Golden Boy, Golden Age,
From March, 2009
At 83, screen icon Tony Curtis has found health and happiness
in simple pleasures and a stable union with a straight-shooting
wife who rescues horses.
As one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, Tony Curtis once filled movie theaters with his square-jawed good looks, mischievous smile and impeccable comic timing. He brushed shoulders with Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier and the Rat Pack. With more than 140 movies to his name, Curtis, as the title of his 2008 memoir American Prince (Harmony) suggests, earned a high place among the US version of
royalty - its movie stars.
But one morning this January, with the Nevada desert sun baking the night chill from the mesquite trees, the last living screen icon of Hollywood's mid-20th century heyday was content to hold court with aspiring artist Kody Hickey, 13, and his sister Darian, 10. The Hickey family volunteers at the 40-acre sanctuary for neglected and slaughter-bound horses that Curtis' wife Jill founded. Curtis encouraged Kody to continue drawing from his imagination and deftly answered Darian's
questions about Marilyn Monroe's demise with some advice about pursuing happiness before looks and money.
For a moment, the horses stopped neighing and the dogs, pigs and goats settled down. Only a soft equine snort punctured the quiet, and time stood still. "I love the silence," Curtis offered. Then he gazed at a rust-colored barn roof anew even though he had seen it hundreds of times in the six years his wife has been running the horse rescue. "Look at the colors of the roof of the barn against the sun," Curtis urged. "Look at those mountains over there. What a valley this is."
A white Stetson hat now sits where thick black locks once inspired Elvis. And the movie-star looks are worn with age. But the unmistakable New York accent and youthful exuberance are intact.
Earlier, Curtis greeted a visitor with a robust "Howdy!" as he stepped from a blue Ford pickup sporting a bumper sticker decrying puppy mills. Also familiar are the glittering blue eyes that no longer get their sparkle from Hollywood floodlights and sexy starlets but from pastoral desert scenes, a stable marriage, and a blank canvas and brush.
"It takes one step after the other," Curtis says, explaining how he assembled the healthy elements of his life after decades of excess. "It takes one little decision about what kind of environment you want to live in, and that will project you into another level. The kind of car you drive. The kind of paintings you do. My food habits. My work habits. Everything is simplified. Nothing is complicated."
Defying the Odds
Conventional wisdom says Curtis shouldn't even be here, let alone remain an optimist. He has known the scars of an impoverished youth and an angry, abusive mother. He has seen the loss of a brother in a childhood truck accident and of a son to drugs. Curtis himself endured a two-decade drug addiction that began with a 1970s career slump. In 2006, Curtis developed pneumonia that put him in a month-long coma from which he awoke with critical illness polymyopathy, a weakened muscle condition. "He almost died," Jill Curtis said. "He couldn't move anything, even his fingers, and he had to learn to walk, stand, eat and write again."
But Curtis relishes the typecast-busting contradictions in his life, and his survival may be one of the biggest. Though his illness slowed him and he sometimes relies on a cane and wheelchair, Curtis, at age 83, says he is at his healthiest and happiest. To strengthen his physical health, Curtis swims, munches on orange slices, pops a multivitamin and eats moderately. His greatest sustenance, though, may be his attitude. "When you're with Tony Curtis, you're with somebody very alive," Sidney Poitier once said. "He was-and is-one of the most 'up' people I have ever known."
Curtis sets no limits in the diverse interests that he keeps coming back to, giving him a sense of constant renewal: his lifelong passion for painting and art, the connection to the animals he and his wife tend, finding new forms of expression. "I like to see something possible that you didn't attain four days earlier," he says. "There's always something that you can contribute somewhere, to find a new approach." It is not unlike the strategy he employed during his acting career-pursuing dissimilar parts to avoid being pigeonholed. "I wasn't going to get stuck in one role. It would be like putting on the same suit. I wanted to be strong and powerful in one, and vacillating and cheesy in another."
