When 85-year-old screen legend Tony Curtis died 4 years ago, on September 29, he left behind an impressive body of work that included “The Defiant Ones,” “The Sweet Smell of Success,” and Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic comedy, “Some Like it Hot.”
Curtis’s film success was hardly surprising. With picture-perfect good looks, an intriguing raspy New York accent, and plenty of raw talent, the boy from the Bronx quickly climbed through the studio ranks into the hearts of devoted fans.
Jill Vandenberg, however, wasn’t one of them. As a teenager, she was more interested in horses than movie stars. But when Curtis approached her at a Los Angeles restaurant in 1994, the couple exchanged phone numbers, and began dating. Four years later, they were married.
“He was the funniest guy ever, just hilarious and so sweet. I felt I’d known him forever,” Jill (Curtis) recalled.
Despite being some forty years his junior and his fifth wife (not sixth as often reported), the couple became inseparable.
But horses remained Jill’s passion and, with Tony’s help, rescued hundreds of unwanted animals destined for slaughter.
In the summer of 2006, I met the couple at their rescue ranch in Sandy Valley, Nev., 45-minutes south of Las Vegas.
“Good morning, I’m Tony,” he said, offering a firm handshake and genuinely warm hug you’d expect from an old friend.
Sporting shorts and a white Stetson, we talked about his career and the ranch.
Then 81, Tony was no longer the lean, athletic actor of his earlier films, but there was still no mistaking the innate charm and charisma of the man who was also father to Jamie Lee Curtis and ex-hubby of the late Janet Leigh.
He recalled Jill urging him to become a horse rescuer.
“We were driving in the car one evening and Jillie told me she wanted to save some of those horses. I told her let’s go do it,” he said.
With a team of volunteers, they dug wells, erected fences and stables, and transformed a 40-acre desolate desert spot into an oasis for mistreated horses which the couple called Shiloh, meaning ‘a place of peace’ (see www.shilohhorserescue.com).
“Tony was a well-known artist, and a percentage of his income from his artwork went to saving horses,” Jill told me after her husband’s death. “We were planning to build a house at Shiloh when Tony got sick for the last time.”
After his passing, Jill also found peace at Shiloh.
“We were together for 16 years and married for twelve,” she said. “Shiloh gave me something meaningful to work on during my grieving.”
Despite initial concerns about their daughter’s involvement with an older man, Jill says her parents accepted their famous, elderly, son-in-law.
“My family loved Tony, and helped me look after him in the last years of his life,” she said.
“I can’t imagine life without her,” Tony said back in 2006. “She keeps me young.”
But he also acknowledged an earlier, difficult life and poor choices: an impoverished childhood living in his parents’ tailor shop, a physically abusive mother and distant father, several high profile marriages, alienation from his children, the deaths of his younger brother and his youngest son, and a past cocaine addiction.
“It wasn’t always easy, but I’ve had a great career,” Tony said. “I started with nothing and got to the top of my profession. I want my success to be an example for young people who aspire to be actors.”
It was his hope that one of those inspired actors might go on to earn an Oscar, something which Curtis never achieved (just one nomination for “The Defiant Ones”).
“It has bothered me at times that I never won,” he admitted with a stoic laugh.
Curtis never forgot the Hollywood snub. The day before he passed away, the doctor visited him at his Nevada home and asked if he had any pain anywhere.
“Tony looked at him and said ‘only in LA,’” recalled Jill. “He kept his sense of humor, right up to the end.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., with features, columns, and interviews in over 450 magazines and newspapers.