His portrayal of the escape artist in Houdini (1953) was a professional and personal turning point. He found his feet in a character study that demanded more than dashing looks. And he costarred with Janet Leigh, the first of his six wives. They were the Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman of their day.
Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in 1925 to Hungarian immigrants in New York. His father had been an actor in Budapest, but his poor command of English forced him to settle for work as a tailor. Curtis' mother suffered from schizophrenia, as did his younger brother, Robert.
In 1933, when his parents could not provide for their sons, Curtis and his brother Julius were sent to a state institution. When they returned to the Bronx, Curtis joined a street gang, and Julius was killed by a truck.
As Curtis remembered it, by age 11 he was fast with his fists and his feet and had joined a gang. His first acting came from pretending to be Italian when walking through Italian neighborhoods.
By 12, he had been arrested for truancy. Instead of taking him to the precinct, the arresting officer took him to the Jones Memorial Settlement House, where a welfare worker got him involved in acting.
It amused Curtis, who made not a few Arthurian movies and also Some Like It Hot, where he was in drag, that his first role at the Settlement House was as a female retainer to Guinevere in a tale of King Arthur.
Six months before he was to graduate from Seward Park High School in 1944, Curtis joined the Navy. He served as a signalman in the South Pacific aboard the submarine USS Dragonette, where the one movie on board was Gunga Din. Curtis entertained fellow sailors with his Cary Grant impression, which he later trotted out to hilarious effect in Some Like It Hot.
After demobilization, Curtis returned to finish high school.
On the GI Bill, he studied drama at the New School and soon joined the Cherry Lane players in Greenwich Village. It was at Cherry Lane, when Curtis was playing the lead role of Golden Boy, that a scout for Universal signed him.
He Americanized his mother's family name, Kertesz, to Curtis. And after trying on James Curtis and Anthony Curtis, he felt Tony Curtis was the best fit.
Curtis had what the studios wanted: youth and a face made for Technicolor. He also had an intuitive grasp of the camera. It loved him, and he loved it back. (Literally. Curtis confessed that he used to hug the Mitchell cameras on set.)
After fulfilling his seven-year contract with Universal, he parked his swashbuckler foils at the studio gates and entered the most fruitful period of his career.
He didn't care about top billing; he cared about top roles. He left the farm league for the majors by taking second billing to Burt Lancaster and proving himself the consummate team player. He costarred in Trapeze (1955) as the aerialist battling Lancaster for Gina Lollabrigida and in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) as the unprincipled publicist trying to get into Lancaster's good favor.
In Success, as Sidney Falco, the boy with the ice-cream face and the morals of a gutter rat, he delivered his best performance.
He took second billing to Kirk Douglas in The Vikings (1958), as a marauder, and Spartacus (1960), as Antoninus, the slave boy beloved by the Roman senator portrayed by Laurence Olivier.
He shared billing with Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, Stanley Kramer's 1958 allegory of race relations, which won him his only Oscar nomination.
He likewise shared billing with Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959), voted by the American Film Institute as the funniest movie ever made. In this cross-dressing farce, Curtis gave a performance surprising for its nuance.
Director Blake Edwards was so impressed with Curtis' Some Like It Hot Cary Grant impersonation that he cast Curtis opposite Grant in Operation: Petticoat (1959), a hilarious service comedy with Curtis as a slightly cuddlier version of the conniving Sidney Falco.
The hits kept on coming. The Great Imposter (1960), Taras Bulba (1962), Goodbye, Charlie (1964), The Great Race (1965). Working his way through marriages and movies, Curtis enjoyed a decade as box-office catnip that ended with The Boston Strangler (1968), as suspected serial killer Albert DeSalvo, a critical and commercial failure despite his excellent performance.
Out of fashion and expensive, he fell off the Hollywood radar in the early 1970s. He then became a perennial guest star in lesser TV shows. He took up a brush and painted in the style of a Catskills Matisse, battled drug addiction, and made grade-B pictures such as Lobster Men From Mars because he needed to pay child support.
Shortly after Mr. Curtis successfully faced his drug addictions, his son Nicholas died of a heroin overdose in 1994.
To fully appreciate the charm machine that was Mr. Curtis, see him at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.
He joshed that the only female costar he did not bed was Jack Lemmon (who, like Curtis, was in drag throughout Some Like It Hot). When his interviewer asked him to compare Hollywood of 40 years before to the dream factory of 1985, he batted sable eyelashes and kissed her hand.
"When I arrived in Hollywood in 1947 at Shelley Winters' apartment, I looked at the palm trees, inhaled the perfumed air, and stripped off my Navy uniform. Then I dove into the pool, swam to the other end, and here I am talking to you."
Mr. Curtis is survived by his wife, Jill Vandenberg; Kelly Lee Curtis and Jamie Lee Curtis, his daughters by Janet Leigh; Alexandra Curtis and Allegra Curtis, his daughters by Christine Kaufmann; and a son, Benjamin Curtis, by Leslie Allen; and at least five films that will live on in eternity.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/