Posts tagged ‘Tony Curtis’
He did it his way.
Tony Curtis, the legendary leading man whose career spanned some six decades, has died in his Las Vegas home. He was 85.
His autobiography An American Prince, released last year, begins with the words “All my life I had one dream, and that was to be in the movies.”
That dream came true at the age of 23 when he came to California after a turbulent and often abusive adolescence in New York, armed with smoldering good looks and an education at the Dramatic Workshop (thanks to the G.I. Bill) where he studied alongside Rod Steiger and Walter Matthau.
Curtis was signed on at Universal and embarked headlong into a career that is almost mind-bending in both its longevity and the sheer caliber of projects he was involved in.
His reputation as a playboy and ladies man is well earned (he was married six times–but most of us only remember the Studio-Approved Tony Curtis/Janet Leigh love affair). But that should never overshadow his very distinct and clear craft as an actor.
He was not very good in the beginning, and was certainly miscast on more than one occasion, but from out of bad ones (the Purple Masks and Son of Ali Baba’s) are a host of cinematic treasures—of which Curtis is often the indispensable core. Some Like it Hot, Sweet Smell of Success, Kings Go Forth, The Defiant Ones, The Great Race, Spartacus, The Boston Strangler—all are essential films that are strengthened, even if in part, by the presence of the essential Hollywood star: Tony Curtis.
RIP, Tony. There’ll never be another like you.
Love him or hate him, you gotta admit one thing: Tony Curtis is one hell of a survivor. Still making waves in the press over 60 years after his film debut, the octogenarian is as active–and vocal–as ever. GQ magazine has done a colorful piece (to say the least) on the living legend in their June issue which I felt was rather appropriate to post today, his 85th birthday.
TONY CURTIS, THE LAST OF THE PLAYBOYS
For a guy who started life as Bernard Schwartz, son of a struggling tailor in the Bronx, Tony Curtis has done alright for himself, making more than 130 movies and creating some iconic performances of guydom in pictures like Some Like It Hot (where he had the sweet joy of making out with Marilyn Monroe), The Defiant Ones (where he played opposite Sidney Poitier, and helped Poitier earn his first Oscar nomination); Sweet Smell of Success (“Match me, Sidney.”); and, of course, the legendary Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick and released 50(!) years ago
Interview by Michael Hainey
Interview by Michael Hainey
Tony Curtis doesn’t live in Hollywood any more. He gave it up some years ago. Packed it in for a Del Webb subdivision outside of Las Vegas. (“I wanted a change of scenery,” he says.) On the way to his modest, two bedroom home, you pass a Communuty Center where people, most of them a good twenty years younger than Curtis, come and go all day, some of them whizzing by on golf carts, most of them in cars, but all of them it seems dressed for leisure: Shorts, t-shirts, nylon windbreakers, white socks. The uniform of the 21st Century Pensioner. “Look at me!” they all seem to scream, “I’m still a kid! Really—I still matter! I’m still…active!”
What does it mean?
Active physically, maybe. But you look at them and can’t help feel that mentally they checked out years ago.
And then there’s Tony Curtis, 84 years old, a short golf-cart ride away. Most mornings you can find him working in his painting studio, trying, as he’ll tell you, “to figure it out.”
“It” being life.
And Curtis has lived a life most of the people here, in this subdivision—and most of us, period— can only dream of.
He meets me in his small, sun-filled studio behind his house. Wind chimes clink in the breeze and down below you can see an empty valley. He sits on an old office chair. He wears billowy white pants and a white tunic. He looks a bit like Matisse, in old age. He’s bare-footed and on the top of his feet there are dabs of yellow paint, the color of French’s mustard. He’s been working on a canvas, a figure of a nude. Except for his white goatee, he has no hair now. A few years ago he finally hung up the toupee. Doesn’t matter—one look at the eyes and you know it’s Tony Curtis. A blue any guy’d kill to have. “Gleamers,” someone I know once called them.
Michael Hainey: Tell me about Spartacus.