But Curtis has dispensed with one longtime indulgence in variety: his relationships with women. After four marriages and countless affairs with costars like Monroe, Yvonne DeCarlo and Natalie Wood, he remains flirtatious but he has settled down, with Jill VandenBerg, a horsemanship teacher whom he met in 1996 and married two years later; it is the most enduring of his unions. "She's very positive and speaks what she feels," Curtis says of his wife, 44 years his junior. "There's never any fanciness to it. When she talks with friends, with anybody, you can hear what she is, and that's what has attracted me all these years to Jill. I lost a few wives because they were always changing. That's what I found most difficult."
Curtis is the biggest benefactor of his wife's equine-rescue outfit, Shiloh Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, a 45-minute drive from their home, but his participation doesn't begin or end with the bankroll. (Shiloh also operates on public donations.) Curtis has joined his wife in Washington DC to lobby for passage of the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act, also known as the horse slaughter bill (see box on page 36). Curtis pressed flesh with congressmen all day, recalled Chris Heyde, deputy director of government and legal affairs at the Animal Welfare Institute, a nonprofit humane organization. "Both Jill and Tony are hands-on at this," Heyde says.
Curtis retains fond memories of Raymond, a quarter horse the actor says he connected with on the Turkish set of "You Can't Win 'Em All," a 1970 adventure film. "When I was growing up in Manhattan and the Bronx, the only horses I saw were the ones that pulled people through Central Park," he says at Shiloh. "I like the idea that a guy like me, coming out of New York City, could come out here and leave my own imprint. It's a completely different kind of legacy."
Gene Kilroy, Curtis' friend and a director at the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, says Curtis "likes those horses at the rescue. The rescue gets them in bad shape, and he feels terrible if they die." Kilroy recalled when the Curtises brought a newborn goat back to their home until the animal was strong enough to return to the ranch. "It was like a puppy dog running around there," Kilroy says.
A few years before he met Jill, Curtis began stripping the artifice from his life when he weaned himself off drugs and the personalities they manufactured. The process left him with a bone-deep honesty. "For a long time I didn't dwell in here," Curtis says, putting his hand to his chest, "and in that environment I found myself drinking a lot and using substances. I reached out to people I have no business to be with just because I wanted that sensation and illusion of turning myself into a bum, into a mean and angry fellow, or into a genius."
One night I found myself playing all these parts. I wasn't being anything. I started to examine myself, and I asked, 'What do I want to accomplish?' The answer was that I want to be the best I can be. I want to understand things I don't understand. I want to be joyful. I want to make people happy."
Rather than worry about when the next film role would come-and drowning his disappointment when it didn't-"I began to sharpen my other qualities of living," he says.
The relationship with Jill clinched the end of the addiction. "When I met her I knew I would never do it again," he says. "I knew that I didn't have to do that. I knew that the gift of her, being embraced by her, was enough." He concluded that he couldn't compartmentalize his unhealthy excesses without also harming the other parts of his life. "If you try that, it will lower your defenses so that you'll fall for things that you shouldn't be doing at all," he says.
"I'd been married four times. At some point I had to come to grips with myself. I had to face the reality of it. I do not in any way jeopardize this relationship. I don't run after girls, which is my inclination, but I don't do it anymore. I don't spend money like it's water anymore. I watch my health. I eat in a respectable way so I don't get sick. I don't want to find myself at 83 or 85 ready to go. So you see how it extends itself to so many other parts of our living experience? It's all connected."
Goodbye to Hollywood
Regaining sobriety and meeting Jill were just the first steps that Curtis took to peel away the darker, synthetic elements of his life. The couple decided to leave Hollywood's shadow, which they saw as filled with unhappy, unemployed actors, and join an upbeat group of friends in a Las Vegas suburb.
Their Spanish-style home is filled with career mementos and art by Curtis and others: an Al Hirshfeld "Some Like it Hot" sketch of Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag; an Andy Warhol painting of a leg in a green stocking and red high-heel shoe; two mobiles that evoke Alexander Calder. The home's front gates are from an Italian monastery, and the inside floor near the entrance is inlaid with a yellow floral mosaic.
