Janet Leigh had what seemed a very charmed career. With zero acting experience, she had been discovered by actress Norma Shearer, who showed agent Lew Wasserman a picture of a young girl she had seen while vacationing at a ski resort. Wasserman obtained for Leigh a contract at MGM. She debuted in the film The Romance of Rosy Ridge, which was a big hit. Her career stumbled a bit when a couple of film projects she was involved in were shelved, but soon got back on track with a role in the 1949 version of Little Women. She went on to an incredibly varied career, playing roles in an array of genres and for some of the most famous directors of the time, including Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.
Tony Curtis had a rougher road to both adulthood and stardom. Orphaned at a young age and on the road to a possible career in crime, a kind neighbor sent him to Boy Scout camp, which Curtis felt was key to straightening him out. After being discharged from the Navy, he began studying acting.
He was also discovered, by talent agent Joyce Selznick, the niece of producer David O. Selznick. He eventually signed with Universal. Incredibly handsome but lumbered with a thick Bronx accent he never completely conquered, he initially appeared in small roles in mostly forgettable movies. The studio began grooming him as a teen idol star. Curtis recounted in his autobiography that young women would go wild when he made promotional appearances.
Leigh was already a star and twice-divorced when she met Curtis at a Hollywood party. Both describe their first encounter in their autobiographies as love—or, at least, powerful attraction—at first sight.
They married in June, 1951 (actor and comedian Jerry Lewis was their best man), and were quickly hailed as Hollywood’s Golden Couple. They made several films together: Houdini (1953), The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), The Vikings (1958), The Perfect Furlough (1958), Who Was that Lady? (1960).
In 1956 Leigh gave birth to their first child, Kelly. The following year, Curtis finally broke through as an actor as Sidney Falco in The Sweet Smell of Success. Bigger and better roles followed for him, in both comedies and dramas, including The Defiant Ones (1958—for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor), Some Like It Hot (1959), and Spartacus (1960).
The mother of two children (daughter Jamie Lee was born in 1958) Leigh was also in high demand for movie roles and very devoted to both her children and her career. This soon caused friction in the marriage. Curtis also recounts that he felt somewhat inferior to Leigh, as she came from a more stable background than he did and was better educated.
The fractured marriage limped along until 1962, when Curtis served Leigh with divorce papers on the set of The Manchurian Candidate. Leigh claims she received the papers just before she filmed her famous train scene with Frank Sinatra. Curtis was filming Taras Bulba at the time and had fallen in love with co-star Christine Kaufmann, who eventually became his second wife.
After their break-up Leigh remained classy about the relationship to the end of her life and refused to badmouth Curtis. Even when her teenaged daughter Kelly chose to go live with her father, she still tried to speak of it in positive terms. Curtis was a bit more (ahem) forthcoming about why he thought the marriage broke up, claiming Leigh was “bossy” like his mother and always correcting his behavior in public.
Both their daughters became actresses, with Jamie Lee having the more successful career. Building on her early fame as a “scream queen” (star of low budget horror movies) she made a name for herself as a comic actress in movies such as Trading Places and A Fish Called Wanda.
Leigh continued working as an actress until late in life. Besides acting, Curtis wrote novels and was a talented artist. One of his paintings was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.
I’ve always thought it was a shame that their onscreen pairing only produced one memorable film—their first, Houdini. (Though I do admit to a certain fondness for The Vikings, which was reviled as cheesy and over-the-top by some critics.) In Houdini, Curtis got to play a character not that far from himself: a son of Jewish immigrants who became a famed entertainer. Leigh was a bit miscast as Houdini’s wife, but their chemistry enhances the film a great deal, in my opinion. Both made several amazing films apart from each other while they were still married. If only Hollywood had found better projects for their Golden Couple.