Tony Curtis
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

Tony-Ducktail

The career of TONY CURTIS (1925–2010) is a study in contrasts, brilliant and awful, brooding and mirth. Like Don Delillo, who references the actor in “The Starveling,” Curtis came from the Bronx, where Bernard Herschel Schwartz, the son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, was bar mitzvah in 1938. Joining the Navy after Pearl Harbor, Schwartz was in Tokyo Bay, aboard the submarine keeper USS Proteus for the Japanese surrender and three years later — after classes at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School — “Anthony Curtis” joined Universal Pictures. Though his parts were small, Curtis’s early films were notable. In 1949, he appeared in Criss Cross, a tough L.A. crime movie with a screenplay by ex-Brooklyn novelist Daniel Fuchs; the taut mob narcotics caper, Johnny Stool Pigeon; and City Across the River, adapted from Irving Shulman’s gritty Brooklyn gangs novel, The Amboy Dukes, where Curtis’s slick duck-tailed hair inspired teenaged Elvis Presley. Moving to westerns, in 1950 Curtis appeared in both the best and worst of oaters. While Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 was a multifaceted masterpiece that brilliantly reinvented Jimmy Stewart’s on-screen persona, The Kansas Raiders — an Audie Murphy vehicle about William Quantrill’s Confederate guerrilla band — was ludicrous. (See pine-covered California mountains loom high above the Kansas prairie! Hear Kentucky-born Kit Dalton’s Bronx-boy accent!) Diverse triumphs followed, including the integrationist prison drama The Defiant Ones (1958), and the irreverent submariner’s revenge, Operation Petticoat (1959), as did misfires: “I was introduced to cocaine during the making of Lepke.”

Criss Cross

The City Across the River

Kansas Raiders

The Defiant Ones

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Chuck Barris, Allen Ginsberg, Curtis Mayfield, Suzi Quatro, Lili St. Cyr, Wilfred Thesiger, Josephine Baker, Paulette Goddard.

READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.