updated 09/30/2010 AT 12:40 PM ET
•originally published 09/30/2010 AT 5:55 AM ET
Tony Curtis, one of the beefcake screen stars of the 1950s who went on working for the next four decades, has died.
His daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, first confirmed the news to Entertainment Tonight.
The cause of death was cardiac arrest in his Las Vegas home early Wednesday, the Clark County coroner told the Associated Press. The star was 85 and had been admitted to a Las Vegas hospital for tests in mid-July after he had trouble breathing.
Curtis, who also suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, nearly died when he contracted pneumonia in December 2006 and remained in a coma for several days.
Unlike another pretty face of his generation, Marlon Brando, who at least took his early screen roles seriously, Tony Curtis wasn’t entirely about the performance. “I was a good-looking kid,” he admitted to PEOPLE in 2008. “That’s the only reason I got into the movies.”
In all, there were more than 150 movies, which took place along with an equally extravagant Hollywood high life: six wives, romances with starlets from Marilyn Monroe to Natalie Wood and six kids he candidly admitted he often failed – including Jamie Lee Curtis. Nor did he make a secret of his real name – Bernie Schwartz – or his onetime drug use, or his trips to the shrink to deal with debilitating depression.
Born in Manhattan’s tough Hell’s Kitchen, Curtis grew up in the Bronx, the son of a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant tailor. Tragedy as well as poverty stalked the family. Older brother Julius was killed at 12 by a truck. Younger brother Robert was institutionalized as a schizophrenic. A high school dropout after one year, Curtis served a WWII Navy hitch, including two years aboard a submarine – experience he leaned on for one of his favorite movies, opposite his childhood hero Cary Grant, in 1959’s Operation Petticoat.
Studying acting in New York on the GI Bill, Curtis (still as Schwartz) attracted the attention of a Universal Studios talent scout and landed a $50-a-week contract (and the new name) in Hollywood. Soon posing shirtless for fan magazines and adorning costume epics like 1951’s The Prince Who Was a Thief, Curtis also showed off his pronounced Bronx accent. Still, he never quite uttered the famous line most quoted by nightclub mimics: “Yonda lies da castle of da caliph, my fodder.”
The late ’50s brought meaty roles and memorable movies: 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success with Burt Lancaster, 1958’s The Defiant Ones with Sidney Poitier, and the comedy rated No. 1 funniest by the American Film Institute: Billy Wilder’s 1959 Some Like It Hot, with Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon – with the two leading men playing 1920s musicians on the lam. In drag.
In 2002, Curtis said of his get-up for that romp, “Panties are easy, I find. Garter belts are not disruptive, I don’t think. The shoulder pads in dresses can be a little obnoxious but by and large, I would say the brassiere [is the worst].”
His first marriage, in 1951, to frequent costar Janet Leigh, was widely covered by the press as a favorite Hollywood couple. It was also bitter, even more so after they divorced after 12 years. The union produced two actress daughters – Kelly, now 54, and Jamie Lee, 51 – though Curtis was to blame Janet (who died in 2004) for his long estrangement from Jamie.
“She had heard that I was arrogant, uninterested, a rake, a womanizer, a drunk and a dope-taker,” he told PEOPLE in 1980. For her part, Leigh denied the charge. “I never knocked Tony to Jamie,” she said. As for Jamie, she said 30 years ago that she had achieved a fragile reconciliation with Tony Curtis. “I understand him better now,” she said, “perhaps not as a father but as a man.”
“Marriage is difficult,” opined the experienced Curtis. “Very few of us are fortunate enough to marry multimillionaire girls who have 39-inch busts and have undergone frontal lobotomies.” As for his reputation as a lady-killer, Tony humbly admitted it was deserved: “I’ve left my mark on thousands of girls across the country.”
To say nothing of millions of movie fans around the world.