I sent an autograph request to Tony Curtis a few years ago. Clearly, through the advice of an agent or through the mind of an aging celebrity, Curtis would, like any other actor his age, ask for a few shillings in exchange for his John Hancock – or simply not respond at all. But as it would happen, about two months later, I received a peculiar envelope in the mail. It was discolored and weathered, almost like the letter that Michael J. Fox receives in “Back to the Future” from Christopher Lloyd. I tear into the piece of mail, and there, sliding out of the envelope, is a picture of Tony, out of focus, standing next to his sculptures. An autograph, quickly scribbled as if his hand was on celebrity auto-pilot, marked up the bottom of the photograph. I clearly remember laughing to myself over the picture selection. It is classical Tony Curtis to send a modern photo of himself, perched against his own artwork, instead of a classic headshot of himself in “Some Like It Hot”. I remember being both thankful and amused.
By the time I actually met Curtis, sometime in 2009, he was at an autograph convention in Burbank. This wasn’t the serendipitous meeting one envisions, but Tony, who was barely mobile at this point, was still so lively that his attitude transcended the walls of this musty hotel conference room. I remember going up to him, his hands speckled with time, as he began to jot down his name on his memoir. He signed my copy, “I made you!” This sort of hubris was not atypical of a man whose book was called “American Prince”. Again, for the second time in my life, Curtis amused me. I brought up his role as Sidney Falco in “The Sweet Smell of Success”, like any good fan would do, and he responded, in the obligatory way, that he “loved the film” just as much as me. It was a canned response, sure, but still endearing in a way that only he could make it. I was prepared to leave, when, to my chagrin, Paul Reubens of Peewee Herman fame elbowed me en route to shaking Curtis’ hand. This moment would seem cartoonish and improbable. A shift of the universe that knocked the planets around, not unlike a game of marbles. But we were, after all, at an autograph show in Burbank – getting your wings clipped by a joker in an off-gray suit doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Reubens, in a fit of mania, kept shaking Curtis’ hand as if he was waiting for Tony’s arm to become butter. Finally, when Reubens left, Curtis looked up to me, his face in a perplexed contortion, and asked me “who is that guy?” To which my reply was “Paul Reubens…a lesser entertainer.” My memory may be kind to me, so I’ll say Curtis laughed, but I cant be positive. I do know, however, that for the next five-minutes we both kept talking about how strange this man was. Yeah, that’s right, me and Sidney Falco making quips about someone. I imagined that we were in a jazzy club, monochrome, as we both made snappy dialogue. Then, of course, I felt someone prodding my back: “Dude, are you going yet? I want my picture signed.” I then left Curtis, who told me it was a pleasure to have met me. Clearly it was the other way around, but this is the only time I’ll say it was mutual.
To hear that Tony died shouldn’t shock me – he was eighty-five and had been in poor health for years. I loved him, of course, for his movies, but I appreciated him for talking to fans, having a good attitude, and continuously making inspired blog-posts. He would often leave updates saying how he was bettering his webpage, and what fans could expect from it – and sometimes he would just plain tell us that he was irritated with the internet. But he would always be fiery and outspoken. Always learning something new.
Waking up to a text message this morning, while I was in bed, to a line that said: “Tony Curtis died” wasn’t the most pleasant news. I remember rubbing my eyes in bed, shifting my pupils up, then looking at that damned blurry picture that he sent me years earlier next to his weird sculptures. I smiled, like the first time I did when I saw the picture, then remembered why I loved him so much.