Tony Curtis: Our Final Interview
In one of his last interviews, the famous screen idol talks about learning to ride, rescuing horses, and his passion for painting and the desert.
Tony Curtis was a man of the West, a desert dweller who found serenity beyond Hollywood in the country outside of Las Vegas, spending his days before a canvas instead of a camera. In one of the last interviews he gave before his death in 2010, he took a break between working on his art and saving horses with wife Jill at their Shiloh Horse Rescue and Sanctuary to visit with Cowboys & Indians.
Cowboys & Indians: You started riding in the movies in the heyday of the western. I read that the studio taught you to ride horses. …
Tony Curtis: Yes, they did, in the summer of ’48. They taught me everything. The stuntman that I worked with taught me how to get on the horse and off [the] horse. The only horses I had seen before then were the ones in Central Park that people hired to drive them around in coaches.
C&I: So did you like it at first?
Curtis: I wasn’t sure of it at first. But you know, I was preparing myself for the movies way before then. When I was a kid growing up in New York City, I would jump on the back of trolley cars and taxi cabs because I figured one day they were going to ask me to jump on something — and I wasn’t talking about girls. So I started working toward my career in the movies from about 8 years old. I found things I could do physically, so when I got into the movies I realized how important it was that I tried these things because before pictures I was already an athlete.
C&I: Then the physical demands of riding a horse in the great movies of the ’40s and ’50s were of little consequence because of your physical abilities?
Curtis: I could tumble, I could jump up and down, I could leap onto moving objects — and off the
C&I: During your movie years did you ever ride horses just for fun, not for work?
Curtis: Never. I only rode horses to learn how to ride well enough to do the parts.
C&I: Were you a good rider. …
Curtis: From the beginning, that was my dilemma. I’ll tell you what they did. Once — and it was a gag but it gave me an idea — they came out with a black piece of velvet about the size of a diaper. I was sitting in the saddle. The stuntman said to me, “Tony, stand up in the stirrups.” He tied the top half of the “diaper” on my gun belt that I had bullets in, and took the bottom half and pinned it to the saddle. The camera didn’t see anything because they had blocked out all of the landscape that was under my ass where before you could have seen Mount Vesuvius between my legs. I did that for about two hours, and then I swore I’d never lift out of my saddle again — and I never did. In those early days of riding horses in the movies, I did everything but put silly glue on my ass so I wouldn’t fly out of the saddle.
C&I: You’ve spent your entire life, except for your New York years, in the West. You’re so acquainted with the Western lifestyle — everything from the food to rodeo. …
Curtis: And cowboy hats. I love Stetson hats. I finally graduated to the point in age to where I can wear a Stetson hat [Curtis wore his size 7 silver belly during a 2009 vacation in Rome, which he had vowed to see before he died].
C&I: They don’t make so many westerns today. What do you think of the ones that do get made?
Curtis: I don’t like them at all. They haven’t caught on to what a western with John Wayne was like, what a western with Audie Murphy was like, because these were really guttural films about cowboys. They were loaded with a lot of cowboys who came into pictures with a kind of sense of the West.
C&I: And back in those days there were a lot of real cowboys in the movies. …
Curtis: All of the doubles and all of the guys that were riding in these movies and who all had parts had all been cowboys. They came out of the West. They first hired you if you could ride, and then they hired you if you could read a line.
C&I: Did you have any idea that as you got older your life would become so closely involved with horses as it is today with your wife, Jill?
Curtis: Jill has been riding all her life. When we met, I looked like I was a cowboy, but I didn’t have as much background or education in it as she did. It wasn’t until I started hanging out with her and we started being together that she could see that I was, in my heart, a cowboy. I may not have sounded like one, and there may have been some subtleties that I didn’t know about, but I was a cowboy. I was a cowboy out of New York City. That’s the kind of cowboy I am today. We have this huge ranch with 160 horses. Jill goes out and collects them from all of the places that were going to put these horses away — but she won’t let them. She picks them up, brings them out to the ranch, feeds them, and before you know it, they are beginning to look good, feel better, love the idea of being saved, and love the idea that I can ride them. [Jill Curtis is a fixture at horse auctions, often outbidding “killer buyers” on contract to slaughterhouses.]
C&I: Do you ride still?
Curtis: Oh, yes, I still ride. Jillie has taught me a lot about being on the horse again, so I’ve had the best in the bunch.
C&I: Have you found riding to be therapeutic? I know you had a terrible illness with pneumonia a while back and were in a coma. A lot of people, including me, are big believers in equine therapy.
Curtis: You touched me by saying that. You don’t have to be a cowboy to ride. You’ve gotta have a soul for it. You’ve gotta feel safe on the horse, and in the beginning, no one feels safe on a horse. Those critters could faint or buckle their legs in a minute, and there you go flying. But that doesn’t happen because you and the horse become one.
C&I: Speaking of therapeutic riding, a friend of mine, former Texas poet laureate Steve Fromholz, was the victim of a stroke. He was never supposed to walk again, speak again, play guitar again, ride a horse again, but he’s come back and is doing concerts now. He wrote a song called “Every Stumble Is a Step.” That is so true.
Curtis: That you should tell me that story, it touches me so much. Think of a guy with that kind of a background sitting on a horse and riding. I’m happy for him.
C&I: You spend a lot of time at the ranch, not far from your home outside of Las Vegas. Do you ever go to the Strip?
Curtis: Every once in a while I do, yes. I can see it from my home.
C&I: Are you a fan of barbecue and other things that are typically Western?
Curtis: I like things that are typically Western, but I was raised in New York City. I still like to spiff it up. I still like that black suit and black hat and love to go out dancing.
C&I: Aside from horse-rescue work, the ranch, painting, and spiffing up for a night of dancing, what occupies your time in your mid-80s?
Curtis: I’m writing a lot more than I did. I just finished a book called [The Making of] “Some Like It Hot”[: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie]. I started putting down these notes and before I knew it I had a book ready. I’m cleaning that up now. So look, I’m going to be a writer, a cowboy, and I’m going to be a gynecologist.
C&I: Some Like It Hot is one of my favorite films, and it’s AFI’s Number 14 film of all time. Is it one of your favorites?
Curtis: I love it, yeah — it’s a great movie. And I did another movie called The Great Race. I did Spartacus, Houdini, The Boston Strangler, and I’ve had some movies that I feel were unusual and different.
C&I: You’ve also expressed yourself — to critical acclaim — in painting. …
Curtis: My paintings are somewhat surrealistic. For me, color is the key to it all. And now I’m taking a lot of photographs that I had in the past and turning them into giclées. I’m taking them out of the environment that they were in and making them into a very modern look.
C&I: In your paintings you don’t use vivid colors. You use soft, quiet, colors. The mountains and the desert are pastels. …
Curtis: I just like to use colors any way I want. It depends a lot on how I’m feeling and what I want to do.
C&I: Many of your paintings are evocative of Palm Springs, California. …
Curtis: I love Palm Springs. I love the desert a lot. I live here in Vegas. It’s the nicest and most appealing place I could live. I’ve got the Strip not far from me, and if I want that kind of up-to-date living, it’s there.