer in the 1968 film. Curtis was back on his feet again and doing better, more substantial work. His real life, however, would also go to a dark place.

Tony CurtisThe Boston Strangler, 1968, 20th Century Studios

27. He Traded His Wife In

Curtis basically traded his old wife for a different model, who, incidentally, was actually a model. Curtis wed Leslie Allen, who was 20 years his junior, natch. And just to keep the classy vibe going, he did so mere days after divorcing his previous wife.  With so much practice, this divorce was relatively easy for Curtis—however, he soon lashed out at his ex with a chilling act.

Tony CurtisGetty Images

28. He Broke The Law

Once Curtis had divorced Kaufmann, she hightailed it back to Germany with their two kids, Alexandra and Allegra. Curtis wasn’t completely on board with living on a different continent than his kids, so he snatched them from Kaufmann and brought them back to the US without her permission. Surprisingly, Kaufmann let Curtis keep the kids—at least until things took a turn for the worse.

Tony CurtisFlickr

29. He Gave Up His Kids

Curtis played father to his young daughters for a few years until Kaufmann heard rumors that things weren’t going well for her troubled ex-husband. Apparently, Curtis and his new wife weren't exactly creating a kid-friendly environment at their home. Curtis had fallen headlong in drug addiction and his new wife was a heavy drinker.

Tony CurtisFlickr

30. He Fell Far

Around this time, Tony Curtis had gone from Hollywood's most desirable heartthrob to a washed up actor with a disastrous addiction. He slummed it in low budget made-for-TV movies during the day, then used pills and booze to numb his pain at night. Eventually, word got around, leading his Curtis's ex-wife to step in. She asked Curtis to send their daughters back to her, so that he could make one last ditch attempt to clean up his life.

Tony CurtisGetty Images

33. He Reached Out For Help

After losing his kids to his ex-wife, Curtis did two things to change his life: He divorced Allen and went into rehab. Well, rehab, but make it Hollywood style. Curtis checked himself into the famous Betty Ford treatment center for the rich and famous. But Curtis took it seriously and quit cold turkey. But the now clean Curtis still had one addiction: marriage.

Tony CurtisFlickr

31. He Got Hitched Yet Again

Curtis was sober and looking for love again, and he found it in actress Andrea Savio. During their romance, she was just 21 years old to Curtis’s 59 years. And that's not the only dicey detail about their relationship. In an ominous coincidence, Savio had once played the same role in Bus Stop previously made famous by Curtis's most famous ex-girlfriend: Marilyn Monroe.

Tony Curtis20th Century Studios

32. He Changed His MO

In his next movies, Curtis wasn’t feeling any love from fans, so he sought love in a new marriage. He was through with Savio and seemed to have had it with young starlets. So he moved on to a lawyer. Surely things would work out better if his spouse wasn’t in show business, right? Wrong. Curtis’s marriage to lawyer Lisa Deutsch lasted only 18 months.

Tony CurtisShutterstock

33. He Liked Younger Women

Credit where credit is due, Tony Curtis at least knew that he was a shameless womanizer with a thing for younger women (heck, Curtis's fifth wife was a whopping 40 years younger than him). Referencing his thing for young women, Curtis once owned up to his reputation by joking "I wouldn't be caught dead with a woman old enough to be my wife!"

Tony CurtisShutterstock

34. His Family Suffered A Tragedy

Around the time of his fifth (!) divorce, the now enormous Curtis clan suffered a devastating loss. Curtis's son Nicholas Allen lost his life to illicit substances in Provincetown. At the time of his passing, the young man was just 23 years old. Curtis said it was "a terrible thing when a father loses his son" and he regarded the loss as the greatest sadness in his life.

Tony CurtisGetty Images

35. He Wasn't The Best Father

Curtis had some dark moments with his other children too. His daughter, Halloween actress Jamie Lee Curtis recently revealed the dark secret she shared with him. While opening up about her past addiction problems, Curtis confessed that she'd once shared illicit substances with her father. It took over a decade until she became sober.

Tony CurtisWikimedia.Commons

36. He Made A Final Attempt At True Love

Curtis’s sixth wife was 46 years younger than Curtis, which made her just a little over half his daughter Jamie Lee’s age. While Jill VandenBerg had been a lingerie model, she had now taken up horse riding. In fact, Curtis and her opened a refuge for abused and neglected horses. But that doesn’t mean he was through with acting, or even his dearly departed flame, Marilyn Monroe.

Tony CurtisShutterstock

37. He Made A Scandalous Confession

In his 2009 book, The Making of Some Like It Hot, Curtis made a shocking confession. He claimed that he and Monroe had an on-set affair while making the movie. According to Curtis, he kept the tryst secret for two reasons. First, both he and Monroe were married to other people at the time. But the second reason came out only when Monroe confessed the affair to her then-husband Arthur Miller.

Tony CurtisWikipedia

38. He Had A Shocking Affair

Curtis claims that when he and Monroe told Miller about their affair, Monroe also revealed that she had become pregnant with Curtis's baby. In the end, though, Monroe miscarried the child. Sadly, this wasn't unusual for Monroe. She always wanted children but could never carry a baby to term.

