Curtis, prince of the silver screen

He made the world laugh in 'Some Like It Hot', but behind Tony Curtis's image lay the triple tragedies of growing up with a violent mother and the deaths of his brother and his son. Now with a new autobiography, he tells Barry Egan about his life in film

Barry Egan

Philip Roth wrote in Portnoy's Complaint that "a Jewish man with parents alive is a 15-year-old boy, and will remain a 15-year-old boy until they die". Maybe 83-year-old Tony Curtis is still that 15-year-old Jewish boy. Except in his case, it is an emotionally troubled 15-year-old Jewish boy -- born Bernie Schwartz -- who was physically abused by his mentally unstable Hungarian immigrant mother Helen.

She hit him, he says, all the time. "It was a difficult childhood. My mother, she would beat me. She was a bit of a schizophrenic, we found out later," he says, adding that if he didn't finish his soup as a child, she would throw him against the wall.

"She was," he says, "crazy."

Not surprisingly, young Tony looked around the mean streets of Manhattan's lower east side where he grew up, looking for any excuse not to be around his violent mother. He felt more at home in the movies than he did at home.

"And as I watched the movies, I figured I wanted to be in the movies. So what did I do?" he asks in his Bronx drawl. "I dedicated myself to being in the movies. I would get on the roof of big buildings with poles and made myself physically able to do this stuff. Tenement houses of five storeys with poles with laundry on it! I'd jump up on them and act. I had the movies in mind. That's all I ever wanted to do."

In 1959, he made the whole world laugh in Some Like It Hot. So we can only be grateful to Tony Curtis for his youthful ambition on those tenement roofs, and for strutting about in a dress and heels with Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder's classic comedy. Nearly half a decade later, Tony Curtis can walk, just not very well. A bout of pneumonia in 2006 means he occasionally needs a wheelchair. Wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat, he is pushed into the lounge of the Four Seasons in Dublin. It is a shock to see Tony Curtis like this. You have to almost talk right up to his face for him to hear you properly.

Old and in a wheelchair or not, he still has his impish charm. He told Boris Johnson's favourite writer, Petronella Wyatt, in the Mail earlier this year that "it's such a relief to be sitting here with you -- without feeling sexually aroused". His beautiful wife of 11 years, Jill Vandenberg stands by him. She is a six-foot Amazonian blonde, 43 years his junior, with a perma-smile and a bosom to match. "I love big knockers," Tony tells me later.

It is his first time in Ireland and he has great expectations, he says. "The guy who was driving me mentioned a Scotch? A Jameson? Do you think I could get a shot of that in an old-fashioned glass with some ice. Do I dare? I dare!"

When the waiter arrives with the glass of Jamie, he says, "Thank you, Maestro." His Bronx drawl is as unmistakable as it was in The Black Shield of Falworth when he announced in 1954: "Yonder lies the castle of my fuddah."

From underneath the Stetson hat that wouldn't look out of place on JR Ewing, the screen legend of Spartacus, Sweet Smell of Success and The Defiant Ones says that he has slept with 1,000 women. It doesn't take a Masters in Psychology to work out that the 1,000 sexual conquests was less to do with an unbridled libido and more to do with a subconscious pursuit for a surrogate mother who would -- however briefly -- give him more security than his own mother ever did. I ask him how his relationship with his mother affected the relationships with the women in his life. "It did have an effect on the rest of my life," he says. "It still has an effect. It is part of me. Every now and then it breaks into a sadness. You want everybody to love you to begin when you're a kid. And if your mother don't love you, or doesn't act like she loves you, where are you gonna go?" There is genuine sadness in Curtis's face as he says this.

"There is no place to go. You're stuck. So you are quiet and stay out of her way and make sure that she doesn't beat you up for almost nothing. So from the time I was five or six, I spent a lot of time in the movies; I didn't have school. I went to see every movie I could."

Your relationship with your mother was almost like an out-of-kilter Oedipus.

"Yes," he grimaces. "I am Oedipus. It was all connected with my mother. I could have done without my mother's violence and got along greatly but to be privy to those experiences shattered me as a boy. I never knew when something else was going to happen. I would deliberately not go to school. I would give my parents the illusion that I was OK, but I wasn't. I was always being fed by this disaster that happened in my life. And my behaviour changed. I became very compulsive." (Everyone from Natalie Wood to Marilyn Monroe would attest to that.)

The sadness in Curtis's face deepens as he recounts how his nine-year-old brother, Julius, was killed by a truck in a traffic accident in New York in 1938 when Tony was 12. He blamed himself for what happened -- Julius wanted to play with him that fateful day but Tony told him to be with his own friends. Never the happiest of kids to begin with, Tony was devastated.

"Right after he died," he remembers, "I prayed that they'd let me see him for 30 seconds; I said 'I would be a good kid for the rest of my life and I wouldn't do anything bad if I could just see him for 30 seconds'. I'm always conscious of it." There is a long silence where Tony Curtis is lost in reflection of the past.

"I don't know what the reason is but it is part of my brain," he says, haltingly. In the hospital, he adds, Julius was lying in the bed and his head was swollen. The truck may have gone over his head, he says. "There was a glass, like this," holds up his glass of Jameson. "A tall one, and there was a straw for Julius. It was for him to take a sip of water. I talked to him that night. I said I was sorry I didn't mean to leave you alone tonight. I told him how I felt, and I was sorry, and I hoped he'd forgive me, and I loved him." Tony Curtis looks as if he is going to cry. And I with him. The funniest man in the world in 1959 opposite Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot is the saddest man in the world today.

