Oscar-nominated US actor Tony Curtis died of cardiac arrest in his home in the Las Vegas-area city of Henderson, Clark County Coroner Mike Murphy said Thursday. He was 85. "He died peacefully here, surrounded by those who love him and have been caring for him," his wife, Jill Curtis, told AP outside their home.
"All Tony ever wanted to be was a movie star. He didn't want to be the most dramatic actor. He wanted to be a movie star, ever since he was a little kid."
Curtis began in acting with frivolous movies that exploited his handsome physique and appealing personality, but then steadily moved to more substantial roles, starting in 1957 in the harrowing show business tale "Sweet Smell of Success."
In 1958, "The Defiant Ones" brought him an Academy Award nomination as best actor for his portrayal of a white racist who escaped from prison handcuffed to a black man, Sidney Poitier. The following year, he donned women's clothing and sparred with Marilyn Monroe in one of the most acclaimed film comedies ever, Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot."
His first wife was actress Janet Leigh of "Psycho" fame; actress Jamie Lee Curtis is their daughter. "My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages," Jamie Lee Curtis said in a statement Thursday.
"He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him and a wife and in-laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world."
Curtis struggled against drug and alcohol abuse as starring roles became fewer, but then bounced back in film and television as a character actor. His brash optimism returned, and he allowed his once-shiny black hair to turn silver.
Again he came back after even those opportunities began to wane, reinventing himself as a writer and painter whose canvasses sold for as much as 20,000 US dollars.
"Tony's had some personal problems and things, but haven't we all? And in the end his kindness and generosity and general spirit prevailed over everything and that's how I think he should be remembered. A good friend and a good husband," said Jill Curtis on Thursday.
After his star faded in the late 1960s, Curtis shifted to lesser roles. With jobs harder to find, he fell into drug and alcohol addiction. He recovered in the early '80s after a 30-day treatment at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. One role during that era of struggle did bring him an Emmy nomination: his portrayal of David O. Selznick in the TV movie "The Scarlett O'Hara War," in 1980.
He remained vigorous following heart bypass surgery in 1994, although his health had declined in recent years.
Jill Curtis, his sixth wife, said Curtis had been hospitalised several times in recent weeks for treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung problems she blamed on smoking 30 years ago.
She said he recently returned home, where died in his sleep. "His heart survived things that Tony would always say would kill an ordinary man," she said. "This time, his heart was ready to go and ready to be at peace."
In a 2007 interview with the Las Vegas Sun, Tony Curtis described his frustration during a lengthy hospitalisation for a bout with pneumonia in 2006.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported he was hospitalised several times in more recent years in Henderson and New York with breathing trouble, including once in July. Curtis took a fatherly pride in daughter Jamie's success. They were estranged for a long period, then reconciled. "I understand him better now," she said, "perhaps not as a father but as a man."
He also had five other children. Daughters Kelly, also with Leigh, and Allegra, with second wife Christine Kaufmann, also became actresses. His other wives were Leslie Allen, Lisa Deutsch and Jill VandenBerg, whom he married in 1998.
Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925, the son of Hungarian Jews who had emigrated to the United States after World War I. After serving in the Pacific during World War II and being wounded at Guam, he returned to New York and studied acting under the G.I. Bill.
He appeared in summer stock theater and on the Borscht Circuit in the Catskills. Then an agent lined up an audition with a Universal-International talent scout. In 1948, at 23, he signed a seven-year contract with the studio, starting at 100 US dollars a week.
Bernie Schwartz sounded too Jewish for a movie actor, so the studio gave him a new name: Anthony Curtis, taken from his favorite novel, "Anthony Adverse," and the Anglicized name of a favorite uncle. After his eighth film, he became Tony Curtis.
Curtis pursued another career as an artist, creating Matisse-like still lifes with astonishing speed. He also turned to writing, producing a 1977 novel, "Kid Cody and Julie Sparrow." In 1993, he wrote "Tony Curtis: The Autobiography." AP