He was our Bernie, and he liked it hot

The effect Tony Curtis, aka Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx, had on young East End Jews.

By Michael Freedland, October 7, 2010
Tony Curtis with Christine Kaufmann in Wild and Wonderful

Tony Curtis with Christine Kaufmann in Wild and Wonderful

Tony Curtis was more than an idol, if Jews were allowed to have such things. He was that from his hair to his shiny pointed shoes. And then some.

Jews loved him because in an age when it was fashionable for actors to cover up their Jewish heritage along with their original names, Curtis did none of that. He helped Jewish causes, he gave money to communities wracked with problems when the red flags came down in Eastern Europe - particularly those in Hungary where his parents were born - but above all, everyone knew he was really Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx.

No, he may not have gone to shul too often. And, yes, he married out - six times. But you knew instantly that if anyone said anything antisemitic in his presence, he would have them on the floor quicker than you could say "Marilyn Monroe".

That connection with the Bronx instantly gave him a sense of identity with Jews from a similar background to his own and, in turn, Jews had a feeling of connection with him. Go back to my own youth club days and he was a hero. Jack Cohen, the by-appointment tailor to our community, cut his suits the way "Bernie" (we all called him that) wore them in his latest movie. Sid Goldberg, the barber we all went to, seemed to have a virtual template of the Tony Curtis look - the unique quiff at the front, the "DA" at the back. There was a time when no self-respecting Jewish girl would dream of going out with a boy who didn't have a "Tony Curtis".

That Bronx connection was, surprisingly, intensely strong. Young Jews over here seemed to regard him as a neighbour from their part of town who had somehow been misplaced in New York, 3,000 miles away. There was intense pride in one of their own not just being a star, but being a tough guy, too - a streetwise kid of the kind they liked to think they were, too.

There was pride in one of their own being a star and a tough guy

His accent was pure Bronx - not so different, they might have thought, from the one they knew in Jewish Whitechapel. The inflexions were similar. The facial and hand gestures were instantly recognisable. He made no attempt to "posh" up his voice. Mid Atlantic for him would have been standing on a hot day in a stream near the deli with the pickle barrels outside.

Somehow, they regarded him as more Jewish. Until a week ago, Curtis and Kirk Douglas were the only survivors of the super-star era of the 1950s. Now, Douglas - who in recent years has gone out of his way to stress the importance of Jewishness, indeed, Judaism, in his life - is the only one.

And thereby hangs a tale. Jews, we were constantly being told, controlled Hollywood. In the days of the moguls that was almost true. Yet Jewish actors - as distinct from comedians and singers - were not encouraged. "Too Jewish" was Louis B Mayer's dictum about any number of hopefuls for whom he granted the privilege of screen tests. There were exceptions, of course - Edward G Robinson, Paul Muni and Melvyn Douglas stand out. But there were few who were so clearly as Jewish and so as clearly handsome as was Curtis.

Other actors played Jewish parts. Like it or not, Tony Curtis played them as Bernie Schwartz. That was why Sidney Falco in The Sweet Smell of Success was so real. He was nasty. But take away the unpleasantness and he could have been a grafter finalising a deal from a phone box in Stamford Hill. Playing the part of Harry Houdini in the Houdini film, he spoke to his screen father, the Hungarian rabbi, as he probably would have liked to have spoken to his own dad - the tailor who was never very fatherly - and to his schizophrenic mother. In real life, until the age of five he could only speak Hungarian - with a smattering of Yiddish. But he made up for it. At his funeral, his daughter Jamie Lee Curtis: "He was a bit meshuggah". Maybe that went with the sweet smell of his success.

I interviewed him 20 years ago for my radio programme You Don't have To Be Jewish, and of course we talked about the Jewish Hollywood connection. "You know," he told me, "too many people are too scared of their own skins. Why tell everyone you're Jewish? They think they've too many problems as it is. Me, I never gave a damn. But then, there is Jewish guilt…"

What he was guilty of, he did not say. But in his memoirs and in TV interviews, he revealed one of the most profound causes of that guilt was the death of his young brother Julius - run over by a truck after Bernie refused to let him join in one of his street games. Eventually, he was also to feel guilty about so much that he threw away - the marriages and the life which was not helped by drink and drugs. "Not many Jews do that, you think?" he said to me. "You'd be surprised."

Of course, he himself frequently surprised. He became an artist who could hold his head up high at the most prestigious galleries. When he did that, he did it with all the enthusiasm he had shown wearing high heels and kissing Marilyn Monroe in that film. He did everything at a pace that scared other people. If anyone told him to cool down, take things a little easier, he would have told them, colourfully, that that was not the way he did things. Bernie Schwartz was his own man at all times.

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Last updated: 2:59pm, January 28 2011