Now playing the role of rich, randy Osgood Fielding III in a tour of Some Like It Hot, Tony Curtis has joined what has got to be one of the most exclusive clubs in the world: Actors Who Starred in Classic Non-Musical Films and Then Graduated to Other Roles in Stage Musical Adaptations of Those Films. The only other example I can think of off the top of my head is Anne Baxter, who played Eve Harrington in All About Eve and then replaced Lauren Bacall as Margo Channing in Applause on Broadway.
Curtis, of course, played Joe/Josephine in the 1959 Billy Wilder movie Some Like It Hot, regarded by many as the greatest film comedy ever made. Now, on stages around the country, the once-and-present matinee idol is essaying the role that was so memorably created by Joe E. Brown on screen. (One wonders if anyone thought of offering Curtis a part in Sweet Smell of Success, last season's Broadway tuner based on another '50s black-and-white classic in which he co-starred.)
With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, and a book by Peter Stone, the stage musical Some Like it Hot is a re-jiggered version of Sugar, a show that was a semi-hit on Broadway in 1972. In a recent telephone conversation, I spoke with Curtis about what it's like to tour the U.S. in a production that must bring back lots of memories for him. Short answer: He's having the time of his life.
THEATERMANIA: It's wonderful to speak with you. I was watching Some Like It Hot on DVD the other night, and the Cary Grant impression you do in the movie when Joe's trying to impress Sugar is so much fun. Were you already famous for "doing" Grant before you started filming?
TONY CURTIS: Well, I was known for doing Cary, Jimmy Cagney, Burt Lancaster. We all did little imitations of each other; we were all caricatures anyway! I'd run around doing Burt [lapses into Lancaster voice:] "Hello, Tony! Ha-ha-ha. My boy Tony!" [back to his own voice:] I did Cary for Billy Wilder and he said, "Do it!" When the picture was done, Billy showed it to Cary, and Cary said [in a perfect Grant voice:] "I don't talk like that!" You know, Cary and Billy never made a movie together, so I felt like a marriage arranger: I put them together, in a way.
TM: They would have been a good team, wouldn't they?
TONY: They certainly would have.
TM: Billy Wilder just recently left us. I guess all the major players from the movie are gone now.
TONY: Yes. A couple of girls in the chorus are still around, but everybody else is gone. It's sad for me. These people were my friends, my buddies. We were an elite group -- we hung out together, we partied together. Anybody who made it became part of the acting family out there. Those guys were so good to me and I loved them all. The only one who's still around is Kirk [Douglas]. You know, I've got a telephone book at home that's about 30 years old; there isn't anybody in the book that's alive with the exception of yours truly. I wonder what kind of joke that's supposed to be. How come I've got a telephone book full of people who don't exist?
TM: It must have been amazing to have legends like that as your friends and co-workers.
TONY: It was. In the movie [Some Like It Hot], we had Marilyn and Jack and Joe E. Brown and me, and a little bit of Sinatra hanging around. These are my ghosts. When I go to work this afternoon, I'll get into a -- I won't say a trance, but I'll start getting into that environment. The next thing I know, I'll be on stage with some people and they'll say things to me that were lines in the movie. It's déjà vu, in a way.
TM: When was the last time you actually saw the film, either in whole or in part?
TONY: I watch little pieces of it here and there, about once a month.
TM: Are you able to enjoy it purely as a film, as anyone else would?
TONY: Oh, absolutely. There are some places where I see little things that could have been better -- but, also, some things that turned out better than planned. Kissing Marilyn -- that was a fabulous experience, though people try to turn it into a miserable one. She was having a lot of trouble in those days, a difficult time coming to work. The studio put her on suspension -- they kicked her off the movie, then they put her back on. The press started doing stories about her and everybody became subject to it. I'm the one who supposedly hated kissing Marilyn Monroe. How could you do that?
TM: You didn't actually say that kissing her was like kissing Hitler?
TONY: Never said it. Never said it! In fact, we were lovers, that woman and I, 10 years earlier. Well, a lot can happen in 10 years. And a lot of bad things can go on in a movie -- even a movie that's voted the funniest of all time. It had its dark moments.
TM: Did you see Sugar when it was on Broadway?
