Tony Curtis, the man who could pass for a gladiator in "Spartacus," who wooed Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot," who flew through the air with the greatest of ease in "Trapeze," is bald and wearing pajama bottoms. He rises gallantly from his wheelchair to greet guests, then immediately plops back down.
He still possesses that captivating gravelly tone, but he tends to ramble, and not with the poetic touch of Sidney Falco in "The Sweet Smell of Success." What makes his appearance all the more dramatic is the fact that the actor, 83, has rarely been seen on film over the past 25 years.
In truth, his reign in Hollywood was short-lived, essentially starting with 1953's "Houdini" and pretty much ending with 1968's "The Boston Strangler," but those 15 years were among the most productive of any actor's career, enough for TCM to warrant a daylong tribute to him beginning Wednesday.
We talked to Curtis in a Beverly Hills hotel suite last month.
Q Do you watch much TCM?
A I do. I like all those films that they put away and then haul out from a different time. I love the black-and-white murder mysteries. Boy, are they good. The women were so breathtaking, I mean, beautiful.
Q You probably dated most of them.
A Well, I did.
Q Could the films you made be done today?
A I did a movie called "The Boston Strangler." Brian DePalma is going to do a remake. What's he going to do? He's probably going to show the strangling. He's going to show these women being torn apart. He's going to show that in his own poetic way.
Q There is something to be said for subtlety. Look at "Some Like It Hot."
A Absolutely. That picture is so delicate. Being with Marilyn [Monroe] was a great experience.
Q Not everybody says that about her.
A I knew her 10 years earlier. I understood the woman, although you can't understand any women, particularly with the changes they go through.
Q Listen, I know less about women than anyone in the world.
A Well, join the club. But the knowledge I got from hanging out with her was more than enough. Yeah, she was tough. She had a lot of personal problems.
Q If young people in their 20s were to watch only one of your films, which one would you want it to be?
A "The Great Race" with Jack Lemmon. I like it because of its color and action. There are other films -- "Sweet Smell of Success," "Some Like It Hot," "Spartacus." These films all have a little germ of anxiety. "The Defiant Ones" -- how come we're not telling that story? Two men chained to one another and the fact that one of them happens to be black makes no difference on the road.
Q That's the only film that got you an Oscar nomination. How do you feel about not having more?
A Very disappointed. "Some Like It Hot," neither Jack Lemmon or I got nominated. It was unfair. If I may be so bold, that would have meant a lot to me. That's why I don't live in this community anymore. I'm in Las Vegas. I've got a very full life. I don't want to end up on the screen an old man, OK? I'm not interested.
Q Why do you think you didn't get more respect?
A I'm a Jewish boy, could that have been it? I was the best-looking guy in town, could that have been it? I married Janet Leigh, who was top of the line, the best in town. Maybe it was jealousy.
Q I wonder if it was because you made acting look so easy. By the '60s, you had Marlon Brando and the Method, which really wasn't your style.
A Yeah, long pauses. Nobody did it as good as Marlon. My style is much more easygoing, like Cary Grant. We did "Operation Petticoat" together. What a movie. What a guy he was. He was the epitome of motion-picture acting. He never turned his head a certain way, because he knew his neck would stick out, so his whole body would turn.
I'm so happy to talk to you because I can talk plainly and succinctly about what those early years were when all I wanted to be was in the movies.
Q You spend a lot of your time painting now. Your work reminds me a lot of Picasso. What does he mean to you?
A He's about the best you can get. When he was a kid, his father threw away his own brushes. He said, "Look at my boy. I can never paint again." That's what he said to his son when he was 6 or 7. That was a gift.
Q You nearly died a couple of years ago after a bout with pneumonia. How did that change the way you approach life?
A All of that is part of the experience. Everybody goes to the bathroom. There are no subtleties in life. The only subtleties I find are what you bring to life.