Tony Curtis: Fifty years of Spartacus! Even now and then in an airport, I’ll hear somebody yell out, “I am Spartacus!” And I just piss in my pants. That is the funniest thing ever, that someone would have the chutzpah to do that, you know? The trouble we had making that picture…It was very convoluted, and what I mean by that is it was a peculiar movie that was made. With Kubrick directing it, it wasn’t like Billy Wilder directing a movie, like Some Like It Hot, or some of the other directors around.
What was it like working with Kubrick?
Kubrick, was a kid out of New York, out of Manhattan.
Yes. So he and I had a wonderful conversation with each other—which was not saying much, but looking at each other and behaving a certain way. We were able to give each other the strength that we needed, the wherewithal that was necessary to follow his needs as a director, so that he wouldn’t have to articulate in a grand manner what he wanted you to do. He was able to, as a kid out of New York, it was easy for him… it was easy for him to give of himself. You were able to understand everything he said. Pronounced, sharp, and to the point.
And Laurence Olivier?
Oh, consummate. I like that word, a very consummate performer. He didn’t give too much of himself, but he gave of his ability to show you what he thought was right, by not doing something. In doing that scene, with us in the tub, he didn’t shiver, and say, Ooh, here we are in the hot water, ooh! Do you get what we’re going be doing, Tony? Touch ya, touch ya when I get you out there, if you let me, ooh. He was identifying what the purpose of the tub was, the warm tub. When we were in it, working it, he mentioned on a couple of occasions that in fact that a hot tub between buddies is a great place to pee. How do you like that?
What was that line, in the bathtub?
He says, uh, ‘Do you like snails?’ And um, ‘no my master.’ ‘Do you like oysters?’ ‘Yes, I could do with oysters.’ ‘I like both oysters and snails.’ Too cool. Everybody got that one.
What was it like working with Kirk Douglas?
Kirk on the other hand, is a balabus.
What’s a balabus?
A double-headed monster…I did The Viking with him. And you see, I know how to get these guys so they love me. I could convince them that I’m the sweetest kid in town, a little gruff maybe, a little clumsy maybe. But a nice kid. Someone you could trust. As an actor, Kirk didn’t have much trusting as a human, in our relationships. But as an actor, he trusted me, and that’s where his trust was necessary.
So he trusted you one hundred percent as an actor?
Yes, it was complete. He’d pull you aside and say, ‘Well listen, um, why don’t you say that line with a little more emphasis, because it will give me a little more strength to go on?’ So I saw what it was, I saw exactly what it was. It was like a little kid asking me to give him what he had already. And I loved it.
You’re about the same age as Douglas, right?
Maybe I am.
I think you’re in better shape, though.
Oh much better. [Laughs.] I spend some time with him every now and then.
Yeah, I go visit him.
When’s the last time you saw him?
Ahhh…about four months ago.
In Los Angeles?
Yes. It’s hard for me to see some of these guys because I’m living in Las Vegas. If I were living in L.A., I’d pick up the horn, call them, and say, ‘Can I come over?’ And they’d say, ‘Sure, come on over.’ But since I don’t live there anymore, I don’t have that access. But they know I’m around. They all speak the highest of me, and that makes me feel great, that I’m a guy they can trust.
That’s important to you.
Very! I’m a motherfucker you can trust. I used to save my buddies from terrible beatings, I would take their spot because I was faster. I shouldn’t be talking this way.
But I did that, I did that because I loved them, I liked them a lot. Well, maybe, love and like, mix it up together, it comes out the same. And all of these guys that are still living—Cary Grant, was I nuts about him.
What did you learn from Cary Grant?
Intelligence, the ability to take his craft, acting, and use it as a weapon if necessary, in doing a scene. To use it as a means of getting somewhere without offending. And he was a kind, wonderful man; handsome motherfucker, smart, his timing in movies was the best. He was funny too. I cried this morning [starting to cry]. I like crying, to think of Cary Grant now, with such affection. I did this picture with him, Operation Petticoat.
I love that movie.