TONY: No, I never went near it because I didn't think I was going to like it. They took the role of the girl and embellished it. It's not the story of Sugar, it's the story of two guys dressing up as girls to escape getting murdered.
TM: You're doing a revised version of the show, aren't you?
TONY: It's revised in the sense that there's more of a connection with Osgood, but it's still the story of two guys having to dress up like girls. Sugar is a secondary role, and so is Osgood. They tried to do something different with Sugar, but it wasn't until it became Some Like It Hot that they made certain changes that give it more of the sense of the original film.
TM: Did you know Jule Styne?
TONY: Yes, I did. We were friends. I knew him in California, hung out a lot with him. Interesting man. That's another joy for me in doing this show. It's not just a theatrical experience I'm having, it's an emotional one.
TM: Do you think that Arthur Hanket, who plays Joe -- your part in the movie -- has been intimidated by your presence?
TONY: Not at all. He's a charming guy and he knows exactly how he wants to play it. He doesn't do the Cary Grant voice; he does John F. Kennedy or some voice that I don't recognize. These two guys are excellent in the parts. [Ed. Note: Timothy Gulan plays Jerry/Daphne, the Jack Lemmon role in the film.]
TM: Did Hanket ask you about your experience in playing Joe?
TONY: My friend, that was 40-some odd years ago. That's like trying to talk about Julius Caesar -- "What was he like?" It doesn't exist anymore.
TM: Do you use a character voice for Osgood, or is it pretty much your own?
TONY: I use the most articulate language you've ever heard. I've made him an intellectual -- an intellectual with a hard-on. That's a pretty good combination, isn't it? There isn't a girl onstage who is immune to me. It's nice.
TM: Does the musical end with the famous last line of the film?
TONY: Yes -- and that's why I did it, if you want to know the truth. Jerry says, "We can never have children." I say, "We'll adopt them." Then he pulls his wig off and says, "You don't understand, I'm a man." I take about a beat and a half, look at him, look at the audience, and say: "Well, nobody's perfect." The fucking place rocks! You're gonna love it. Everybody knows the line, they know it's coming. It's just such a funny punch line, you know?
TM: Maybe it's even funnier because they know it's coming.
TONY: Exactly! When that line hits, man, it's like thunder.
TM: You made it big in Hollywood at such a young age. Have you done any stage at all?
TONY: There were one or two plays I did. While I was in films, I did a comedy called The Turtlenecks, which was a disaster. Then I did I Ought To Be in Pictures in Los Angeles with Neil Simon and Herbert Ross, which was also a disaster for me. They wanted me to go to New York [with the show] and I just didn't want to. The play didn't run very long, and then they made it into a movie with Walter Matthau that's only marginal; I'm not saying that out of spite, I'm just saying what happened. This project [Some Like It Hot] was a tough one, too, because the people that originally put it together turned out to be not what I expected. The rehearsal time and all of the other details they told me about didn't show up, so the first four months of the tour were very difficult for me; I didn't have enough rehearsal. It's only in the last couple of months that I'm feeling comfortable in the part and I'm able to bring what I want to it.
TM: What has it been like to meet your fans all over the country?
TONY: It's unique. When I was 25, all of my fans were in their teens. Now here I am, and the kids that loved me are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. These women come up to me with their wrinkled faces and their bleached hair -- and when they see me and smile at me, all of the wrinkles disappear. They're little girls again.
TM: If I'm correct, Billy Wilder died right around the time when you were starting this project. He didn't get to see you in the show, did he?
TONY: No, he didn't, but I told him all about it. I miss Billy, and my friends Jack and Marilyn and Joe E. Brown and George Raft. They're all gone...
TM: ...but young and beautiful in the movie.
TONY: Yes, yes. And wait till you see me in the show. I'm old and beautiful!
[Some Like It Hot will be playing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark from February 4 through 9. For more information on the tour, click here.]
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Curtis with Marilyn Monroe in the film Some Like It Hot
Josephine and Daphne, a.k.a. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot
Déjà-vu all over again: Tony Curtis with Arthur Hanket in Some Like It Hot (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Still a hit with the ladies: Tony Curtis as Osgood in Some Like It Hot (Photo: Carol Rosegg)