tony curtis – painter

4 October 2010 § 3 Comments

I was greatly saddened to read of the recent death of Tony Curtis. I was privileged to spend some time with this great Hollywood actor – one of the last of a dying breed of true old-fashioned ‘film stars’. It is to the Academy’s shame that he was never awarded an Oscar before his death – let us hope that they – albeit too late – right that wrong as soon as possible with a postumous award at the very next awards ceremony.

Some people will know that he was not only a great actor but also talented painter. However there are probably a few more things that you almost certainly will not know. Firstly, he drew or painted virtually every single day up to his death – a habit that he began before he became an actor. Secondly, he was a prolific creator of boxes, something that he claimed (probably wrongly) to have started before the renowned box-maker Joseph Cornell. Thirdly, he considered himself more of an artist than an actor. Finally, the proudest moment of his life was not to do with acting – it was when MoMA bought and displayed one of his works in New York.

I had the great fortune to be able to spend a day with him at his home and studio in Las Vegas a few years ago, in June 2006, just before the bout of pneumonia which put him in a coma and eventually led to his death. The story of this meeting began as I strolled though Carmel California, home to Clint Eastwood as well as dozens of ‘art’ galleries. Amongst a slew of Indians on horseback, aspens in the snow and wolves howling at the moon we noticed a private view of Tony’s paintings. Inquisitive, and expecting yet more dross, we wandered in to discover a selection of quite charming and attractive work.

With more than a nod to Matisse (but how many artists are guilty of that ‘failing’?) his attractive works show flattened planes, bright colour fields and delightfully free brushwork. Most usually they are still lifes, occasionally featuring one of his seven cats (more out of necessity than design) and often set on a green/blue cabriole-legged table that he was given by Marlene Dietrich(!). His occasional landscapes are less successful but despite some naivety he is certainly a more than competent artist whose work is not merely part-time daubing but something that deserves to have some, modest, recognition.

We actually purchased one of the works, for its undeniable decorative value, and were told that we could meet Tony at a reception the next day. Our schedule did not allow this and we reluctantly headed homeward. About a week later we received an unsolicited contact from his representative advising that we would be welcome to visit him ‘any time’ at his Vegas home. The next summer we found ourselves being welcomed in to the home and studio where he enjoyed wonderful panoramic views over the city. We discovered a charming, polite and humble man who loved to talk – and not just about himself – as well as listen. He showed us around his studio and talked so passionately about his art that when he eventually mentioned Hollywood I dead-panned that I did not realise he was also an actor. He laughed loudly and continued showing us gems like his sketch book from Some Like it Hot where he doodled in the (frequent) breaks from filming.

He spoke eloquently and freely about everything and everybody often clasping your hands as he made a heartfelt point. He elucidated all the problems of filming with Marilyn, his relationship with her, his love of big breasts (!), how proud he was when MoMA accepted his work and much, much more. He spoke most emotionally when, referring implicitly to the lack of an Oscar award, he said that he felt that he was not truly appreciated by his peers. I found myself – shrink-like – reassuring him that this surely could not be true and that verysoon they would appreciate all his marvellous work.

Later we continued on to to celebrate both his (3 June) and my wife’s birthday at the Picasso restaurant at Steve Wynn’s Bellagio Casino. Surrounded by $100 million of original Picassos he held court at the small cocktail bar at the entrance patiently signing menus and having photos taken with all and sundry. He loved the attention and he shared his joy and enthusiasm for life with all who approached. We continued to the table where he generously bought us a dinner that we enjoyed as the anecdotes continued unabated. As the meal drew to  close two candle-studded desserts apeared for the birthday boy and girl and everyone joined in for a chorus of  ‘Happy Birthday’ for the joint celebration.

It was an unforgettable day and we felt greatly priviliged to have been able to briefly enjoy his company. As an actor his talent is recognised – by most – and I hope too that, over time, his art will be appreciated as much as his acting. He will be greatly missed. 

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§ 3 Responses to tony curtis – painter

  • Frederick Keeve says:

    Lovely memories, Martin. Tony was surely a consummate actor (Trapeze, The Defiant Ones and Boston Strangler are faves), and a super talented artist/painter. I’m sure his family would appreciate your kind, thoughtful and deeply felt comments about a man whose life was well-lived and Oscar-worthy!!!


  • agrant10 says:

    Thank you so much for leaving such a lovely comment on my board regarding this man.

    I have via the net been introduced to people who said they had the opportunity of meeting and speaking with him. He seemed to have been a fine person and very approachable.

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