Oh, I’m glad. You know, I developed it. What I mean was, I was in the submarines, when I served in the Navy, so I decided that would make a good picture at Universal. And I was doing really well to get some guy, Kirk Douglas, to play that other part. But then someone said they gave it to Cary Grant. I was afraid he would turn me down. He didn’t, and to be accepted by Cary was a great Mitzvah. Was a great thing, ’cause the man was so articulate in his movements, you know, he didn’t have to overload the circuits at all, he was able to do it very effortlessly. And then when he chose me to be in the movie…a lot of guys liked to work with me because I was always alert, and I knew how to pick up lines and attitudes. But Cary Grant allowed me to be with him in that movie. He didn’t look upon me as someone who was gonna feed him lines. He looked at me, if I may, like I’m looking at you and talking to you. Free and open, and allowing you to contribute any way you want.
Do you have a routine every day? Do you paint every day?
Almost every day. Depends on what happened the night before. Depends how much energy I got. If I get pissed off or angry, I’ll paint. If not, if I’m calm, I don’t paint…or I do. I act just like a woman. [Laughs]
You should always create when you’re pissed off, right?
I do, I do. Some nights I say, “Well, listen, I’m going to paint tomorrow, and fuck you.” I kind of provoke myself. [Laughs]
You’ve got to work yourself up to it.
Yeah, I need that impetus. Well, I’m being facetious, but what I mean is, I’m 84 years old—I don’t believe it, but I am. And going by insurance statistics, you know, if I’ve got 10, 12 years, I’ve got a lot of years. So it’s not like when I was 20 or 30 when I didn’t give a shit. I was jerking off in Macy’s windows. You know what I mean? [Laughs] Running around, doing anything I wanted. Who needs an education? Who needs this? I just said: “Who needs dough?” So how do you improve ignorance? By knowledge. Living life gives you that impetus to want to learn a little bit, I think.
But there are certain things, though, when you’re young and ignorant…Ignorance lets you take chances.
Yes, exactly. And now, not that it’s different but I just see things a little different than I did before. I had no idea that I’d come out the way I did. 130-some-odd movies, five marriages. [Laughs] I mean, you walk into one of those little gypsy places in New York where they tell you your fortune—if I had walked in there at 16-years-old and they would have said what I just said to you, I’d say, “Thank you, and give me back my quarter, and let me out of here.” You know?
Did you have any idea where you were going to end up then?
I never did. But I never worried about it—I just wanted to figure out what was the best I could get out of life. I was so naive. It wasn’t until I started getting out, meeting people, I realized what a stiff existence. And I was the handsomest boy anywhere and I was Jewish—
And the most modest, too.
And they both worked against each other, you know? I was kind of envied. I didn’t have any friends as a kid, but I made like I had friends. I wouldn’t let anything get to me.
You had a couple. You talked in your book like you had a couple friends.
The only friends I’ve got are the ones I met in my profession. And all the ones I liked a lot, they’re all dead. I never figured on that.
Who were you closest to that’s dead now?
Jack Lemmon, Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster. They made me feel like I was a member of an elite group of men. I looked up to these guys because I saw in them the things I would like to see in myself. And by watching them, I saw how people did things—how to take a girl out for dinner, learn that the outside instruments were the ones you took first. Otherwise, I’d just lay there and say, “Why did they put them like that?” By watching, I saw how people behaved.
Were some of those guys like a father to you?
Maybe a father, maybe an older brother. They genuinely cared about me, and I cared about them. You know, they called me: “How’s it going?” I’d get a call from Cary Grant. “Are you all right? I saw you the other night. Anything going on?” Jeff Chandler was a good friend. When my father died of a heart attack he came, rushed down to their apartment with me and we sat shiva. He organized the funeral and all of that. That made me feel good, I had somebody to rely on.
You know, I’m not talking about any great dilemma I had, because I could pass easily. I wasn’t like my black brothers who couldn’t pass. In those early days when there was a great deal of anti-semitism and anti-black feeling I was able to go through that jungle easily, unfettered. And I enjoyed it. Maybe I enjoyed it more than I should have. I don’t know. Maybe I should have been more attentive, been more like Paul Newman or Marlon, you know, who fought against racial…but I didn’t. I just didn’t feel like that. I thought every man for himself. If you can, take a few people with you.
You lived with Brando. What was that like?
I liked that a lot. We were 24, 25. He was an interesting man, different, a genius in the way he thought.
