Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bernie, we'll miss you

Following the death last week of crooner Eddie Fisher and longtime Hollywood actress Gloria Stuart ("Titanic"), came the tragic announcement yesterday of the passing of comic Greg Girardo of TV's "Last Comic Standing." Fisher, the popular Jewish singer with standard hits like "Oh, My Papa" died from complications from hip surgery. He was the former husband of Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds and the father of actress Carrie Fisher, who herself became an icon for the 70's and 80's generations because of her role as Princess Leia in the "Star Wars" trilogy. Stuart was 100 at the time of her death and so her passing was not entirely unanticipated, but she had been a major mover and shaker in the acting community since the Silent Era. Girardo, 44, whose appearances at numerous Comedy Central roasts were often laced with obscenities, was not considered a top-tier comedian. Indeed, he struggled for much of his career to make a bigger name for himself, but no one could have expected that the unshaven comic would accidentally take his own life. He was rushed to the hospital on Sunday, but died Wednesday, despite the efforts of doctors there to revive and stabilize him. Early this morning it was revealed that the so-called "Prince of Hollywood," Tony Curtis had expired from cardiac arrest. He was 85. Born to Hungarian Jewish immigrants as Bernard (or as he liked to refer to himself) "Bernie" Schwartz, the future Hollywood heartthrob had a very hard upbringing in the Bronx, suffering beatings by his father and dealing with the rantings of his schizophrenic mother. At one point he and his younger brother Julius were institutionalized when his parents could not take care of them any longer. Although he was reunited with his parents after a month, the teenager was further traumatized four years later when Julius was killed as a 12-year-old after being struck by a car. In "American Prince: A Memoir" he noted how he endured countless incidents of anti-Semetism throughout his time on the mean streets of New York. The handsome and charming young man spent his time as a seaman in the Navy during World War II and used money from the G. I. Bill to finance his study of acting prior to his moving to Hollywood. His early screen roles were not memorable and, as was the norm during the studio era, he was encouraged to change his name. He picked Tony Curtis, taking on the first name from his favorite novel "Anthony Adverse" and his new surname from the Anglicized name of his favorite uncle named Kurtz. Among the roles for which Curtis garnered fame were those opposite Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot," Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus," Burt Lancaster in "The Sweet Smell of Success" and his future wife, Janet Leigh, in "Houdini." His work with Sidney Portier in "The Defiant Ones," in which the two played escaped convicts handcuffed together, won him his only Academy Award nomination. Curtis, whose well-publicized marriage to Leigh was not long lived (nine years), was known about Hollywood as a major womanizer with reported trysts with Monroe and Natalie Wood among dozens of starlets. He married five other times. He was also the poster boy for drug abuse, having admitted to dosing himself on everything from booze to marijuana to cocaine and heroin. He checked himself into rehab on several occasions, but admitted that it was always a struggle for him. Ironically, his 23-year-old son Nicholas from his longest marriage to his third wife (Leslie Allen), died in 1992 from a heroin overdose. Although he did appear in several movie roles in his later years, Curtis turned his professional efforts towards painting, commanding $25,000 per canvas for his post-Impressionist works. A little-known passion for Curtis was his work with the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture he founded in 1998 in the memory of his father. Serving as the honorary chairman, Curtis funneled funds into Hungary intended to restore synagogues and Jewish cemeteries there. He dedicated his efforts to the 600,000 Hungarian victims of the Holocaust and even worked as a spokesman for Hungarian tourism. Following a bout of pneumonia in 2006 from which he barely survived, the actor was confined to a wheelchair, but made steady progress and was able to promote his latest book, "The Making of 'Some Like It Hot': My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie," released a year ago. Curtis was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder during the summer. He is survived by his widow Jill Vandenburg Curtis and four children.

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