Tony Curtis, the Hollywood icon who successfully weathered a series of career downturns and artistic reinventions, will be remembered as one of the movie industry’s most recognizable leading men. But to many members of the Las Vegas Jewish community, Curtis – who passed away Sept. 29 at the age of 85 – will forever stand out as the jovial old man in a cowboy hat who was the guest of honor at a recent public Chanukah menorah lighting.

“I’m not ready to settle down like an elderly Jewish gentleman, sitting on a bench and leaning on a cane,” the New York-born actor, whose given name was Bernard Scwartz, once said at the age of 60, The Associated Press reported. “I’ve got a helluva lot of living to do.”

Curtis, who adopted his stage name after studio executives thought he needed a more-American sounding moniker, poured himself into writing and art later in life. According to Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Mendy Harlig in Henderson, Nev., where Curtis lived, the actor similarly embraced his Jewish heritage in his elderly years.

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Harlig visited Curtis many times over the last few years, delivering honey cake for the Jewish New Year, gift baskets for Purim and matzah before Passover, or just to chat.

“Whenever I asked him to participate in a mitzvah, he was always eager to do so,” said Harlig, director of Chabad Green Valley. “I hung a mezuzah at his home [and] we put [the Jewish prayer boxes known as] tefillin on.”

Harlig first met Curtis after receiving a call from one of his six children, daughter Allegra Curtis, who wanted him to have some spirituality in his life. The bond of growing up as New York Jews helped the pair develop a rapport.

“Tony shared a lot about his childhood with me,” Harlig recalled. “He told me much about growing up in poverty, the many challenges that he faced, and how he set out to overcome them.”

During the many times Tony Curtis welcomed Rabbi Mendy Harlig to his Henderson, Nev., home, the actor donned the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin.
During the many times Tony Curtis welcomed Rabbi Mendy Harlig to his Henderson, Nev., home, the actor donned the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin.

Born to Hungarian Jewish immigrants who moved to the United States after World War I, Curtis lived a hardscrabble life and fought in World War II. After his return to the states, he studied acting under the G.I. Bill and drew the attention of executives with his boyhood charm.

His career spanned decades, including blockbuster and critically acclaimed hits, but several downturns pushed Curtis to the depths of alcoholism and depression. He was treated at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in the early 1980s.

His personal pursuits included painting, with some of his compositions fetching upwards of $20,000, and writing. He also supported Jewish projects, including the mid-1990s restoration of Budapest, Hungary’s historic Great Synagogue.

Two years ago, Curtis, with Harlig holding up a prayer book so that he could make the proper blessing, lit the menorah at The District at Green Valley Ranch Hotel. More than 500 people were on hand for the ceremony and Curtis treated the opportunity to showcase some Jewish pride with gusto.

The rabbi, who attended the Monday funeral in Las Vegas, called Curtis “a wonderful person and a great friend.”

“We will sorely miss Tony,” he said.