Tony Curtis (born Bernard Schwartz) will turn 77 on June 3, one day before the opening night of Some Like It Hot, a musical based on the 1959 Billy Wilder movie in which he co-starred with Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe. In this production Curtis will play the rich suitor, Osgood Fielding III, a different character from Joe, whom he portrayed in the film. The show premieres at the new $100 million Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Houston before embarking on a fifty-city tour.
Eileen Schwartz: It’s an honor to be talking to you.
Tony Curtis: Don’t do that to me. Let me ask you a question. Are your parents immigrants?
ES: My great-grandfather emigrated from Poland and changed his name from Charney to Schwartz because it was more fashionable to have a German name at that time.
TC: I never liked that German name.
ES: Maybe you’re actually my real father?
TC: What was that name, Polish?
TC: Well, my parents were Hungarian.
ES: I guess not then.
TC: Well, no. But I could be your mother. I’ll just adopt you, honey.
ES: I would love to be adopted by you.
TC: Perfect. Perfect.
ES: I guess I should ask you about coming to Texas. I don’t want to take up too much of your time.
TC: You’re not.
ES: Have you done much work here before? What memories do you have?
TC: When I first started in the movies, Universal Pictures used to send me out on tour with some of the movies I made. I got into movies in 1948. By ’49 and ’50, I was hitting them heavier than anybody. So they sent me out on the road with any movie I was in. I remember we did Dallas. And what happened there was really neat. I came out of the theater and these girls jumped all over me.
ES: I’m sure that still happens and will probably happen again.
TC: Really, I’ve got suits that fall apart.
ES: I guess I should ask you about the show.
TC: Ask me anything.
ES: How will you recreate Some Like It Hot without Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, or Billy Wilder?
TC: This is completely different. Although Some Like It Hot lends itself to a musical, this is an out-and-out Technicolor musical. We want to make it snappy and very American. I sing three songs. [Sings]: I fall in love too easily
ES: Flutter. Flutter.
TC: Ha, ha, ha. I sing three songs, I do a couple of production numbers, and then I do these wonderful scenes playing Osgood Fielding. I’m going to play him in homage to Joey. I won’t be anything like he was in the picture. He was kind of stumpy.
ES: He was a funny character. It must be fun to play a different character than you did in the film.
TC: Yes, it is. And you know, it’s that same project I did 43 years ago and here I am back in the saddle again.
ES: Did Billy Wilder know about the project before he died?
TC: Yes, he did. But there was a lot of going back and forth.
ES: Was he excited about it?
TC: I guess he was, I don’t know.
ES: Why do you think the film still holds up?
TC: From my observation, the reason is a simple and solid one. There’s nothing we can do to obliterate the fact that we come from man and woman. We all were on the breast once in our lives. We share a lot of things. That’s the way life is. Isn’t it amusing that two guys got to get dressed up like girls ’cause they don’t want to get murdered, and one guy falls in love with the girl singer, and this millionaire falls in love with the other guy. We’re going to get people to laugh and enjoy themselves. That’s what theater should be. Theater is of the time and it’s present. You’re there; you’re sharing.
ES: What do you think of the films being made today?
TC: Not much. I mean they’re all right, but they make short cuts, with the exception that the technical end of films—special effects and things of that nature—has improved. The quality of these movies has not. And that’s because of the person who’s making them. A person who makes a movie must be attuned to the human condition so that the pictures he makes are representations of the period of time. You must remember that the meaning comes after the work. If Laurel and Hardy knew how funny they were when they did those things, it would have been a whole different ball game.
ES: Is there any hope for Hollywood?
TC: Listen, I have a great deal of admiration for films and the filmmaking process. I don’t have too much admiration for the way they’re made—the way they’re orchestrated and organized. With so many movies being made, rarely do you find something that’s intriguing or interesting.
ES: I go to a movie expecting to be mildly entertained at best.
TC: You can’t expect anymore.
ES: Are there any young comedians you like?
TC: I like Robert Downey, Jr., a lot—the way he handles himself on-screen. There’s a handful of fellows now that you mention it, but it’s hard for me to recall who they might be. There are a lot of girls that I like. My daughter, Jamie, she’s amusing. Elisabeth Shue. There’s a whole slew of girls. Ashley Judd. They’ve all worked their way through. But you know what’s happened, though. Have you noticed none of them can really get a strong foothold?
