Famous Families: Remembering Tony Curtis (Jamie Lee’s Dad)

TARAS BULBA, Tony Curtis, 1962
Everett Collection

Before Jamie Lee Curtis was a star, there were her famous parents — stars Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Today, June 3rd, would have been Tony’s birthday had he not passed away in 2010 at the age of 85. He was born Bernard Schwartz to Jewish emigrants from Hungary and only spoke Hungarian until he was 6 years old. Things were tough and he and his brother Julius were placed in an orphanage for a short time because their parents couldn’t afford to feed them. Four years later, Julius was killed by a truck. Of course, all of these hardships and heartbreaks affected Tony. He once said that a neighbor saved him from a life of crime by sending him to a Boy Scout camp. In school, however, it is where Tony found a love of acting.

He attended City College of New York and The New School in Greenwich Village. He was discovered by talent agent Joyce Selznick and moved to Hollywood in 1948. He got a contract with Universal Pictures and officially changed his name to Anthony Curtis. While he once admitted that he didn’t actually believe he would become a big star, his fame kept growing.

THE VIKINGS, from left, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, 1958

Everett Collection

Tony appeared in several films in 1950 including Francis, Woman in Hiding, Sierra, and I Was a Shoplifter. Just a year later, he shot to stardom with a starring role in The Prince Who Was a Thief. He worked a ton in the ’50s and starred alongside celebrities Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Natalie Wood, Kirk Douglas, and others. He even started his own production company with then-wife Janet Leigh called Curtleigh Productions.

THE DEFIANT ONES, Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, 1958, publicity shot

Everett Collection

In the ’60s, Tony took his turn at more comedic roles and formed a new production company called Curtis Enterprises, Incorporated. He filmed 40 Pounds of Trouble, the first movie ever filmed at Disneyland. While his career did slow down a bit, he continued to appear in films such as The Great Race, Wild and Wonderful, and Goodbye Charlie. After his comedies didn’t as well at the box office, he decided to go back to dramas in The Boston Strangler, taking a pay cut to play the title role.

LEPKE, Tony Curtis, 1975

Everett Collection

His personal life was not without its ups and downs as well, as he was married six times during his lifetime and fathered six children, many of whom followed in his footsteps pursuing acting careers. He also struggled with alcohol and drugs and sought treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic in the mid-’80s. In the last few decades of his life, he continued to act and also took an interest in his family’s Hungarian Jewish heritage. Tony, along with his daughter Jamie Lee, helped finance the rebuilding of the Great Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary. He also founded the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, which helps restore and preserve synagogues. In addition, he wrote several books including an autobiography and a memoir about working with Marilyn Monroe.

NAKED IN NEW YORK, Tony Curtis, 1993

Bob Marshak/Fine Line Features/Everett Collection

He died on September 29, 2010, of cardiac arrest after years of health problems. Just months before his death, he reportedly rewrote his will and left everything to his wife Jill Vandenberg. He took all of his children out of the will without an explanation.

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Hollywood Dynasties

May 2023

Moviemaking is definitely in the family business for some of Hollywood’s most notable icons

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