LOS ANGELES - Tony Curtis, whose dark-haired good looks made him a Hollywood star well before he became an accomplished actor in hit movies such as "Some Like It Hot" and "The Sweet Smell of Success," died at his home in Nevada, his daughter said on Thursday. He was 85.
Curtis, one of the biggest box-office stars of the 1950s and one of Hollywood's busiest playboys, died in bed in Henderson, Nevada.
Curtis had a memorable role in the classic gladiator movie "Spartacus" in 1960 and received an Academy Award nomination for 1958's "The Defiant Ones," but his career got off to a rough start. His first starring role was in "The Prince Who Was a Thief" in 1951 and critics were appalled as Curtis, playing an Arabian prince, proclaimed in a thick New York accent, "Yonduh lies de castle of de caliph, my fadder!"
Still, Universal Pictures' star-making machinery and teen fan magazines managed to make Curtis a heartthrob and movie-goers loved his dark-haired sex appeal and impish grin.
Within a few years, Curtis had improved enough for Saturday Review magazine to call him "a rare phenomenon, an authentic screen personality who, through hard work, has made himself into an actor of considerable subtlety and some breadth."
Two of his most enduring performances came in "Some Like It Hot" as he teamed with Jack Lemmon -- playing cross-dressers opposite Marilyn Monroe -- and "The Sweet Smell of Success," in which he played a fawning press agent.
His Oscar nomination came for the 1959 film "The Defiant Ones," in which he played a racist escaped con chained to Sidney Poitier. Other notable films included "Houdini," "Trapeze," "Operation Petticoat," "The Boston Strangler," "The Vikings" and "The Great Imposter."
Curtis made more than 140 films, mixing comedies with dramas, but part of his life was plagued by poor movies and struggles with cocaine and alcohol.
"My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages," his daughter, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, said in a statement.
Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in New York to poor Hungarian immigrants on June 3, 1925. He quit school to join the Navy in World War Two, serving on a submarine tender, and pursued acting after his discharge.
Curtis was known to be demanding at the height of his stardom and television producer Lew Gallo called him "an impetuous child."
His fans were as fascinated by Curtis' private life as they were his movies. He was an inveterate womanizer whose girlfriends included Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood. He was married six times, starting with actress Janet Leigh in a union he later admitted was partially motivated by publicity value. After divorcing Leigh, he married Christine Kaufman, who was 17 when they met while filming "Taras Bulba."
Curtis was once quoted as saying, "I wouldn't be seen dead with a woman old enough to be my wife." His sixth wife, Jill Vandenberg, was 45 years younger than Curtis.
"He'll be remembered as a very good actor when people start reflecting on the amount of work he did both in drama and comedy," actor Roger Moore told BBC radio. "He certainly was wonderful in 'Some Like it Hot' and he was quite brilliant in 'Boston Strangler' and in the film that he did with Sidney Poitier 'The Defiant Ones'."
Moore, who worked with Curtis for 15 months on the early-1970s TV series "The Persuaders," said Curtis "denied ever saying that (working with Marilyn Monroe) was like kissing Hitler."
Curtis' children included actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who was estranged from him for much of his life, and he admitted he was a failure as a father.
As his acting career waned, Curtis concentrated on painting and in 1989 he sold more than $1 million worth of his art in the first day of a Los Angeles exhibition.
"Painting is more meaningful to me than any performance I've ever given," he told an interviewer.
Curtis eventually moved to Las Vegas. In 1989, he released an exercise videotape for people past age 50.
He operated the Shiloh Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, a refuge for horses that were abandoned or abused, on the California-Nevada border with wife Jill.
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.