For all its eye candy, the house is on a modest-sized property that sits on a residential street. The Vegas Strip is visible beyond a golf course in the rear. But something else catches Curtis' eye as he sits at a kitchen table. "Please," he says to a visitor, "look out your window. See that funny little mountain there and the palm trees under it. That doesn't look like Vegas; it looks like Africa."
Those existential flights of fancy, as Barry Paris, a writer on Curtis' 1993 autobiography, once called them, come often. Says Jill Curtis: "The other day we were driving, and Tony said, 'You know Jill, yesterday was an incredible day to be a cloud.' Who thinks like that?"
It would be a misinterpretation to consider those reflections the musings of an age-addled mind. As an octogenarian, Curtis may stumble with a word or two-he forgot Charles Bronson's surname at one point-but he remains keenly sharp and insightful. When we arrive at his home studio, he remembers to continue conversations begun hours earlier back at the horse rescue about his art: "Remember when I was telling you about the simplicity of painting the fruit?"
A Lifetime Artist
Curtis' cherished art studio, in a one-room building separate from the main house, is the sanctum where all his detailed observations about clouds and sunlit barn rooftops get processed into art. "If I were in this room and it were to break off and be thrown into the ocean," he says, "I'd be safe."
He works fast, so he likes to use acrylics. One of Curtis' paintings is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Lately, Curtis has been reinventing his artistic approach, creating giclée prints by painting over black-and-white stills from his movies. In a recent giclee, Curtis is fencing in the 1965 Blake Edwards comedy "The Great Race" against a bright yellow background; in another, he and Monroe are in deep-blue water boating away in the 1959 Billy Wilder classic "Some Like It Hot."
More than any endeavor, Curtis sees in his art his evolution. He has painted since childhood but immersed himself in painting between scenes on long film shoots. During those breaks, he developed a bold system of approaching art without trepidation. "I didn't use narrow-pointed pencils. I was able to use thick pencils and brushes with watercolors in them. I was able to use different things, and I got a lot of variety. Yet I was still practicing and learning how to take a subject and paint it. I was fearless."
It's no accident that Curtis' later, very simple black-marker line sketches-a chair, some fruit-coincide with his efforts to strip away the personal trappings of excess. "I eliminated what I felt were all of the things I saw that had opinions: A shiny car meant you had some dough. There was that connection. So by doing these kinds of drawings, I disconnected. There are no colors in them. You get a feeling of what it is, and there's a beauty in its one-line quality."
Curtis' search for beauty in simplicity precedes his sobriety. Lining his studio walls are some of the hundreds of diorama-like boxes that he has been assembling for decades out of stones, pieces of glass, eggs, old letters, butterflies and other common objects. "They all have a sense of relationship to what you see and what you don't see. What you see are the objects: the egg, butterfly, old letters. What you don't see is their relationship. You don't see what connects them. All you know as you step back is that there's a sense of something going on. And that's what I try to achieve in all the boxes that I do."
The boxes can be traced to his tough childhood-when he lived in the back of his father's tailor shop and ate sugared matzoh for breakfast-that made him determined to succeed. When he was a boy, he once found a cigar box in which he had put a skate key, some rubber bands, and a piece of gum. "I was stunned by how beautiful they looked-these objects that were forgotten and found again."
When we return to the main house, he says he saw something in one of the boxes that he must remember to add. The search to create something relevant and dynamic but perhaps short of completion is what defines his drive.
"I'm content. I feel good," he says. "Yet with my background, it's excellent because I will never be content. I'm always thinking of where I failed in my development. Where did I not make up the difference between being extraordinary and just ending up normal? Toward that aim I'm dedicated. I don't want to be normal. I want to be an excellent painter, an excellent actor; I want to be an excellent articulator, an excellent friend. And I'm achieving those things. See, if I could do that in these continuing years now, my dear friend, who knows what's going to come up."