Tony Curtis Interview
In May 1998, one of the greatest singers of the Twentieth Century, Frank Sinatra, passed away.
In tribute to Frank Sinatra, we thought it would be fitting to offer up remembrances of the singer by some of the people who either knew or worked with him.
One such person is actor Tony Curtis.
Q – When did you first meet Frank Sinatra?
A – I met Frank Sinatra when he was playing the Paramount. I don’t remember what year it was. But, that’s not the remembrance I have of Frank. It was his birthday and it was in California. They invited me to go. I was really pleased and surprised ‘cause I didn’t think he knew me, or even cared about me.
Q – Who was “they”? His family?
A – He had some family members. He had some of his children there. That’s when I met Frank Jr. I guess his daughters were there too. I don’t remember too much about it. I do remember the girl he was with. She looked like Gloria De Haven. Now, whether she was or she wasn’t I don’t know. I didn’t want to provoke anybody. I was just so surprised by her, ‘cause as a kid I really loved her a lot. I thought she was the most beautiful girl. And here we are at Frank’s house and there’s Gloria De Haven. I was thrilled by that. I’d meet people. I’d see them in the movies, whoever they were. But to be in their presence, to be inside that room where you could walk up to anybody and ask a question, that didn’t mean you were gonna get any answers, but usually people at parties like that were at their best behavior whoever was there with somebody they didn’t know. They always made an effort to get to know them. I noticed that at the party although she was with Frank, I noticed how she walked around the party. There were a lot of people there, a lot of people in the business. It was the first time I saw more contract players than I had seen before. So, obviously Frank had invited all of the young people in town. He was very generous like that. The party was held at his house. Frank’s house was on top of a hill. Way on top of a hill. I can’t remember the address, but, it was a beautiful house. Outside patio. A pool. He always had, I felt, the best of it. He always insisted on it and got it, and deserved it. He was making money for himself and whoever else he worked for. So, he could easily have a life of pleasure. I liked him for that.
Q – Were you a fan of his singing style?
A – Yes, I was. Just before I got out of the Navy, I used to hear his music and scrounge around and see if I could get any albums. Then, when I got out of the Navy that part of my life changed a lot. The Sinatra singing and the information you got from him was very, very advantageous. So, without knowing it. Without even thinking about it, I found myself very enamored of him, little did I know I would get to meet him. When I met him I realized he was very nice without everyone around him. He wasn’t so obnoxious. That was the rumor about Frank that you didn’t know what he had in mind. We went to Vegas together. Dean (Martin), a guy named Jack Entratter, who ran the entertainment section of the Sands. We would spend the weekend there. Frank was so obstreperous there, maybe not obstreperous, but, so generating. He would go into a pit and tell one of the dealers to take a little holiday. He’d pick up the cards and give the people the cards they wanted. Play Blackjack. A guy would come up with a 3 and a 5. He’d give him a Number 2, an Ace and a picture card. These people were betting two, three bucks a piece. But, then as time went on they started to take advantage of (it)? What were they taking advantage of? They were betting $2, $4 for Blackjack and if they made it 3 times, they made 6 Blackjacks. There was very little money involved. Nothing for the people who ran the club. In fact, they thought they were being taking advantage of. Frank had a way of making things easy for people. What you got to know about Frank is, Frank could be very, very antagonistic. That was his nature. Anybody that met him wanted him to be good to them. So, they wouldn’t aggravate him or make him feel less than what he was. That was the attitude of a lot of people who were dealing with him for the first time. Women would flock around him. Then the husbands or the boyfriends found that ill at ease found themselves ill at ease. I couldn’t understand it, you know? Frank wasn’t gonna take ‘em anywhere. He’d just hang-out there. He would tell me to get out of his face-----get the fuck out of here. He would whisper. He would so scare some guy who was standing next to him who thought maybe it was him he was talking to. The guy would melt away. Knowing Frank personally, he had hobbies. I would make model airplanes, the kind you make with balsa wood. I’d make it with glue and the things that would make it work. He was so pleased because he told me, ‘I was never able to get that body in the plane right’. So, he’d throw his stuff away. But, there I was making the bodies and he’d say will I add to it? Then, we’d paper it. We did the wings. We put a rubber band in it, and a propeller. We’d go out in his garage, in back, and I’d wind it up and let it go. The fucker would ram into a wall, and there it was all broken again. We did this two or three times. Sometimes we had more success than others. But, I loved him for that. It was something of him that made him want to do those things. That was the idiosyncrasy of Frank. He could get very angry of anything that was going in his career. Yet, without anger there was a calm humanness about it. He would