Still Hot

At 77, Tony Curtis still offers stage presence in the touring production of 'Some Like it Hot.'

April 07, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

WILMINGTON, Del. -- Not long ago, when Tony Curtis made his entrance in the stage musical version of Some Like It Hot, the actors heard a theatergoer loudly rouse his companion with the words: "Wake up! There he is!"

If Curtis' fans are now "of a certain age," well, so is he. At 77, dressed for an afternoon of interviews in a black sweater and a pair of white cotton shorts and sandals, he still has the legs to pull off the drag role he originally played opposite Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder's 1959 movie about a pair of male jazz musicians who join an all-girl band to hide out from the mob.

This time, however, he's playing Osgood Fielding III, the lovestruck millionaire who falls for one of the guys in drag. Character actor Joe E. Brown got sixth billing when he played Osgood on-screen; Curtis is the only name above the title in the stage show.

The 10-day engagement at Wilmington's Playhouse Theatre is part of the home-stretch of the musical's tour: 11 months, 25 cities (the show opens at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House tomorrow night); the movie star claims he's a bit weary, but he still oozes charm.

And -- though his hair may be gray and his tanned skin a little less smooth than it was in the days when his picture regularly appeared on magazine covers -- he can still turn heads. He has come to the theater hours before show time to talk to the press -- and still his fans are waiting.

Outside the lobby, a woman comfortably past middle age stands patiently as he finishes a radio interview, then approaches him for an autograph, gushing with admiration.

A short time later, in the midst of a newspaper interview in the otherwise empty theater, a considerably younger woman somehow finds her way into the house and also requests an autograph -- for her dad.

"My father loves you," she says. "He says you were the most handsome man in Hollywood. When I was a little kid, he said, `This son of a gun is the most handsome man in Hollywood.'"

"I love it," Curtis says after she leaves. "The show has an ambiance to it that is a little more than, let's say, a musical, because it's got me in it, and my sense of who I am and what I am."

Make no mistake about it -- Tony Curtis knows who he is. That's because, in true American fashion, he invented himself. Born Bernard Schwartz, the son of an immigrant tailor and his wife, he writes in his 1993 autobiography: "Millions of kids wanted to be Tony Curtis. Including me."

He may be vain and a touch arrogant, but he's the first to admit it. "When I was growing up as a boy, I would look in the mirror and I liked what I saw. Shoot, but it's true. I enjoyed my looks. In a world that's desperate and hungry and worrisome, I was born a Hungarian Jew in New York City. Times were hard," he says. "But then I'd look in the mirror and I'd see this nice blue-eyed, dark-haired kid."

The public liked his looks, too. Curtis made his movie debut dancing with Yvonne de Carlo in a 1949 movie called Criss Cross. It was a small part, but fan letters poured into Universal Studios. He went on to star in more than 100 movies -- from swashbucklers like The Prince Who Was a Thief and Son of Ali Baba to serious dramas like The Sweet Smell of Success and Spartacus. And, yet, he was nominated for an Academy Award only once, for the The Defiant Ones (1958), in which he and Sidney Poitier played escaped convicts, shackled together.

"I've always felt like a stepson in my profession, to be candid. I've never felt part of it. My peers never acknowledged me. I never felt comfortable with my peers. I never got awards like they did. Oh, I got popularity awards, all the movie magazines -- nobody did it better than me in that area," he says.

It's been a while, however, since Curtis' face graced magazine covers. Perhaps that's one reason he jumped at the chance to make his musical theater debut, nearly a half century after he appeared in his one and only movie musical (So This Is Paris) and more than two decades since he appeared on stage (as the short-lived star of the pre-Broadway production of Neil Simon's I Ought Be in Pictures).

"I wanted this experience so badly. I wanted it so badly. I was salivating for it," he says of touring in Some Like It Hot. And his fans -- most of them a good deal older than his 33-year-old fifth wife -- have everything to do with it.

"Let me tell you what happens -- 50-, 60-year-old women, these are the ages I see, older, a little younger, come up to me and they smile when they see me. They lived through all my movies, and all these women, these faces, all the lines disappear, and I'm looking at these sweet, 15-, 16-year-old faces again, and they're so cuddly, they're so sweet. They're like little puppies.

"I mean, it's a miracle, honey. It's a miracle. I don't know what it is, boy, but it sure makes me feel good. And I embrace them, and I touch their cheeks, and I love them and they love me."

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