Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis celebrate life of Tony Curtis at Las Vegas funeral

By Oskar Garcia, AP
Monday, October 4, 2010

Actor Tony Curtis buried after Vegas funeral

LAS VEGAS — Actor Tony Curtis was buried Monday with a melange of his favorite possessions — a Stetson hat, an Armani scarf, driving gloves, an iPhone and a copy of his favorite novel, “Anthony Adverse,” a book that inspired his celebrity name and launched a robust film career that spanned decades and genres.

The 85-year-old Oscar-nominated actor who starred in such films as “The Defiant Ones” and “Some Like It Hot” died Wednesday at his home in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb, after suffering cardiac arrest.

More than 400 celebrities, fans, friends and family members gathered to say goodbye at a public funeral Monday in Las Vegas.

A montage of Curtis’ famous film roles opened the sometimes solemn, sometimes mirthful service attended by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor Jamie Lee Curtis, porn star Ron Jeremy and Vera Goulet, widow of Broadway singer Robert Goulet. The crowd laughed as an animated Curtis appeared in a scene from the television series “The Flintstones” and sparred with actor Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus.”

Friends and fans lined up outside Palm Mortuary & Cemetery well before the funeral, with more than a dozen photographers and television journalists watching the scene. Inside, seven colorful paintings and three black-and-white drawings by Curtis stood on easels, while a photo of the young, dark-haired actor was projected on a screen. The coffin was draped with an American flag.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Curtis’ daughter from his first marriage with “Psycho” actress Janet Leigh, teared up as she described a man who was, she said, “a little meshuga” — Yiddish for crazy — but always full of life.

“All of us got something from him. I, of course, got his desperate need for attention,” she joked.

The father and daughter were estranged for a long period but eventually reconciled. Curtis took pride in his daughter’s on-screen credits, which include “Perfect,” ”Halloween,” ”True Lies” and the new comedy “You Again.”

Rabbi Mel Hecht called Schwarzenegger to the front of the room for an impromptu farewell. The Austria native recalled Curtis as a generous mentor who encouraged Schwarzenegger’s budding Hollywood career when others told him his foreign accent and name were too much of a handicap.

Curtis, whose native Bronx accent initially earned him similar criticism, could sympathize.

“You are going to make it,” Schwarzenegger recalled Curtis telling him. “Don’t pay any attention to those guys. I heard the same thing when I came here.”

Schwarzenegger said Curtis refused to feel old.

“I mean, who has the guts to take off their clothes at the age of 80?” Schwarzenegger said, recalling Curtis’ naked photo shoot in Vanity Fair in 2005.

Curtis’ sixth wife, Jill Curtis, eulogized her husband of 12 years. She recalled how he easily dismissed their 45-year age difference when friends asked if he was worried about keeping up with a younger wife.

“Well, if she dies, she dies,” she said her husband would deadpan in reply.

She recalled his simple loves: Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Splenda, his dog and white clothes. She urged family and friends to dwell not on his death, but on his extraordinary life.

“He was, as one fan put it, a once-in-a-lifetime man,” she said.

The funeral was followed by the burial and then a reception for more than 100 invited guests at the Luxor hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

Jill Curtis, who Curtis affectionately called Jillie, told The Associated Press her husband would have approved of the festive goodbye.

“Tony didn’t like funerals,” she said. “He didn’t want to make it funeral-y, more like a celebration.”

Known for his transformation from a pigeonholed pretty boy in the late 1940s and early ’50s to a serious actor, Curtis reshaped himself over decades of work and made himself impossible to typecast. The metamorphosis was completed in 1957’s “Sweet Smell of Success,” in which he played a sleazy press agent manipulated by a ruthless newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster).

In person, Curtis loved giving friends and fans extra touches that made their face-to-face moments more memorable, longtime friend and pallbearer Gene Kilroy told the AP.

“He had a certain way of making everybody feel like they were Spartacus,” Kilroy said.

Kilroy, an executive at Luxor, said billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian, actor Kirk Douglas and singer Phyllis McGuire were among seven honorary pallbearers.

Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in 1925, the son of Hungarian Jews who emigrated to the United States after World War I. His father, Manny Schwartz, yearned to be an actor, but work was hard to find with his heavy accent. He instead became a tailor, relocating the family repeatedly as he sought work.

“I was always the new kid on the block, so I got beat up by the other kids,” Curtis recalled in 1959. “I had to figure a way to avoid getting my nose broken. So I became the crazy new kid on the block.”

Curtis suffered tragedy at age 12 when his younger brother was killed in a traffic accident. Finding refuge in movies, he would ditch school to catch matinees starring Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and other screen idols.

After serving on a submarine during World War II, he enrolled in drama school on the G.I. Bill and was doing theater work when an agent lined up an audition with Universal, where he signed a seven-year contract starting at $100 a week at age 23.

The studio gave him the name Anthony Curtis, taken from his favorite novel and the Anglicized name of a favorite uncle. He later shortened it to Tony Curtis.

As his big-screen star faded in the 1960s, Curtis remolded himself as a character actor and turned to television with the 1970s action series “The Persuaders,” costarring Roger Moore, and a recurring role on the crime drama “Vegas.”

Curtis earned an Emmy nomination in 1980 as producer David O. Selznick in the “Gone With the Wind” chronicle “The Scarlett O’Hara War.”

He also turned to writing with a 1977 novel, “Kid Cody and Julie Sparrow” and 1993’s “Tony Curtis: The Autobiography.”

Curtis remained vigorous following heart bypass surgery in 1994, although his health declined in recent years.

As the funeral ended Monday, a second film reel flashed before the crowd.

The montage finished with the words “The End” cast on an image of Curtis shaking his head, as if he were disputing his own epilogue.

Associated Press Writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report.

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