always stick up for his buddies. He was always available. He would stick up for you even if the guy was a big guy. We were in the lobby of a hotel, Jack Entratter, me, and a member of the guy from the casino. This guy came over and said, ‘I don’t want any of you guys to go near my girl’. Right out of nowhere. So, I thought it was a scam. Frank got up in front of him and said, ‘Who’s your girl’? And he points over his shoulder or looks over his shoulder, and with that Frank punched him in the mouth. There was a time when Frank came to Vegas that I was there, but, I wasn’t there. He got in a fight with Carl Cohen. He ran the pit at The Sands. He was maybe 6’ 1”. Huge. Domineering, charming wonderful man. Holidays, any holiday, Jewish holidays, Christmas, he kind of liked him and would make a little effort to make the hotel kind of adhere to what it was. Frank was in the pit, carrying on saying to the guy, ‘Hit your card’. He hit his card at 18. I mean Frank was nuts. The guy would lose. Frank would put him on the back and say, ‘He’s a good guy. Don’t worry about it’. Well, this went on an on. I could see that Carl Cohen was getting very angry. Frank was getting very obstreperous with all of the people around him. He was pushing a lot of the guards that worked the pits, and a couple of the guys that worked in the lobby itself. See there were, I guess you would call them bodyguards. For everybody. They just didn’t want any kind of trouble to happen. And Carl Cohen hit Frank Sinatra in the jaw. Sent him flying along the floor in the pit. Well, I didn’t go near it, I just watched it. They picked him up and took him to a private room. Frank had private accommodations. I didn’t see Frank for a day. Late the next day I saw him. He was really in agony over what had happened.
Q – Did he get his jaw broken or his teeth knocked
A – I think something happened with his teeth. I don’t remember more than that. But, before anybody could say anything, Frank was up; out of there, getting his teeth fixed and wouldn’t come back till much later.
Q – What happened to Carl Cohen? Did he end up
losing his job for hitting Frank Sinatra?
A – Nothing (happened to him). Absolutely nothing. He was in charge of it. For Frank to go inside the pit and start dealing and yelling and making noise-----he was quite inebriated by then…..You see the involvement we had? Dean Martin, Martin and Lewis were slowly gonna play up there, but, Jerry didn’t want to go up there. Jerry, with his ego wanted to be the most actor in town, and -----he wasn’t. At that time he wasn’t. Sinatra was. All of the would-be Sinatra’s, all of the singers of the profession, were all vying for attention. Frank, with this title of ‘King of Vegas’ made the town really feel good. I love Las Vegas. I love the people. Everybody’s working hard. Where else in the United States could a kid who parks cars have enough money to buy a house after one year of working in a car-hop? Girls would come to town. Oh, yeah a lot of ‘em would scream about the fact there was prostitution. But, there wasn’t. That was not their dilemma. What their dilemma was, was they had come to Vegas to make a living for themselves. The weather was good. The people were nice. Everybody was good to everybody. And-----that’s the way it is now. The intriguing thing about Vegas was everybody wanted to be nice. Everybody, ‘cause they knew they would have a wonderful life. So, there you are. So, they did.
Q – You mentioned you went to Frank Sinatra’s
birthday party and of course you went to Las Vegas with him. Did you regularly
socialize with him? Did you go out to dinner with him?
A – Oh, yes. We went to the Sands bar one night. I was with Dean Martin, Frank, Jack Entratter and a number of other local guys I got to meet who worked at the hotel, who were either owners or would-be (owners). I was the youngest of the group. All of the guys were much older. I was in my early 30’s and all of the other guys were in their early 40’s and a little bit further. So, there wasn’t any young-blood so-to-speak. I was able to bring up a lot of my friends from Universal, actors. We had a wonderful time together. Frank was so accommodating. One night we’re sitting at the bar at The Sands. He looked at me and said, ‘We could use some girls. Do it’. They used me as a guy with a beard. I was the beard for them. As the girls came in for their shows, I’d meet ‘em on the outside of The Sands. This was like a ritual. I’d say, ‘C’mon in’. I’ve got Frank and Dean and once in awhile I’d get Tony Bennett when he was in town. They didn’t do anything malicious. I’d just say to a girl, ‘ ‘C’mon Blondie. I’ve got a couple of guy friends I want you to meet’. So, I didn’t waltz in with these beautiful girls, sit down with Frank; sit down with Frank, Dean, me and Jack and then some other guys would come over and some other girls. So, we had a party all of a sudden. And-----we just loved it. Frank loved it. He was so appreciative. He used to smile. I got very drunk that night. They were drinking Jack Daniels, in old-fashioned glasses. I drank a little more than I could which meant I drank one full. Then I took a little more. Meanwhile the guys were drinking and you couldn’t tell they were drunk. There was nothing they did in their behavior. I couldn’t take it. That stuff was so heavy. I collapsed. Frank, Dean and Jack Entratter, Carl Cohen picked me up and put me of their shoulder like I was a Viking. My head thrown back. They took me out to the pool area and they threw me in the pool.
