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Tony Curtis: The Artist

Getty Images / Archive Photos / Harry Langdon

Tony Curtis: The Artist

On screen, actor Tony Curtis was at his peak during the 1950s and '60s, showcasing his dark good looks in Sweet Smell of Success, his dramatic chops in The Defiant Ones and his perfect comic timing in Some Like It Hot. Off screen, the actor – who died four years ago this week at 85 – made headlines with his many romantic entanglements.

Then, in the 1980s, Curtis revealed another side of himself: He was an artist, and had been saving his work since childhood. His collection included paintings done in oils, acrylics or watercolors, mixed-media works and an illustrated journal. In 2005, his painting Red Table joined the permanent collection of the film and media wing of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In 1987, Curtis told United Press International that he found painting more fulfilling creatively than acting, saying he would rather "be known as an artist who acts than an actor who paints."

Goldenstein Gallery in Sedona, Arizona, represented Curtis and his art during his lifetime and today. Linda Goldenstein spoke to Legacy.com about the artist and his work.

When did Curtis begin dabbling in art, and how did those early days influence him later in life?

"Tony grew up in the Bronx. His father was a tailor, and he would give Tony the chalk he used to mark clothing and say, 'Go outside and entertain yourself.' So Tony would draw on sidewalks, in the blocks. He was self-taught, and he learned perspective that way." Later, "he really liked to paint rooms and vignettes in rooms because they'd have the same corners and squares as sidewalk slabs."

Describe his style. Some have compared it to Van Gogh or Matisse.

"He was strongly influenced by the modern art era. He loved color. … He did a large group of oil paintings, and within that he had a feeling of really playing with the art, if you will. He was enjoying the medium he was working with. Every brushstroke and every bit of paint he put on there was an experience for him."

At the height of his movie career, Curtis was still taking time to paint.

"The largest body of his work was created on the sets of movies he was working on. Not only is it a great collection of paintings by Tony Curtis, but it's really a wonderful record reflecting his feelings of the movies he was in. Tony had a stellar work ethic. … He was often early to the set and he was always available, unlike some of the other actors that he worked with. When there was downtime, he always had his easel and his canvas and his paints ready."

Some of those works are collages, including his own image. That drew some collectors. Others were more concerned with the images than the artist's name.

"We had people who collected pieces of him because they wanted a piece of the icon in that way. He was a handsome guy, and they wanted a picture of him. And then there were the others who really appreciate his style."

The Curtis originals currently available through Goldenstein's gallery range in price from $5,500 (Solitude, oil on canvas, 13 by 17 inches) to $33,500 (Lavender Bouquet Original, oil on canvas, 36 by 48 inches). At one time, Curtis used his art to raise money for Nevada's Shiloh Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, which he founded with his wife, Jill. The project was called "Cats Helping Horses."

"Tony had a series of paintings of cats. He loved their lines and the different positions they'd be in. He took some of the original and reproduced them on smaller prints that had the look and quality like an original, and then he did hand embellishment with paint on the top. We sold many, many, many cats, and the sale of every piece benefited Shiloh. I think people loved that they could collect these affordable pieces by Tony Curtis. They cost about $300 and helped a good cause."

Curtis loved talking about art with the general public and fellow artists, and he gave multiple talks at Goldenstein Gallery. The crowds would pile in, and Curtis would stay until the last person waiting in line had had a chance to speak to him.

"It was magical to watch him with people. Every single person that he met, you felt that you were very special and you'd met someone special and it was memorable. People will even mention that today. He listened to them, he answered their questions and was open to sharing his thoughts on life and art. After 80-plus years, he had some real wisdom to share."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."