In his new autobiography Tony Curtis: American Prince, he tells the tale of being in a restaurant in Hollywood on a date with Marilyn Monroe in the late Forties when a bird dies in the cage beside them. The waiter merely takes it away and replaces it with another. The experience, he says, reminded him of the essential fragility of existence. It also reminded him of Julius's death. "Everything," he says, "always came back to my brother."

And his son Nicholas, sadly. Curtis's son by model Leslie Allen died in 1994. He was only 23 when he died after suffering a seizure related to a heroin overdose. "Nicholas was living with his mother, and I knew he was having some trouble," he recalls, slowly, hesitantly.

"He came out to California and his behaviour was awkward. So I knew he was addicted. I didn't know how much. And then these two guys he was hanging out with made him some kind of a concoction that he just stopped breathing. They tried to pump him to breath again. He was gone."

There is another long pause in which Tony Curtis looks as if he is going to break down and cry again. I tell him I don't know what to say. "Oh, you would have loved this kid. He was already tall and handsome and smart. I felt very strongly that he died like that. I was shattered. Do you know, pal, I was shattered: this son of mine to die so ignominiously."

Suddenly, his mind switches to his dead son's hair at the graveside. Nicholas's mother, he says, had washed his hair "and cleaned it back nicely. He was lying on a spot 20 feet away from where I was and people were going to take a look at him. Can you imagine me going to take a look at my son lying there with that dark hair he had with his eyes closed? What are you, crazy? I didn't go near him. I stayed 20 or 30 feet away from him. I didn't go near that poor boy's body. That angered me a lot when everybody said, 'Go look at your son'.

"These instances in my life had a big, big influence for me. You see, those three experiences -- the two boys and my mother -- was enough tragedy for me, was enough ghosts for me. I didn't need any more than that."

He takes a much-needed shot of whiskey. When Frank Sinatra was asked who his all-time favourite actor was, he didn't hesitate: "Tony Curtis," Old Blue Eyes answered, "because he beat the odds."

"The odds was my mother," says Curtis, now. Tony Curtis changed his name from Bernie Schwartz in 1948 when he signed his first contract with Universal. In 1949, he made his film acting debut in City Across the River. He went on to be one of the biggest stars of film ever. Curtis is honest enough, however, to say that he is angry that he never won an Oscar.

"I feel bad about it. I'm not bullshitting you. Sidney Poitier and me were nominated for The Defiant Ones. What did that mean? If we won, we would cut that statue in half? But what are you going to do? That's all right. I have had the best 50 years in that movie business."

Is he finished with acting?

"I'll tell you the truth," he says, taking a slow sip of his Jamie. "Fuck 'em and feed 'em fish. I gave 50 years of my life to movies. I became addicted to it. I don't want to go patting myself on the rear. I gave it as good as anybody."

Make that double for Tony Curtis. As befits a Hollywood legend, he talks a great talk. He tells great stories about Stanley Kubrick and the likes. But I'm really interested in his physical and emotional relationships years before Some Like It Hot with Marilyn. The iconic actress, he claims, "found it hard to reach orgasm". He also mentions that "her breasts were every teenage boy's fantasy".

"We learned a lot about each other," he adds, "which means, I learned about girls and their behaviour; how you had to be nice with a girl; how you couldn't be completely candid with a girl."

I asked Curtis did Monroe ever talk to him about her mother, Gladys who, like Curtis's mother, was mentally unstable. "I remember once she mentioned her mother. I didn't want to go into it. I didn't want to do anything that was going to affect this relationship I had with her. I saw how nice it could be and I didn't want to know much about her. I didn't tell her anything about me ... "

I feel like asking the real Tony Curtis to stand up, but he is in a wheelchair. I can't help wondering about the inner truth of a man who has bedded 1,000 women and been married six times -- Janet Leigh being the most famous one. They were married amid much fanfare in June, 1951 and divorced amid a not so positive fanfare in 1962 when he left his wife for a 17-year-old co-star of his latest film.

"They had movie magazines with headlines like, 'Tony is going with a teenager and his children are crying'," Curtis told Reuters. He says that his marriage to Janet ended when she tried to take 14 pills and he hit her on the back and they all popped out. They had, none the less, two children together, Jamie Leigh and Kelly. Of Jamie, he says, "She started out having an excellent film career -- wasn't she funny? And now she hasn't been getting the parts she wants. So she is now thinking where to go."

Is it true that Janet Leigh didn't like sex with you?

"It didn't fit into her lifestyle," he says, "I cared a lot for her, but she didn't allow me certain freedoms -- not freedoms to go out hanging with women, but certain personal freedoms. And she was unfaithful to me."

This is slightly ridiculous. Curtis cheated notoriously on Leigh throughout their marriage. He claimed that his infidelities occurred only when the lunacy was too much at home. "I had a very difficult time being equal with Janet," he says. "Very difficult ... "

It sounds as if you were subconsciously looking for a woman like your mother. "Yeah, well, once I started to get to know a woman I relied very much on her, like I'd rely on my mother. I don't know how else to put it."

But wasn't your mother the one woman that you could never, ever rely on in your life?

"No, I couldn't rely on her. So I had that vacant part and I had to fill it up. Thanks for saying that because that was it. I kept trying to somehow get a mother figure. I was breastfed. I didn't know it but I was. And I love big knockers now because of it. In a secretive way with all the women I've met, I would conjure up a mother for myself, for my brain. I am married to that beauty for 15 years," he points to his wife on the other side of the room. "I'd put her in the same category as Marilyn."

And with that, the last of the great Don Juans of the silver screen is wheeled away, possibly forever ...

'American Prince: My Autobiography' by Tony Curtis, published by Virgin