Over the years I’ve spent covering television I’ve only met a few genuine movie stars. One was Tony Curtis, who died Wednesday in Hollywood at 85.
First time I met the man was way back in 1986, on one of my first TCA press tours. Curtis was at the Century Plaza hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., promoting his appearance in the TV-movie Mafia Princess. Susan Lucci was also in the shot-in-Ontario film, as was Chuck Shamata as “Fat Louie.”
I remember being surprised at the session at what seemed like a rather obvious white wig on top of Curtis’ noggin. It must take a ton of self esteem to get away with a hairpiece like that, I thought.
I also remember that Curtis was tremendously charming during the session, very positive and engaging. So much so that I went up to him afterwards, shook his hand and told him what a terrific impression he had made.
Many, many years later, summer of 2008. Curtis is back at press tour, this time the Beverly Hilton hotel, as a guest of Turner Classic Movies. The man had aged after a near fatal bout with pneumonia and while still alert and expressive was pretty much confined to a wheelchair. A large white cowboy hat has mercifully replaced the crazy Rip Taylor wig atop his now completely bald head. He no longer looked like Tony Curtis, movie star, but more like Bernie Schwartz, the Hungarian Jew who fought his way out of Brooklyn to become a Hollywood prince.
At his side, helping him navigate the party was his sixth wife Jill Vandenberg, a six foot blonde 42 years his junior and who involved the screen legend in his final years in her campaign to save abused horses.
I introduced myself to Curtis, told him I had a 16mm print of one of his more obscure films, “Forty Pound of Trouble” and asked his memories of making that film.
Curtis spoke with the efficiency of someone who has escaped death and doesn’t want to waste time with small talk. He remembered his young co-star Suzanne Pleschette. “Cute kid. Married at the time though.” He remembered director Norman Jewison. “I gave him his start.” Her sort of remembered running around Disneyland in the film’s zany chase scene. “Walt himself gave us permission.”
(True, Jewison told me a few weeks ago when I ran into him at TIFF. But Universal had to pay the savvy studio chief for the pleasure of promoting his theme park. Jewison says Disney took a cheque for $50,000 before signing off on the deal.)
I was going to ask about Mafia Princess, but at this point I could tell I was just pissing Curtis off. He came ready with stories about Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Some Like it Hot. If I wanted to know about some forgotten, 50 year old film, I was going to have to buy his autobiography.
Which I did, when “Hollywood Prince” came out that fall. Great read if you want to know the names of every actress Curtis had sex with.
My favourite memory of Curtis, however, was the last time I saw him, by chance, in Montreal. It was just a month after that TCM press tour party.
I’m in Montreal helping my daughter move into residence at university. It’s the week of the annual Montreal Film Festival and they’re showing “Some Like it Hot” outdoors on a giant screen by a downtown mall.
There’s a poster in the mall promoting Curtis’ appearance there the next day for the film fest. I return with my son Daniel, then 15, who has sat through countless screenings of “Forty Pounds of Trouble.” Curtis’ appearance the next day at the fest was sweet and touching–a real star turn. I wrote about it at the time in an earlier post, but here’s Curtis’ grand entrance:
About 50 or 60 people, press and citizens, mainly older folks, had gathered in front of the Festival platform where Curtis was to appear. As he emerged with a small party from an elevator, he came rolling up from behind and made a B-line to two older fans who had parked their wheelchairs at the back of the session. Curtis shook their hands, made a fuss over them, posed for photos and just generally bonded with his wheel buddies at the back. It was one of the most touching, classiest, sweetest acts I’ve ever witnessed in decades of chasing stars. It was a real mensch moment.