You could tell already?
Yeah you could tell. He said, “I’m not going to walk into this scene”—every actor would do their walk in—”I’m going to come to the window.” He always found the little piece of business he could do, that was his gift. They made a school of acting out of Marlon. And he had courage. I admired him for that. He spoke up whenever he wanted; he was tough, strong guy. Played the drums.
He played in the house?
Yeah, he used the pots and the pans in the kitchen. I used to play around on the flute. I had a little flute. So we’d make things up. He went to Warner Brothers and did The Men and I was around the corner at Universal and made Son of Ali Baba. We both always liked that about each other, that we started at the same time.
My dilemma was that Universal was a B studio, so any movies I made there were made in 11 days for $150,000, and released two weeks later. Universal had a huge distributing business. The more quality films came from most of the other studios who didn’t hustle their movies through. So I ended up like a joke in the movies, you know.
I may be sounding hard on myself. But I’m not. I was getting laid a lot, a lot of beautiful girls I was chasing, and I had enough dough to do it. I was content. I had eyes for bigger stuff, but I figured somewhere along the line I would get that. You know, I stuck my head down with the work. I didn’t drink, I didn’t do drugs. My energy was through the girls.
I heard from someone you had a club. Can you tell me about the Face Club?
Yeah, I was a member of the Face Men of America. Sammy Davis, me, Frank Sinatra was an honorary member.
What were the membership requirements for the Face Men?
Well, going down on somebody.
How did you prove it to the guys?
You pick out the girl, and if you had that experience, you detailed it in your conversation. Sammy, you see, he had to do it. He was inadequate.
What do you mean?
He was a tiny little guy.
Even in his schvanz?
Yes, right. Tiny little guy and he had to make up for the difference between prick and penis.
Was this back in the day when this wasn’t so commonly done?
No, very few, it was very few. [Laughs] And you know, I don’t want to be unkind. The attitudes people have towards sex and what it represents, you know, it’s ludicrous, these kinds of experiences become…they become vulgar. I never fooled around with guys. That to me was something offensive. And I became very careful of that because I attracted a lot of fellows.
Who hit on you? Did Rock ever hit on you?
Well, yeah. We did a picture together. I knew him for a long time. But you know, he was so big, he didn’t want to fool with a little kid like me. But they all hit on me. Henry Wilson, he was the agent, he would love to have me in his coterie of clients.
So Frank wasn’t actually a member of the Face Men’s Club?
No, no, he was. He said he did. I mean, I wasn’t sure about that. You know, he was a very peculiar fellow.
How do you mean?
Well, you know, he was very into himself. He wouldn’t let anybody see a weakness in him. And if you saw something in him, he wouldn’t just bawl you out, he’d say, “Get the fuck out of my face, or I’ll knock your head off.” You know it was…
Yes. So I was never sure…I mean, I knew a lot about Frank. We were really close. He liked me a lot, and that meant a lot to me. To be a friend of Frank’s was a great help in those early days. I didn’t abuse it or take advantage of it. I would just make myself available when he would call or want to go out to dinner. He had just busted up with Ava Gardner and was going with a girl named Jeannie Carmen, beautiful showgirl. And she told me that when she moved in with him into his apartment in Beverly Hills he only played his music on a big hi-fi set, just his songs, him singing. And one night, they made love and when they finished, he said to her, “How was that?” and she said, “I loved the music.” [Laughter]
She told me that sometime during that evening she had asked him, “Who’s your favorite movie star?” And he said, “Tony Curtis.” And she asked, “Why?” And he said, “Because he beat the fucking odds.” That meant a lot to me because it was hard to figure out why Frank loved you. But he liked that I came out of the same kind of background he did.
These were the things that gave me courage in those early days. And I mean, I went everywhere, I would go on tours for the studio, because I knew how I would be received. I knew there would be screaming in the lobbies of the theaters where I showed up. That’s where I understood that I was making headway in my profession, for these little girls being in the lobby waiting to line up for me.
Was that a sense of power that you got?
