Tony Curtis

Hollywood legend's still got it...and he's not afraid to talk about it either

Hollywood legend Tony Curtis – 84 next month, half-deaf and completely bald – is pushed onto the Ulster Hall stage in a wheelchair. The veteran actor can now only walk short distances after a fight against pneumonia in 2006, but he pulls himself to his feet for the Belfast crowd. Tipping his Stetson to a standing ovation, Curtis is coaxed into his seat by interviewer Mary-Louise Muir.

Despite Muir’s attempts to steer the conversation, tonight’s event – which, along with a talk by The Wire creator David Simon, is one of the headline attractions of Belfast’s inaugural Guardian Hay Festival – is basically two hours of Curtis holding court about the women he has bedded and the men he has fought.

Names like Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and Cary Grant are thrown about. ‘I loved women so much I got married eight or nine times,’ Curtis remarks, before reeling off a list of glamorous leading ladies. Then he turns his attention to the men in his life. ‘Making a movie is fake,’ he says. ‘Getting punched by Kirk Douglas is not.’

The talk – ostensibly to promote Curtis’s new autobiography, American Prince – is peppered with the same bawdy language that landed the star in trouble during a recent live interview on BBC Radio Ulster. It seems you can take the boy out of the Bronx but not the Bronx out of the boy.

‘There was a snake down my throat this long,’ he blurts at one point, recalling the famous kissing scene with Monroe in Some Like It Hot. ‘I had an erection and she knew it.’

Born in 1925 to Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Curtis casts his mind back to the days when he was still known as Bernie Schwartz. Musing on his tough upbringing, he speaks frankly about his ‘monstrous’ mother, being asked to identify his younger brother’s body after a traffic accident and learning his craft in New York theatre.

Following a stint in the US Navy during World War II and a name change to ‘something less Jewish’, he broke into Hollywood in 1948 with a seven-year contract at Universal Pictures. He smiles at the memory: ‘My sweet friends, I was in the movies.’

From 1949’s Criss Cross to 1968’s The Boston Strangler – his favourite of his own performances – Belfast is taken on a personal journey through all Curtis’s greatest works. (Well, almost all – there’s no mention of Lobster Man from Mars or Tarzan in Manhattan.)

One lengthy anecdote concerns Walter Matthau – an early drama school accomplice – and Curtis’s salty putdown upon beating him to Hollywood. The punchline draws gasps, but is very funny in context. (Read American Prince for the unexpurgated version.)

Also in Curtis’s acting class were Bea Arthur, Brando and… ‘Who was that nasty guy?’ He might be thinking of Rod Steiger, but one thing’s for sure – Curtis is the last of a dying breed.

‘You’re a lucky man,’ shouts someone in the audience. ‘I am,’ replies Curtis, with perfect comic timing. He’s still got it.

Andrew Johnston

American Prince: My Autobiography by Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock is out now, published by Virgin Books.