Inside the Actor’s Studio, Vegas-style
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Tony Curtis moved to Las Vegas about a decade ago, settling in Henderson with his new bride, Jill van den Berg. Around the same time, a journalist from Colorado also arrived. Norm Clarke was the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s new man-about-town, and his familiar visage took up residence at the top of page three. As it happened, I turned up in Las Vegas then, too. I immediately began relying on Norm Clarke for the latest celebrity news, which meant I learned fairly quickly that Tony Curtis had decided to light up the desert with his Hollywood incandescence.
Las Vegas loves its resident royalty, and Tony Curtis instantly became a hometown hero. This happened only in part because of Curtis’s acting career and his warm response whenever someone recognized his iconic face. Thanks to his generosity to local charities, we also soon learned about Curtis’s avocation. An accomplished painter, Curtis’s works sell for serious money and have been displayed in such venues as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We also learned about Jill Curtis’s dedication to aging race horses. On a ranch in Sandy Valley (about an hour’s drive from Las Vegas), hundreds of horses headed for slaughterhouses are instead living out their dotage in comfort.
Last Sunday, the Clark County Library hosted an event that brought Tony Curtis and Norm Clarke together in person. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at the record-breaking crowd that turned out to pack the library’s biggest theater. Two great Vegas personalities were going to light up the stage, discuss Curtis’s colorful career, and sign books afterward. It was billed as “Inside the Actors Studio” Vegas-style.
Things got off to a bit of a late start, but a series of movie clips artfully edited by film students at UNLV kept the audience well entertained. It wasn’t as though anyone had forgotten Tony Curtis’s awesome skill as an on-screen kisser, but seeing a string of smackers, one right after the other, was a vivid reminder. Scenes with Marilyn Monroe elevated the temperature in the room, too.
At last, Norm Clarke strode onstage, followed a moment later by Tony Curtis, self-propelled in a wheelchair. He was still rolling himself into position when the entire audience rose to its feet. Las Vegas royalty had appeared. Nothing less than a standing ovation would do.
After demonstrating to the audience that the wheelchair was merely a convenience, Curtis settled into reminiscing about his life, beginning with his first airplane flight to Los Angeles from New York. It had to be a good omen for his career that he met Jack Warner (of Warner Brothers) on the flight, even though he was headed for an interview at Universal. Curtis regaled the audience with stories from his first film appearance (as a corpse!) through his Hollywood career to his arrival in Las Vegas.
At the end of the interview, Clarke posed questions that had been submitted earlier by email. “Of all the stars you’ve worked with, who’s the best kisser?” was one query, and Curtis’s answer was an immediate, “Me!”
When asked why he moved to Las Vegas, Curtis said that Hollywood had grown too intrusive for him to lead a pleasant life. “It’s too jealous,” he said, “but Vegas is open and different.” He paused, then added, “And I love the clouds. They’re beautiful here, and the sky is so blue.”
At that, the audience broke into applause. Once again, the celebrity who had adopted Vegas as his hometown had touched the locals’ hearts. He appreciated the simplest natural beauty of the place, something that’s well appreciated by residents but easily overlooked by visitors blinded by glitter and bling.
The first time Clarke mentioned Tony Curtis in his column was when he learned that Curtis had overheard a 95-year-old woman say, “That’s Tony Curtis!” when he was walking into a casino on the Strip. Curtis’s response was to turn, smile, and give her a kiss. “That’s the Tony Curtis I know,” Norm said. “He stops for everyone.”
On Sunday, Tony Curtis, who is 84 and still recovering from a devastating illness that struck him a few years ago, lived up to Norm’s description. For three hours after the formal event, he greeted fans and signed books. I’m now the owner of an autographed copy of “American Prince.” Not only did Curtis take the time to learn my name and inscribe it on the title page, he drew me a little picture of a cat. “Always ready,” he added, “Tony Curtis.”
I’m not exactly sure what the “Always ready” means, but I’m going to construe it in light of Clarke’s anecdote about the 95-year-old lady. From the movie clips and his stories about Marilyn Monroe to his obvious devotion to his wife Jill, I think it’s fair to guess that Tony Curtis is always ready for a kiss.