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Interview: Tony Curtis is the Original Fantastic Mr. Fox
CHICAGO – Tony Curtis, who rolled into town to introduce his classic “Some Like it Hot” – December 5th and 6th at the Hollywood Palms in Naperville, IL – has a sharp and voracious intelligence, plus the adventurous life story to share.
In his new book, “The Making of Some Like it Hot,” Curtis relates the incredible Hollywood tale about how two big stars, he and Jack Lemmon, dressed up as women and collided with the incomparable Marilyn Monroe and director Billy Wilder to create a true American cinema masterpiece.
HollywoodChicago’s Patrick McDonald and photog Joe Arce encountered Tony Curtis in the lobby of the new Trump Hotel. While under the Christmas tree, Curtis regaled us with the account of his first ever trip to Chicago, appearing in a play at the Yiddish Theater on Ogden and Kedzie.
Known as Bernie Schwartz in those days, Curtis told us that he had to temporarily change the name to Bernie White, because his real last name was too close to “schvartze,” the Yiddish word meaning black, and the producers didn’t want the audience to think he was Italian.
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com
Asked whether he is still painting, he replied “Every day,” adding, “see what happens when I don’t make movies anymore, I paint everyday and now I’m writing another book. Maybe in my spare time I should become a gynecologist.”
After some general surprise over the remark, McDonald chimed in, “From what I hear about you, Mr. Curtis, you’re already a pretty good amateur gynecologist.”
Tony Curtis roared with laughter. The interview continued upstairs in his suite.
HollywoodChicago.com: You’ve just written a book about the filming of ‘Some Like it Hot.’ What do you know about Jack Lemmon, either at the time or later in your friendship, that the rest of the world does not know?
Tony Curtis: Jack Lemmon was a rather frustrated gentleman, but he was so gifted he was able to hide it. If you look at his performances, you see a very erratic guy, a guy that moved quickly, but again that was part of his gift. If you knew him, you realized there was a lot of sadness, maybe depression within him, but there was a kind of a discontent.
HC: Did that make him difficult on the set?
TC: No, it made it easier. He was one of the easiest guys I ever worked with. He never involved himself with anybody, he never questioned anybody’s intent. If it had to do with his work, he’d find a way to get around it. He was a very gifted and magnificent person. I loved him.
HC: You told me in our last interview that Billy Wilder was “tough-as-nails” and quick to put people down, you even said ‘You were liable to step on a barb.” What films of Wilder’s besides Some Like it Hot do you think stand the test of time and did you ever want to work for him again?
TC: I would have worked with him again, yeah. There was something about him that was so interesting. He found another way to peel away parts of a movie and you’d find another ‘room’ to walk into. There was another way you could see doing the work, when in the beginning you thought there was only one way. But that room would give you the privilege of playing that scene in another way of thinking.
As far as his other films, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ was a splendid film, it looked like it was about the movie people, but it wasn’t. It was about all of us.
HC: You started your career in the midst of the studio system, nurtured it through the breakdown of that system in the 1960s and saw a whole new direction in filmmaking thereafter. Was the dream factory notion of the studio system better or did it deserve to collapse under it’s own hubris?
TC: Well, if you were just starting out, that system was the best, because it gave potential performers a way of showing what they had. It was a chance to show themselves to a system where the cameras were rolling all the time and they were constantly shooting scenes. There were ‘A’ and ‘B’ movies being done, so every actor got a chance to show their beauty or cleverness.
Out of that film industry milieu, there were always a couple of people around who were hired for no other reason than they could pick where the gifted person was. The next thing you knew that guy or woman was picked and signed to a contract, and they didn’t even know why.
As far as the breakdown, the studio system was very tough one. They didn’t allow anything to go by them that they didn’t like. There was a slight, funny little attitude and that’s why they generally got out of it. Afterward, though, it was very hard to break in. You had to go through a whole different set of people.
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com
HC: What was it like to revisit Spartacus by re-dubbing some of your lines in the restored version in 1991 and what was the experience like to work for the young Stanley Kubrick, considering his later legendary status?
TC: I had to dub the scene in the tub, working again with Lawrence Olivier. The water was noisy initially and then the new production crew told me they didn’t like my accent. So that was their way of doing it. I went in and did in what I thought was the proper way.
Then I found out how Larry Olivier was redoing it. He said he wasn’t pronouncing the ‘A’s’ like he wanted to. I didn’t know what the f**k he was talking about. He didn’t like the A’s? Ahh, aay, eee, I don’t know (laughs).
Stanley Kubrick back then was a kick in the ass, and so was I. We were both from New York City. He had a accent like I did, but nobody cared about him because he wasn’t there for his accent. He was there for the ideas.
So I asked Stanley why is everyone jumping on me and my speech? And no one comes and asks you about it. He said to me, don’t worry about it. He was talking to me like he wasn’t a part of the production company. That’s the way he talked to me, like don’t worry about it. Just do it, he said, it will pass by me. I knew then that I was covered by Stanley Kubrick. He was a fabulous man.
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com
HC: I’m going to switch gears. You of course are one of the iconic figures shown in the background on the Beatles “Sgt Peppers” album. Can you remember the circumstances of the band contacting you about it and what was your reaction then?
TC: I was in Venice doing a film. Paul McCartney was there doing two days of interviews. He was in charge of everything, or it seemed that way to me. So I went down to where he was appearing. In order to get down to him quickly, I cut through under the seats. And I heard Paul McCartney say, ‘there’s Tony Curtis, under your seats, coming over to me.’
The art director at the Sgt. Pepper photo shoot, that designed the picture and organized it, was still deciding on the images and I was one of them. He mentioned me to the boys, and their photographer put me in the shot. ‘Yeah, put him in the middle,’ they said.
HC: There was a unique credit sequence created for the picture Boeing, Boeing to give you and Jerry Lewis top billing at the same time – the propellers rotating your names – what do you remember from that shoot working with Jerry and do you ever talk to him now?
TC: That arrangement shattered Jerry Lewis, he would want top billing in the men’s room (laughs). It was a very difficult shoot, but I learned enough by then to take care of my own business. Not to be effected by other people’s idiosyncrasies or madness.
Jerry and I were friendly for awhile after the picture. But then I found it to be very difficult with him.
HC: Finally, as one of the true survivors of Hollywood, fame and life to this point, do you have an personal philosophy or advice to share regarding that survival?
TC: I do. Pay no attention to what is going around. Just make sure you are in an environment that is knowledgeable. If you know where you’re at, and what the dialogue is and you know as much as you can there, no one can screw you up. Nobody. You’ll get on the set with somebody who is very dictatorial, a director or an actor. Just don’t give up your spot.
If you feel a certain way about things, just let that be. If you do that, they will leave you alone. Don’t give up the ship, baby.