Originally dismissed as little more than a pretty boy, Tony Curtis overcame a series of bad reviews and undistinguished pictures to emerge as one of the most successful actors of his era, appearing in a number of the most popular and acclaimed films of the late '50s and early '60s. Born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, in New York City, he was the son of an impoverished Hungarian-born tailor, and was a member of an infamous area street gang by the age of 11. During World War II, Curtis served in the navy, and was injured while battling in Guam. After the war, he returned to New York to pursue a career in acting, touring the Borscht circuit before starring in a Greenwich Village revival of Golden Boy. There Curtis came to the attention of Universal, who signed him to a seven-year contract. In 1948, he made his film debut, unbilled, in the classic Robert Siodmak noir Criss Cross. A series of bit roles followed, and he slowly made his way up through the studio's ranks.
While 1950's Kansas Raiders was nominally headlined by Brian Donlevy, Curtis was, for many, the real draw; dark and handsome, he was hugely popular with teens and fan-magazine readers, and his haircut alone was so admired that Universal was receiving upwards of 10,000 letters a week asking for a lock of his hair. There was even a contest, "Win Tony Curtis for a week." Clearly, he was on the brink of stardom and earned top billing in his next picture, 1951's The Prince Who Was a Thief, which co-starred another up-and-comer, Piper Laurie. Despite his surging popularity, however, he still had much to learn about his craft and spent the remainder of the year training in voice, dramatics, and gymnastics. In 1952, Curtis finally returned to the screen as a boxer in Flesh and Fury. Two more pictures with Laurie, No Room for the Groom and Son of Ali Baba, followed. In 1953 Paramount borrowed Curtis to portray Houdini, which cast him opposite his wife, Janet Leigh.