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October 25, 2014

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There was cool, there was Tony Curtis cool, and there was no comparison

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Brian Jones/Las Vegas News Bureau

A tribute to actor Tony Curtis plays over the heads of visitors to Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas. Curtis died of cardiac arrest on Sept. 29, 2010, at his home in Henderson. He was 85.

A young man once walked into the office of UNLV film professor Sean Clark and asked, "When is this Tony Curtis guy coming back?"

Familiar with film students on the UNLV campus, Clark had no idea who this guy was.

"Are you one of my students?" Clark asked.

"No, no, no!" the young guy said, expressing his wish to catch Curtis' next presentation for film students on campus. "I just heard he was the coolest guy ever."

"He had no interest in film," Clark recalls. "He just wanted to meet the coolest guy ever."

The coolest guy ever. Tony Curtis. He was a frequent guest speaker for Clark's film classes. As Clark reminded Thursday afternoon, in the wake of Curtis' death at age 85 at his home in Henderson, Curtis was a coolly unique craftsman.

"He was both a great actor and a great movie star. He was very rare that way," Clark said. "He was the top box office draw in the world for several years, but he had the courage to play the role of a racist in 'The Defiant Ones' when he could have played it safe and protected his image."

"The Defiant Ones" earned Curtis an Academy Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. Equally important, the portrayal of the racist escaped convict handcuffed to Sidney Portier turned the handsome Curtis from a heartthrob to a respected actor. Such courage marks the difference between a flame-out acting career of a few years and one that spans six decades.

Clark met Curtis about a 10 years ago, when he agreed — eagerly — to lend advice to UNLV's film students. He would later be inducted in to the UNLV Entertainer/Artist Hall of Fame. The actor's appearances at the university were punctuated by his classic charisma and natural eloquence.

Even in a classroom, Curtis exuded the disposition of a major star.

"Ever so often he'd be in the presence of these women students, and you could see the age melt away, and you could see that charisma of his youth returning," Clark said. "Even these college girls would say, 'This guy is really cool.'"

He turned up unexpectedly, too. Once, when Academy Award-winning director and Las Vegas resident George Sidney was scheduled to speak to a group of UNLV film students, Clark was struck by a figure who ventured into the back of the room.

He was Tony Curtis.

"He just showed up because he wanted to hear George Sidney talk," Clark recalls, laughing. "I had no idea he'd be there."

A favorite Curtis movie? For me it's easy, and it's not "The Defiant Ones" or even, "Some Like it Hot," even for all of their acclaim. It's the first Curtis film I ever saw, as a kid, the comedy-adventure about a 'round-the-world auto race, "The Great Race." Curtis played "The Great Leslie" — the hero even used a woman's name! Curtis' portrayal was a fantastic piece of self-satire, as The Great Leslie was bathed in ideal lighting and wore good-guy white. When he smiled in close-up shots, a starburst flashed from his gleaming teeth.

The film's signature, farcical scene is the giant pie fight, prompted by Jack Lemmon's hapless Crown Prince Frederick Hoepnick. Everyone gets creamed — except The Great Leslie, and rightfully so. Wearing a white driving suit, The Great Leslie moves easily through the mayhem, until the very last moment when he ducks into a pie about to be thrown by Natalie Wood's Miss Maggie Dubois.

"(Director) Blake Edwards should never have allowed him to be hit in the face with a pie," Clark says. "I remember Tony telling me, 'I had a huge argument with Blake Edwards about that scene. It was wrong.'"

Yes it was. You should not hit him with a pie. Not the man who, for all time, was cooler than all the rest.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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