ES: Yeah. As soon as they hit 35.
TC: They’re passing from one to another. The thing that helped Marilyn was that she died early. She didn’t have to suffer her way through movies after that. These girls now, including my daughter, they all go through these age dilemmas. A girl 40 or 45 can’t play 25.
ES: And they don’t really write many roles for older women.
TC: No, they really don’t.
ES: And aren’t we just as talented and sexy after 35?
TC: How about 65? I’m telling you. You’re talking to a master. There are certain qualities in a woman that make her very, very appealing physically, emotionally, and mentally. That’s the thing that I find most appealing. I meet women of all ages. I meet a lot of women 55, 65, 70. And everywhere I go, they stop me and they’re so happy to see me. And they were little girls when I started in movies. I look at their faces, and they’re so excited and elated that they’re meeting me that every wrinkle disappears and they’re little girls again.
ES: I’m sure you’re always asked about Marilyn Monroe.
TC: There was no big secret about Marilyn. She wasn’t too intelligent. Not that emotional. But she was a clever actress.
ES: Was she really as sexy in person as she was on-screen?
TC: She was a provocative-looking woman. I met her in ’49. I drove her home one night and we became friends. We were lovers for about six months. She was 21, I was 23. We were little kiddies in those early days when boys and girls need a little experience in life.
ES: Was she passionate as a lover?
TC: Oh yeah, she was. She was distracted easily. I don’t mean in the love-making area. Her mind popped around. She was very, oh what do you call it?
TC: Yeah, right. That was it. But she was sweet. We had a good time together. When we first met, we both knew we were going to be in the movies. We were connected in a lot of ways, Marilyn and I.
ES: You’ve been connected to so many fascinating people.
TC: I have. I like that, you know? The best of me comes out when I meet intriguing, interesting people.
ES: Was one of those Joseph Cornell, the artist?
TC: He was a good friend of mine. He made those boxes for his brother who had cerebral palsy. He could never get out of a wheelchair or a little wagon. Joseph started making boxes to amuse his brother. Now you see, that is the purpose of what we are talking about. Sharing with your brother or a friend. Give them some joy and pleasure. Whether we believe it or not, all of us are in wheelchairs somehow. We’re all ignorant in some areas.
ES: Who do you admire most of your contemporaries or pop culture icons?
TC: Paul McCartney. He’s a fine man. He’s a guy that’s made the transition beautifully and is still as intense as he was when he was a kid. And Cary Grant was a man that I admired a lot. Burt Lancaster. Frank Sinatra. I made pictures with all these guys, so that made us all buddies.
ES: That was such a cool time. My father, Sid Schwartz, was a jazz pianist, and he played with Sinatra’s band a couple of times.
TC: Is he still alive?
TC: How old was he when he died?
TC: I’m going to be 77 the night before I open in Houston.
ES: Happy birthday.
TC: June 3 is my birthday and the next night is going to be June 4, and I’m gonna make sure they bring me out a cake.
ES: Where do you get your stamina these days?
TC: I don’t even think about it. I feel I have a purpose. Service to others is the rent that we pay for time on this planet. So I want to serve others—my own way. A lot of people I know say, “What are you doing?” and I say, “What do you mean What are you doing?’ I know what I’m doing.”
ES: And the physical stamina?
TC: I’m very careful with myself. I don’t do any fast foods or sugar, and I stay on a high-protein diet. I have salads and drink plenty of water. I swim, and I’m taking dance lessons now for the show, so it’s a perfect combination. All of that stuff helps in the development for an experience like this. It’s gonna be an experience.
ES: Hey, the play could go to Broadway.
TC: Us Schwartz kids know what we’re doing.
ES: We sure do.
TC: We had Broadway offered to us at the beginning, but there’s not a theater big enough to handle the show.
ES: Well, I’m really looking forward to seeing it.
TC: You’ll make it a point of coming to see us?
ES: I wouldn’t miss it.
TC: You’ll recognize me. I’ve got a carnation in my lapel.
ES: I’ll ask for Mr. Schwartz.
TC: You’ve got it.
ES: Thanks so much for your time.
TC: It’s my pleasure, dear. It’s nice starting a new friendship, isn’t it?