Man, it was. There I was growing up, I was 22, 23. I didn’t have much social graces. I never finished high school. And to meet these girls like that, and to find them so adoring that it didn’t make any difference whether I opened the door or didn’t, how I lit a cigarette, how I was having dinner. They followed me around in the evenings to find out where I was having dinner and they’d all be looking in the window of the restaurant. It made me cry sometimes. I’d say, “Up to a year ago I couldn’t get arrested, and now all of the sudden, they’re fighting to see me.”
Fifty years of movies, maybe two, three billion dollars of sales over those 130, 140 movies. I don’t see any of that money, I don’t want to. I’m doing okay. But that’s the nature of the profession. And what I did to ease myself, to make it possible for me, sir, to sit here and paint was the fact that I analyzed all of this stuff. It didn’t turn me into a mean motherfucker. It didn’t turn me into somebody angry and vicious and envious of other people. And it’s easy to do that.
How did you do that?
I did it by exploring my life as I went through it.
You spent a lot of time with shrinks, right?
Yeah, I did, for a while after I got to Hollywood.
Did that help you explore?
A little bit. I didn’t have any education where I could explore my id. [Laughs]
Did you learn anything in that?
I did, I saw things that I didn’t want to see. I had a brother that died, hit by a truck in New York City. I took it very personally because I didn’t want to play with him at that moment. Hung out with my buddies instead, and he gets hit by this truck and dies. My mother was a very difficult woman. Used to beat us, beat me a lot. I don’t know what you’d call her today. She was an aggressive woman.
Abusive, yes. I never knew if I’d come home, she’d kiss me or punch me in the mouth. And she and my father fought all the time. And then on the streets of New York City, I couldn’t stay out of trouble. I was always finding myself in confrontation just walking through a neighborhood. “Here comes the fucking Jew.” How did they know I was Jewish? I guess I looked Jewish or I looked Mediterranean, or whatever I looked like. A lot of hair. Handsome kid walking alone, “Here comes a faggot.” These are the things that I grew up with and they had a profound effect on me.
You lived briefly in an orphanage.
Yes, this was in the ’30s.
How old were you then?
It was just before my brother died. I was 11, he was eight. It was on 62nd Street where my father’s tailor store was. They ran out of money, so they put us in this orphanage. It wasn’t a permanent one—well, I didn’t know that then. We lived there for about a week, ten days, while my family relocated. And then a week later or so they came and took us, and we went and lived in back of another tailor shop. And four months later, my kid brother got hit by a truck and died and they sent me to pick him up.
Why did they send you?
They didn’t have the guts to do it themselves. They sent me to the hospital with the police car to identify him. My kid brother’s head was all distorted, and I know it’s him because he had a tooth missing. But I took all of that with grace.
But that never leaves you.
No, never. It’s there all the time. Then there was a time when I really fell apart with drugs.
What was that like?
It wasn’t a big deal. Everybody around me was doing drugs so I got into it. Started smoking cocaine, freebase.
That’s a big deal.
Well, it certainly made you different. I would burst out of the kid that I was into fantasies and dreams, but then a few hours later it was gone. So I kept trying to find it again. Nothing unique.
How much money do you think you blew on drugs?
Oh, $150 a gram. There were a lot of grams.
A couple of hundred thousand?
It could’ve come to that, yeah. I was ashamed, you know? I used the drugs as an expression of maintaining relationships. At that time, I couldn’t. I had trouble with girls. I had trouble in the sexual department of my life. That was one of the reasons that I used substances so intensely. Wasn’t a long time, about 18 months, but it was a very powerful 18 months. And it helped me get through two marriages.
The drugs did. I was very depressed. And I still have my moments.
Yes. Really card-carrying depression. You know, I muddled my way through it.
You talked about in the book how you found your father once with a knife.
Yes, sitting under the stairwell.
Did you think he was going to kill himself?
This is 1936 or ’37, there was a Depression and there was no business at all. And there he found himself, married, two kids, running a tailor store. He wanted to be a violinist or something.
Did that scare you, finding him like that?
It did. And that was part of my—I won’t say recovery—but that experience, seeing my father at a point in his life where he was ready to die. And what was he out of his mind for? Alcohol? No. Tobacco? No. He was so depressed about what life was like. And I’m telling you, when I was his age, every now and then I found myself in the realm of where I thought my father was, where nothing made sense anymore, where I didn’t want anything or anybody.
