Born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925, Curtis grew up in poverty. The eldest child of immigrant parents, he had almost no formal education and began to sneak into the movies with his younger brother Julius as a means of escape. When he was 10 years old, however, the financial strain on the family became too much to bear and Tony and his brother briefly became wards of the state, admitted to an orphanage for a number of weeks before being reclaimed by his parents. This experience helped shape a strong sense of independence in the boy as Curtis was prematurely forced to learn one of life's toughest lessons; namely, that the only person you can count on is yourself.
In 1938, shortly before Curtis’s bar mitzvah, his brother and constant companion Julius was tragically killed in a traffic accident. Devastated, Tony pulled further away from the conventional life that his parents had always hoped for in the belief that life was to be experienced head-on and hands-on and a few years later joined the Navy. He was honorably discharged after three years of service and with no other plans for a career, auditioned for the New York Dramatic Workshop when he realized the GI Bill would pay for acting school. As is so often the case, fate stepped in for Curtis, as he caught the eye of a theatrical agent during one of his many small stage appearances. Joyce Selznick just happened to be the niece of film producer David Selznick, who ended up offering Curtis a seven-year contract with Universal Studios.
Arriving in Hollywood in 1948 at age 23, he changed his name to Tony Curtis and quickly made an impression with a two-minute role in 'Criss Cross' (1949), in which he makes Burt Lancaster jealous by dancing with Yvonne De Carlo. Based on the strength of that role, Curtis finally got the chance to demonstrate his acting flair, as he was cast in a small, but important role in Sierra (1950). This led to his first big-budget movie, Winchester '73 (1950), which allowed the ambitious, yet still raw talent the chance to act alongside Jimmy Stewart.
Curtis worked steadily throughout the early ‘50’s, consciously working in various genres while actively seeking roles in movies that had some kind of social relevance. His breakout performance as the scheming press agent Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) was the beginning of a great run for the versatile Curtis, who followed an Oscar-nominated performance as a bigoted, escaped convict chained to Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958) and with a broadly comic turn opposite Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot (1959).
He was drawn to roles and films that would challenge audiences. Curtis was advised against appearing as the subordinate sidekick Antoninus in the epic Spartacus (1960), playing second fiddle to Kirk Douglas, but he was taken with the part and the chance to work with the director Stanley Kubrick. He garnered a significant amount of controversy (and critical acclaim) by playing against type the self-confessed murderer Albert DeSalvo in The Boston Strangler (1968). It was around this time that Curtis ventured into television where he co-starred with Roger Moore in the series “The Persuaders!” (1971) and later, created memorable supporting characters in “McCoy” (1975) and “Vega$” (1978).
On the personal front, Curtis was an avid painter throughout his life and one of his surrealist works went on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2007. More famously, as he detailed in his autobiography “American Prince: A Memoir”, Curtis had relationships with a number of famous actresses, including Natalie Wood and a brief, but widely publicized affair with Marilyn Monroe. He was married five times, most notably to Janet Leigh, with whom he had two daughters, Jamie Lee and Kelly Curtis. His last marriage, to Jill Vandenberg, who was 42 years his junior, was in 1998 and lasted until his death. Curtis had six children, five which survive him: two with Leigh, two from his second wife Christine Kaufmann, and two from his third, Leslie Allen.