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July 24, 2014

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Schwarzenegger puts on show as Tony Curtis service turns into spirited affair

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Steve Marcus

Jill Vandenberg, wife of Tony Curtis, leaves after the funeral for her husband at Palm Mortuary and Cemetery in Henderson on Oct. 4, 2010. Curtis died Wednesday at his home. He was 85.

In the end, the man who boasted that he never lost a sword fight and never lost the girl couldn't beat what beats everyone.

"One thing we always talked about was aging. We would go absolutely nuts about the fact that we would have to age, we would be aging and eventually we would die," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Monday at a jammed funeral service at Palm Mortuary on Eastern Avenue for his friend for more than 30 years, Tony Curtis. Curtis died Wednesday in his sleep at his home in Henderson at age 85.

"I didn't want any part of it. I didn't want to think about that side of life," Schwarzenegger continued. "And Tony always said, 'I am so angry about that.' So he drove sports cars that made him feel young, always dated beautiful young women to make him feel young, and then he ended up with an extraordinary young woman, (Curtis' wife of 12 years) Jill, of course."

Schwarzenegger, fittingly, added some megawatt star power to a farewell service for a man whose film career spanned 60 years and scores of iconic roles. Also in attendance was the daughter of Curtis and Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis, another film star familiar with the sway of celebrity. Around the chapel were such Vegas figures as Phyllis McGuire, Steve Rossi, Rich Little and Robert Goulet's widow, Vera. Even adult film star Ron Jeremy, who met Curtis more than 20 years ago at the funeral of actor/director Cornel Wilde, stood at the side of the chapel, a living example of Curtis' boundless appeal.

Schwarzenegger said he did not expect to speak so soon — first — but came out of the bullpen with his best stuff. He talked of meeting Curtis at a Hollywood Reporter dinner in 1976. Schwarzenegger had just made the film, "Stay Hungry" with Jeff Bridges and Sally Field. But he was not at all a movie star, more famous as a multiple Mr. Universe bodybuilding champ.

"Luckily enough I was seated next to Tony Curtis at this dinner," Schwarzenegger said. "Tony and I started to talk, and I told him what a big fan I was of his growing up in Austria. I told him that every agent I had talked to said I would never make it, that I had an accent no one can understand. They said that 'Hercules' movies were out, and no one would ever be able to pronounce Schwarzenegger.

"But Tony said, you're going to make it. You're going to make it. Just keep taking your acting classes and get rid of some of this accent. You're going to make it — don't pay any attention to those guys."

Curtis did note Schwarzenegger's surname, which he hinted the budding bodybuilding thespian might want to change.

"I said, 'Well, you didn't have that problem, you have this great name — Tony Curtis. Here, I have SCHWARZenegger," Schwarzenegger recalled . "And Tony says, I changed mine! It was Bernie Schwartz!'"

Schwarzenegger drew what was probably the loudest laugh (mixed with applause, which was heard throughout the 90-minute service) when he talked of Curtis' attempts to skirt his age.

"I don't know if you saw the picture of him, naked, in Vanity Fair," Schwarzenegger said, bringing to the fore a photo spread from five years ago. "He was just standing there, at the age of 80, celebrating his 80th birthday standing there naked by the swimming pool and Jill by his side. Who has the guts to have his picture taken at the age of 80, naked? ... He felt that he was 21 years old. And everyone else, in the history of mankind, put a fig leaf in front of their private parts, but his were so big they had to have two dogs in front of them!"

The audience roared and applauded. Great stuff from the Governator, who did close with a serious, heartfelt message.

"When someone passes away, you think that it is too early. But that is a decision we can't make," he said. "The two things we cant decide is when we are going to be born and when we are going to die. God decides that. ... But I will always have really, really great memories of Tony Curtis."

In her eulogy, Jamie Lee Curtis was somewhat more subdued, though she did playfully call out Schwarzenegger, saying he should sell a painting he bought (insistently) from Curtis several years earlier to help balance California's budget. "I'd buy one!" she said, to laughter.

Curtis said that each family member was evidence of Curtis' personality traits, hers being her constant craving for attention and need to pose naked. Curtis also recited a poem presented to her family by her sister Alexandra, the Fourth Letter from Ranier Maria Wilke's "Letters to a Young Poet:"

"Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

Curtis concluded her oratory with, "The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is family, friends and strangers. The answer of course is love, that there is nothing else. ... When you leave here today, take love with you, on behalf of Tony Curtis."

Curtis' partner of 16 years and wife for 12 of those years, Jill Vandenberg Curtis, said, "The charming, handsome man you fell in love with on the screen was the real Tony. He was kind, he was gentle, he was tough and he was strong. He was highly intelligent and incredibly witty."

Jill Curtis ticked off a list of items, artifacts, clothing and mementos her husband was to be buried with, which effectively told the story of Curtis' life. He was wearing his white shorts, his much-mended favorite white sweater, an Armani scarf and his well-worn Stetson under his arm.

Placed in the casket was a traveling bag, packed full of favorite photos and letters, a model of his 25th-anniversary Trans-Am, driving gloves, some "dough" (what he called money, always), his Navy medals, a pair of his grandson Nicholas' baby shoes, a patch from Hungary, gold coins, two of his favorite watches, a yarmulke from a synagogue in Budapest he helped renovate, stones he had collected during his travels (including a few from the gravesite of his friend Dodi Fayed), a DVD of clips from his favorite film, his "IV" (what he called his iPhone), sunglasses, seven packets of Splenda (which he apparently poured on everything he consumed), a single Percocet tablet, his sleeping-eye blinders, ashes from his dog Jack, paintbrushes, paints, sketchpads and a pen.

"Tony was, for the most part, a self-educated, a man who barely finished high school but who could converse with paupers and princes, presidents to the working man," Jill Curtis said. "He could write poetry and was a prolific and accomplished painter. He was a megawatt movie star who was revered, looked up to and emulated. He straddled old and new Hollywood, and he loved every minute of it."

More from the service

In one of the more unlikely friendships in the world of entertainment, Curtis and Jeremy carried on an active correspondence since meeting in 1989. As Jeremy recalled Monday, upon meeting Curtis, the film legend said, "I'm a fan of your work." Jeremy laughed and said, "I about crapped my pants!" Jeremy is a friend of filmmaker Adam Rifkin ("Look," "Detroit Rock City,") who was in the process of writing a screenplay for Curtis when Curtis died. ... Sue Facter, who covered the opening of Planet Hollywood restaurant in Las Vegas in the early '90s for USA Today, remembered Anna Nicole Smith arriving alone at the star-studded event and Curtis inviting her to his table so she would not be taking the event solo. ... On "Entertainment Las Vegas Style" Tony Sacca is airing a 30-minute interview with Curtis at 12:30 a.m. Sunday (Saturday night, for a lot of people) on Vegas TV (Cox Cable channel 14). He has some fun and revealing outtakes not aired when he interviewed Curtis five years ago that will make this cut. ... Dozens of well-wishers carrying paper invitations to the post-funeral celebration of Curtis at the Luxor waited more than 30 minutes for entry, only to be told by security that the room was at capacity. Most were sweaty, cranky and rightfully peeved. Some like it hot, indeed.

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

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