Did you ever come close to suicide?
No. I wanted to see my son grow up. I wanted him to know me. And that’s what started my recovery. Only to watch my son die of the same disease I had. He overdosed when he was 31-years-old. I don’t know how I fared with it. I just, you know, I just did it. What are you going to do? Become somebody else?
Do you think you’re a loner?
I am. I seek out relationships because they’re intriguing and they’re fun, and there’s only so much I can amuse myself with.
But you keep a distance in your relationships.
I do. I find that’s the best way to maintain. And I allow the creative juices to work constantly, you know? I write poetry, I paint, I work in movies. I allow myself all those creative joys. I liked girls always. I didn’t even need to know that I was going to have sex with them, I just liked them. Their kindness, their aloofness. I love all ages of women, you know? This is my wife. [Shows painting/photograph of wife]
You’re a lucky guy. And that’s of Marilyn there? [Points to painting of Marilyn Monroe]
They’re beautiful. I like the boxes, too. I love [Joseph] Cornell.
Oh, I was a good friend of Cornell’s. I knew him right at the beginning in the ’50s, I met him in New York. I used to keep things in cigar boxes, like chewing gum, skate keys, and marbles, photographs. And I put them away, and look at them, a year later, and was stunned by how nicely everything fit. And I ran across his work, and then I made a point of finding him. He was an odd, interesting man. He lived in his boxes. I don’t live in mine, but I love them.
Tell me about that experience, when you’re working on them.
I’m not sure how I start. All of a sudden, I find myself involved in an environment. It’s either the box or the object. And I’ll tell you how I feel. You heard of the Big Bang.
Not the girl I did four years ago, but the Big Bang. Everything got scattered, and it’s all around us now, waiting to be pulled back into each other again. It’s like that magician or somebody in a restaurant who can take the sheet…or this tablecloth, and pull it fast, and pull the tablecloth out from underneath. Now, let us take the guy that does that, but he doesn’t pull it all off. It all falls on the floor. Everything crashes on the floor, everything: glassware, sugar, candles, everything. And by running a film backwards, everything goes back to what it was, doesn’t it?
I feel that I’m contributing to that experience. I’m bringing everything back to the way it was, making order out of chaos.
Is that one from your childhood? [Pointing to one of the boxes]
It was. It’s old. I don’t remember when. My father was a tailor. He used to sew a lot, and when he’d sew, in order to push it through, he wore a thimble. That was one of my father’s thimbles. I’ve got a whole slew of them.
Did you have a favorite suit back then that your father made for you?
Yeah, my father made me a blue serge suit, single-breasted.
How old were you when he made it for you?
I was 14-years-old. It was a fucking beauty.
You remember it.
I remember it like yesterday. I duplicate them now. So when I went out alone somewhere you wouldn’t think that I was a poor kid or someone who didn’t have much social graces. And, you know, I’d make some nice friends if I didn’t talk too much, because you could tell by my accent, it was a New York accent. Not gangster, but …
Street kid. You ever go back to New York?
Every now and then I go back. I like the St. Regis hotel. I like it because when I was a kid I used to shine shoes outside of the St. Regis on the elevator that takes goods down from the street. My father made me. And I would sit there with a ball and shine shoes. And as soon as things started going good for me, then I’d go back to New York and I’d stay at the St. Regis for no other reason than as I got out of the limousine I’d see me sitting there on the outside. And I loved just sitting there with a shoeshine box.
Do you think objects have power?
Oh, very much so. A thimble would certainly be up high on a list like that…it’s such a perfect symbol, isn’t it? Man, I remember my father using that fucker. It used to sit by his side as he sewed. And he was quick, but was only as quick as the thimble that he used. I’m so glad we’re talking like this, you know, you’re cleansing me of a lot of memories that have been awkward for me and clumsy. And I’m angry with a lot of it. I’m angry with my profession and never allowing me that privilege. They allowed Billy Wilder the privilege.
The privilege of what?
Exploring that creative part of me.
How do you mean?
