By David Pitt
MANHATTAN — Tony Curtis, the Hollywood legend who died Wednesday of cardiac arrest at the age of 85, was so huge a star in the 50s and 60s that the high points of his screen career — from his hilarious turn as a female impersonator in "Some Like It Hot" to his critically acclaimed role in "The Defiant Ones" — have become permanent fixtures of American culture.
The same can be said for such subjects as his storied personal life — a relentless skirt-chaser, he dated Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood and ultimately married six different women, beginning with Janet Leigh, the co-star of "Psycho," whose beauty," the New York Times said, "rivaled his own."
Less well known is the extent to which Curtis’s future was forged in the Bronx, where he spent his early childhood in conditions right out of Dickens; and later the Lower East Side, where he enrolled in Seward Park High School, where Walter Matthau was a classmate — and took his first acting classes at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village.
His Bronx upbringing is itself an explanation for why the actor became "a potent combination of naked ambition and deep vulnerability," the Times said in its obituary this week.
Born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925 to Helen and Emanuel Schwartz, Jewish immigrants from Hungary, Curtis and his two brothers, Julius and Robert, lived in a cramped two-room space behind his father’s tailor shop, according to the Times. Atop the family’s constant teetering on the verge of total impoverishment, Curtis’s mother was a schizophrenic and regularly beat the three children. (Robert later developed the disease and was institutionalized; some years later, Julius was struck and killed by a truck.)
Stretched to the breaking point by the Depression, the parents concluded at one point that they could no longer properly care for all three children, and had Bernard and Julius sent to a state orphanage for a month.
As a teen-ager, Bernard returned to his old Bronx stomping ground and found it changed for the worse, plagued by overt anti-Semitism and constant gang warfare.
Decades later, in a 1959 interview quoted by the Associated Press, Curtis reminisced about how he had instinctively learned to protect his soon-to-be matinee idol face from fists and rocks.
"I had to avoid getting my nose broken," he said. "I was always the new kid on the block, so I got beat up. So I became the crazy new kid on the block."
Curtis never forgot where he came from, which he occasionally demonstrated in his work. The plot of "The Great Impostor" is the story of an ambitious young man from the wrong side of the tracks who assumes the identities of various societal figures: a monk, prison warden, a surgeon. And the 1953 movie "Houdini" — the actor’s first clear hit — is the story of a handsome young man of Hungarian ancestry who breaks free of his past through show business.
Curtis never ran short of comrades in arms. At a time when his career seemed stalled, he got advice and counsel from Burt Lancaster, another famed actor who’d survived a difficult childhood in New York. And Piper Laurie, a friend and co-star in the movie "The Prince Who Was a Thief," was herself the child of impoverished Jewish immigrants.
Ultimately, the biggest single benefit of growing up in New York may have been the city’s ever-present movie theaters.
"My whole culture as a boy was movies," Curtis told the Morris County Daily Record. "For 11 cents you could sit in the front row of a theater for10 hours, which I did constantly.