Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh with their daughters Kelly, 2, and newborn Jamie Lee in Hollywood on Jan. 16, 1959. Curtis died Wednesday of cardiac arrest at his Las Vegas-area home. ((Associated Press))

Tony Curtis, perhaps best known for roles in classic Hollywood fare like Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot and Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, has died at age 85.

The Hollywood star-turned-painter died of cardiac arrest at his Las Vegas-area home Wednesday, at 9:25 p.m. local time, according to Mike Murphy, coroner of Clark County, Nev.

Curtis, who was hospitalized this summer after suffering breathing problems during an exhibition of his artwork in Henderson, Nev., battled a near-fatal bout of pneumonia in late 2006. He also underwent heart bypass surgery in 1994.

"My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies, and in his paintings and assemblages," Jamie Lee Curtis said in a statement Thursday.

"He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him, and a wife and in-laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world."


Tony Curtis, left, and Jack Lemmon portray crime witnesses on the run from the mob in Billy Wilder's cross-dressing farce Some Like It Hot. ((MGM Studios/Getty Images))

The Bronx-born actor, son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, became enamoured with performance and film as a child. After a stint in the navy during the Second World War, he returned to New York to study acting and began working in local theatre.

When he eventually signed with Hollywood studio Universal at age 23, Curtis was forced to adopt a new name because the studio felt his real one — Bernard Schwartz — was too Jewish.

Though his early roles were largely lighthearted gigs that highlighted his heartthrob good looks, Curtis graduated to more substantial fare in the late 1950s and early '60s.

He began receiving acclaim with his turn as a scheming press agent in 1957's Sweet Smell of Success. He followed it with films such as the prison escape drama The Defiant Ones (with his role as a racist convict, opposite Sidney Poitier, leading to the only Oscar nomination of Curtis's career), the ancient Roman historical drama Spartacus, the wartime medical drama Captain Newman, M.D. and Wilder's acclaimed cross-dressing farce Some Like It Hot.

'I'm not ready to settle down like an elderly Jewish gentleman, sitting on a bench and leaning on a cane...I've got a helluva lot of living to do.'

—Tony Curtis, at age 60

In 2000, the American Film Institute named Some Like It Hot, which co-starred Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, its No.1 American comedy of all time.

Though Curtis initially bristled over co-star Monroe's tardiness and other unprofessionalism on the set of the comedy (including famously telling a reporter that their romantic scenes were "like kissing Hitler"), in his later years he softened his stance and praised her talent.

Other credits include the films The Outsider, Taras Bulba, Sex and the Single Girl and The Boston Strangler, and TV roles in The Persuaders, McCoy and The Flintstones (as Stony Curtis). He also occasionally joined touring stage productions of Some Like It Hot in later years.

Waning career led to addiction

Curtis would eventually appear in more than 140 films, though his waning career in the late 1960s and '70s sparked a drug and alcohol addiction.

"From 22 to about 37, I was lucky," Curtis told Interview magazine in the 1980s.


Tony Curtis waves to photographers during an appearance at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood in April. ((Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images))

"By the middle '60s, I wasn't getting the kind of parts I wanted, and it kind of soured me…. But I had to go through the drug inundation before I was able to come to grips with it and realize that it had nothing to do with me, that people weren't picking on me."

He later overcame his addiction in the early '80s, which allowed him to return to film and TV roles as a character actor. The brash performer also took up painting and found success, with his colourful surrealist canvasses sold for as much as $20,000 US.

"I'm not ready to settle down like an elderly Jewish gentleman, sitting on a bench and leaning on a cane," Curtis said in an interview at age 60.

"I've got a helluva lot of living to do."

As a rising young star, Curtis married actress Janet Leigh in 1951. They had two daughters — Kelly and Jamie Lee — though the couple ultimately divorced in 1963.

He would marry again five more times (to Christine Kaufmann, Leslie Allen, Andria Savio, Lisa Deutsch and Jill Vandenberg) and father three more children (Alexandra, Allegra and Nicholas, who died of a drug overdose in 1994).

Curtis published several books, including his autobiography in 1993. He followed it, more recently, with 2008's American Prince: A Memoir and The Making of Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie, released in 2009. 

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With files from The Associated Press