Tony CurtisFlickr

39. He Had A Hidden Talent

Curtis had been painting for many years, but the public was now starting to take notice. In the early 2000s acting in films wasn’t doing it for Curtis so he started to take painting more seriously. The Metropolitan Museum of Art ended up displaying his painting, The Red Table. But this multi-talented artist wasn’t about to say good-bye to film just yet.

Tony CurtisFlickr

40. His Last Film Was Heartbreaking

In Curtis’s final film, David and Fatima, Curtis played a character named Schwarz, which was his real surname back in the Bronx. After all the heat he took for his working class roots, it seemed fitting that he got to use his old name again. And he couldn't have taken the role a moment too soon. You see, after decades of drama, Curtis didn't have much time left.

Tony CurtisGetty Images

41. He Had A Sad Final Request

Evidently, Curtis knew that the end was nigh—and he had one final, heartbreaking request. When a photographer visited his home to take some portraits of the elderly film star, Curtis asked the man, "I'm not in a good way at the moment but can I ask you one thing? Can you make me look like an icon just one more time?" Oof, that one hurts.

Tony CurtisShutterstock

42. He Passed

Just two years after he filmed his last movie, Curtis’s life ended by cardiac arrest. The 85-year-old actor passed in his home near Las Vegas. However, if you think that death itself could stop Tony Curtis from causing trouble, you'd be wrong. In the days and months after his demise, Curtis remained at the center of a twisted family scandal.

Tony CurtisShutterstock

43. He Disappointed His Family

Curtis had always told his wives and kids that there would be money for them all in the end. But when the end came, they were in for the shock of their lives. In his last will, Curtis acknowledges the existence of his children, but left his 60 million dollar fortune to his current wife VandenBerg. The children contested, but VandenBerg walked away with everything.

Tony CurtisFlickr

44. He Robbed The Cradle, But Was He Also Robbed?

There’s a lot of speculation that VandenBerg pulled a fast one in order to get the money from Curtis and away from his hoard of wives and children. (After all, he changed his will quite suddenly, just six months before he passed). But there’s also proof that Curtis had found contentment in his sixth wife. He said that he didn’t want anyone in his life besides her. Maybe this was his way of rewarding her for sticking with him? To this day, we still aren't sure.

Tony CurtisShutterstock

45. He Gave An Awkward Interview

Here's one dicey detail about Curtis's last marriage. In 2008, when he was still very much married to VandenBerg, he gave an interview claiming that the true love of his life wasn't actually his wife, but his old co-star Gloria DeHaven. Sounds like Tony was in for an awkward dinner the day that interview came out...

Tony CurtisWikimedia.Commons

46. Some Didn't Believe Him

Another awkward claim that Curtis made? The above story about Marilyn Monroe carrying his baby. When Curtis's book about Monroe came out, not everyone was so sure they believed the dramatic tale. After all, Curtis had given so many different versions of his relationship with Monroe over the years (they were feuding co-stars, young lovers, and now players in a torrid affair) that at least one outlet claimed the tale was "unlikely".

Tony CurtisWikimedia.Commons

47. He Made Cinema History

To this day, Tony Curtis is an iconic heartthrob—not just for women but men too. Remember that Spartacus scene where Curtis's character gives Laurence Olivier a bath? Well, after four long decades of bugging the studio to put the scene in a cut of the movie, Curtis finally prevailed. Curtis rerecorded audio for his character while Anthony Hopkins filled in for Olivier, who'd sadly passed by this point. The scene is now a landmark part of LGBTQ+ cinema history.

Tony CurtisSpartacus, 1960, Bryna Productions

48. He Wasn’t Always Upfront About His Private Life

Many people have wondered if Curtis ever pursued romances with men. After all, he dressed as a woman in Some Like It Hot and took a bath with a guy in Spartacus. But Curtis repeatedly confirmed that he was straight. He loved his "brothers and sisters" who were gay, but he just wasn’t one of them. However, Curtis also said that when he came to Hollywood, he "had more action than Mount Vesuvius: men, women, animals". Gross.

Tony CurtisSome like it hot, 1959, Paramount Pictures

49. He Wasn’t Like Other Leading Men

Women lost their minds for Tony Curtis—probably because he was so refreshingly different from other heartthrobs. He had full lips, soft blue eyes and he even plucked his eyebrows. It was a new feminized male beauty—and then there was his iconic ducktail hairstyle. The hairdo actually inspired a cinema usher to get the haircut for himself.

That usher was Elvis Presley and when he got famous, he made Curtis’s do part of his signature style. But not all of Curtis's legacy is so positive...

Jean Simmons factsWikimedia Commons

50. There Was A Scandalous Posthumous Accusation

Many years after Curtis’s passing, a startling accusation came to light. Kim Novak, star of the films Picnic and Vertigo, alleged that Curtis had spiked her drink back in 1958. She was at a party and swears she had only one drink: provided by Curtis. The next morning she woke up wearing nothing and lying in her own bed. She alleges she doesn’t remember anything about what happened.

Tony CurtisWikimedia.Commons

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20

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