Q – Oh, boy.
A – Yeah. Jack Entratter jumped in and pulled me out. A lot of the guys that worked there brought some towels. They took me to my room which was facing the pool. They got me undressed. I was out of my head. They put me in bed. The next day I was so appreciative. I was up at Frank’s house and he had a brand new Hi-Fi set. That’s what we called them in those days. Big wheels. Reproduce sound beautifully. So, we put 3 or 4 songs on, and it was wonderful. Played ‘em all. Lauren Bacall was there. Frank used to order his dinners from Patty D’Amore, a restaurant inside Hollywood. She filled up his plate. I was standing with my friend Nat King Cole, Frank and all our families. Nat King Cole and I were standing in front of, either side of Frank, listening to the music. Frank was explaining how powerful it was, and how good it sounded. All of a sudden, up walks Lauren Bacall, with a plate for dinner, knife and fork and napkin. While Frank is gesturing about this machine, she stops him. No words. Nothing. She puts that plate in his hand, the knife, fork, and napkin in another (hand) and she turns around and leaves. Frank looked at the food and what was put in his hand. He took two steps and he turned the whole plate over. All that macaroni and everything that was on that plate spilled all over the floor. He didn’t crack a smile. He didn’t do anything. He just dumped the food on the floor. Ha! What an interesting man.
Q – You’ve known a lot of celebrities in your life…..
A – Yes, I have.
Q – People have told me Frank Sinatra had a very
special presence or aura about him.
A – Yes.
Q – Why when Frank Sinatra entered a room, did
people turn around and look? What was so special about Frank Sinatra?
A – Because he was. I was in Reno, Nevada, in one of the clubs up there, and one night Frank said, ‘C’mon with me’. And, we walked away from some people. This is the way it was with us. He had other great friends he saw, but he liked to show where the values are with me. So, I walked with him up to one of the bungalows and there was his friend (Sam) Giancana. I couldn’t believe it. So, I got to meet him. HE didn’t stand more than 5’ 1” or 5’ 2”. Very immaculate man. Dressed beautifully. Frank introduced me to him. We kind of talked for awhile. Then Frank made a gesture like we should go. So, I got up and started to go and Frank said to Sam, ‘I’ll see you’. And I knew he meant that night because Sam didn’t go out to these parties much. He didn’t go to them for a lot of reasons, you know. It would’ve had a very bad effect for Frank.
Q – Where were you when you heard the news that
Frank Sinatra died?
A – I was in L.A. Just a few months before I was in Palm Springs. I did a painting for him and his wife which they had down at the beach house. At that time at the beach house I felt he wasn’t feeling well. I could tell by the way he behaved. He wasn’t out of it, he was just having a more difficult time then usual. And just a little time later I had heard he died.
Q – You were one of the mourners at his funeral.
Wayne Newton was there and so many other celebrities. How was it determined
who would receive an invitation to that funeral service?
A – Well, the two guys, Wayne Newton and me were social friends of Frank, and worked with him. I did that picture with him, ‘Kings Go Forth’. If I may be so bold he admired me as an actor.
Q – You couldn’t get a better compliment
A – No. He once told somebody who asked him who his favorite movie star was, he said Tony Curtis. They looked at Frank and said, ‘Why Tony Curtis’? Frank said, ‘He beat the fuckin’ odds’. That meant so much to me to hear that. That’s one of the reasons he liked me. It’s hard for me to talk about him.
Q – I believe Wayne Newton went on the Larry King show on CNN and said
the Sinatra family should’ve let the public see and hear what was being
said about Frank. No cameras were allowed inside.
A – They should’ve done that! Why keep it hidden for 50 people? I felt like that sitting there. Why didn’t they photograph it? Why didn’t they keep it? Can you imagine what a tribute it would’ve been to that man? Everybody would’ve taken a deep breath and said o.k. or with that silence not mentioning those things. It was devastating. Frank wouldn’t have liked it. Maybe that’s one of the reasons he didn’t like Hollywood. He was always treated like a second place fellow. Frank, myself…..I never made it to the clubs that Hollywood ran, neither did Frank. A number of actors and actresses never quite made it. You became successful. I’m not talking about that. The parties that you went to. But, it you knew Frank you didn’t need to go to a lot of parties. Frank made people nervous. He didn’t pull any punches.
Q – Is there any particular memory of Frank Sinatra
you carry with you?
A – I used to play the flute. I still do occasionally. He gave me a flute that’s made in England. It’s a wooden flute, in a beautiful case. That’s one of my sacred possessions from the man.