Jamie Lee Curtis: Controlled Substance

In the volatile world of show business, Jamie Lee Curtis describes herself as a "control freak," but the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis knows as well as anyone in this town that a career is made of luck and timing.


Jamie Lee Curtis answers the door of her Beverly Hills house with a worried look on her face. I'm 15 minutes early and she's not yet ready to deal with me. She needs that extra 15 minutes to get things under control. Husband Christopher Guest hasn't left the house yet to work on his next film; daughter Annie isn't quite ready for her sitter to take her to the park; Jamie hasn't had her muffin and tea. She leads me into the house, tells me to make myself at home, and goes about the business of saying goodbye to her family and giving instructions to the maid. Then she plops herself onto the couch, takes a breath and says with a cracked smile, "Kathleen Turner wouldn't have met you at the door without everything being just right; the baby wouldn't be screaming, there wouldn't be water in the bathroom and your feet wouldn't get wet; there would be a little more control."

Control. It's a favorite word of hers. She uses it frequently, thinks about it often. She's a woman who likes to have things just so in her life, and she usually finds that things are never the way she would like them to be. As she gets older, though, she's becoming more accepting of the fact that, as Yeats once wrote, "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." You'd think she would have known that by now, being a child of two of Hollywood's icons.

Jamie was born November 22, 1958, the second daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis. By the time her parents divorced in 1962, Janet Leigh had appeared in 37 movies, including Orson Welles's A Touch of Evil, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate. Tony Curtis had changed his name from Bernard Schwartz and had been in 41 films. He was best known for his starring roles in Houdini, Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, and Some Like It Hot.

Both parents remarried within the year and Jamie grew up with her mother and new husband, Robert Brandt. She rarely saw her father. In 1970, when Jamie was 12, Tony Curtis was arrested at a London airport for possession of marijuana. Ten years later, Jamie was doing coke with her father. Eventually, both father and daughter would kick the habit.

After spending just three months in college, Jamie quit to become a TV actress. She was cast in a series, "Operation Petticoat," based on her father's film by the same name, that lasted a year, and in 1978 she landed a lead role in John Carpenter's Halloween. Her screams were real enough to get her five more horror films: Prom Night, Terror Train, Road Games, Halloween II, and The Fog (which co-starred her mother). She then appeared on TV in "Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story." In 1983 she made a revealing, psychological film called Love Letters in which she shed her clothes and displayed a memorable body. She showed that body again, for just six seconds, in the Eddie Murphy hit Trading Places, and the second phase of her career was in full gear. Perfect, with John Travolta, was hyped as her breakthrough film, but it failed dismally at the box office. But she came back with a small part in Dominick and Eugene, and then appeared in A Man in Love, Amazing Grace & Chuck, and, finally, in her real breakthrough, A Fish Called Wanda. For HBO, she starred with Bette Davis in As Summers Die. And then she returned to television in a series with comedian Richard Lewis, "Anything But Love." Her latest film, for director Kathryn Bigelow, is a stylized, disturbing cop thriller, Blue Steel.

Lawrence Grobel: Bud Cort told me you were the best kisser in Hollywood.

Jamie Lee Curtis: I'm the best kisser in Hollywood? Me? How would Bud Cort know?

LG: You acted with him in Love Letters.

JLC: Maybe that's a metaphor, maybe there's some hidden meaning there. Bud's a very sweet guy. He was the stripper at my wedding shower.

LG: Bud Cort? A stripper?

JLC: I had a couple of girlfriends throw a shower when I was in England publicizing Trading Places. Bud was there and one of my friends called him up. There was the tea, the presents, and then this guy comes in wearing a leather jacket, glasses--I couldn't figure out who it was at first. It was Bud. He started removing his jacket, his shirt--he didn't take it all off, but it was funny. I can't figure out why he says I'm a good kisser.

LG: He also wanted to know when you're going to get him a part on your TV show.

JLC: Like I'm now a casting director? It's weird to get a show and all of a sudden every actor you know, you see in their eyes, "Maybe we could do something."

LG: Did you ever call in any chips yourself? I mean, Lew Wasserman is your godfather. And you did begin your career at Universal.

JLC: But I never called upon him for a job. My first job was at Universal, under contract. I had this very pushy manager at the time who got me an interview with the head of the talent department there. I did a scene and she decided to hire me. I got $285 a week in the beginning. She didn't know that Wasserman was my godfather. I always felt the need to not go to the people closest to me.

LG: Was that job the reason you dropped out of college?

JLC: My college was my early work. I spent five years basically going to school: I did that TV series, horror movies...I had amazing success very quickly for somebody who was not a beauty, and had no discernible talent. I got that contract with Universal when I was 18 and within six months I had done a pilot for a television series, "Operation Petticoat," which got sold for a year. So my first big gig got me work for a year. And some sort of quasi-TV celebrity status. I did some shows like "Match Game" and "Hollywood Squares." I was eighteen! I knew nothing. Knew fucking fuck all! I was playing a woman who was supposed to be in her 30s. I had all this makeup and hair, but it didn't matter how dressed up I was, I was the "kid." Every day somebody would say, "Hey, kid, come here," and it wasn't because I was Tony Curtis's kid, it wasn't about that. It's just that I was young. The first corporation I formed was Kid Curtis. To this day, I get called "kid" by somebody every day.

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