In making a movie. I spend my life dedicated to it, and these motherfuckers won’t even call me.
So they don’t want you for a movie now?
No, no they don’t. You know, I don’t wish anything bad to anybody, I’m just saying, why is the system so vicious toward age…I’m not sure if it’s even age, maybe it’s the way it’s run.
You once said you never wanted to age or—
I don’t want to get old on screen. I’m not looking to play old men on the screen. Age is something that overwhelms you.
Tell me about a favorite scene you’ve done.
The best direction I ever got was a guy named Michael Gordon. He was directing a picture called The Lady Gambles with Barbara Stanwyck. I went to Warner’s and they gave me a bellhop’s uniform with the little round hat. And I went back to the set and they gave me an envelope. And the line is…”It looks like this followed you halfway across the country.” So, I practiced. “It looks like this followed you halfway across the country, It looked like it has followed you halfway across …” I tried every possible way to say it. I was supposed to knock on Barabara Stanwyck’s door. She says “Come in,” and I say “Looks like this has followed you halfway across the country.” She’d give me a tip or whatever and then I’d leave.
So we’re getting ready to do the shot and I’m in my corner backstage and the director comes walking all the way around, from the front of the set behind to where I’m standing. He knew it was the first time I was going to be in a movie and he knew I came from New York. And he said to me “How are you doing this?” “Oh…” “All you want is a tip.” Turned around and walked away. What was I doing when I was shining shoes? All I wanted was a tip. What was I doing when I carried clothes for my father in the tailor store? Carried packages? Whatever I did when I was a kid, all I wanted was the tip. And this fucker comes around and says that to me like bleeding in my soul. I went around and I waited and I said, “Looks like this has followed you halfway across the country.” I gave her one of the best fucking smiles I ever had. He said, “Cut. Print.” Ain’t that neat? See, that, to me is what acting was. Personal. They had a place in Hollywood called the Actors Lab that was run by a lot of the existentialists, a lot of people who, for whatever reason, thought of themselves as intellectuals. And I could never become part of that because I never felt comfortable in that group. Marlon felt great. I couldn’t do that, I didn’t know how to perform that way. And I went there one night with this girl I liked, and she wanted to enroll in that school. So we were standing in the back, there’s about 80 young people. And some guy with a beard was talking about what was acting and what was not acting. And he said, “For example, they’ve got a kid out of Universal, Bernie Schwartz, now Tony Curtis”—I’m with this girl, what the fuck did he bring up my name for?—and he proceeded to say, “They put him in a couple of movies and that’s what you call Hollywood acting.” Broke my heart. I never went back to that place.
But you were never a joiner, right?
No, there was no group I could join. I never found myself comfortable in these areas, you know? There was always a barrier and I didn’t know how to handle this barrier. You know, my behavior sometimes was so overt in whatever I was doing that I’d let you know I was this kind of a guy out of New York. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I didn’t have the polish that a lot of guys had. And that was detrimental to me at the beginning.
You were angry about that.
I was, I really was. I’d go on the set and watch these guys fucking pouring coffee and picking up girls, lighting a cigarette. How the fuck did they do it without looking at it? When I was eating, I looked at my food. The social graces I didn’t know.
I want to talk about The Defiant Ones for a minute. I want to read you a line from that movie. It’s when you’re with the woman, Cara Williams.
Cara Williams, yes.
You’re in bed, and she’s talking to you, and you tell her, “If you fill it up with tears, you’re a goner.”
That’s almost your motto, isn’t it? That’s almost your motto for your life.
That’s always been. I use to get so emotional about things. When I wouldn’t get a part I wanted, go to a party, and they treat me like shit. And these tears would well up in me deeply, you know? But it wasn’t like it was happening to me. It was like there was another person that someone was doing it to and I was just there, observing it, observing everything, remembering everything. That’s the thing that I think meant more to me than anything. I mean, listen, I never had broigus, as we say in Yiddish. I never took the bitterness from it. When I was young there were times that I would get pissed off and angry, but I knew I was going to get in the movies. I just knew it. I looked in the mirror, and I said, “How could they miss me?” [Laughs] And they didn’t.