Tony Curtis enjoyed the life of a half-serious actor for so long, it came as a shock when he proved he could be a great one.

Curtis died Wednesday, ending the journey that began when he was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx in 1925.

He served in the Navy during World War II, attended drama school and then landed a bit part in an off-Broadway show. His good looks caught the attention of Universal, which signed him to a contract. He was paid $100 a week and placed in a variety of costumes - cowboys and cavalrymen, medieval princes and Ali Baba, of all people.

Curtis had small parts in serious movies, including "Winchester 73," and won some good reviews for "Houdini," in which he co-starred with Janet Leigh, who was his wife and confirmed his eye for beautiful women (his children with Leigh included Jamie Lee Curtis).

Still, while audiences (especially women) liked him, critics didn't take him very seriously, and when a stand-up comic mocked Curtis' Bronx accent and reputation for sword-and-sandal roles - "Yondah lies da castle of my fathah" - it became part of Curtis lore, though the actor never actually spoke those words in a movie.

If Curtis was bothered by such shots, it never showed, but only a few years after a quintessential Universal role like "The Black Shield of Falworth," he began to up his game as an actor, playing in "Trapeze" for director Carol Reed.

He gradually began to look for and accept contemporary roles that suited him better. He made "Mister Cory" with Blake Edwards, a warm-up for the role that would define his career, and prove his chops as an actor.

That came in 1957, when he played Sidney Falco in "The Sweet Smell of Success," from a tart, fantastic script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. As a press agent sucking up to an influential columnist (Burt Lancaster), Curtis painted a startling, riveting portrait of an ambitious man pathologically eager to stand near fame and power - unparalleled in its time and weirdly prescient of a culture that would follow half a century later.

He was good (and nominated for an Oscar) in "The Defiant Ones" a year later, and even though he reverted to costume dramas, they were infinitely better - "The Vikings" and "Spartacus," both with Kirk Douglas.

In 1959 he wowed everybody again in "Some Like It Hot" for Billy Wilder. He makes a fine woman in Wilder's cross-dressing classic, etches some remarkably tender scenes with Marilyn Monroe, and does a great Cary Grant impersonation to boot - a joke that was so funny he ended up alongside Grant in "Operation Petticoat" just a few months later.

Curtis had more serious roles - "The Great Imposter" and "The Outsider," as Native American soldier Ira Hayes - but his luster as a leading man began to fade, and though he tried some forgettable comedies in the 1960s, audiences seemed indifferent, and another serious role, in "The Boston Strangler," went commercially unnoticed. Curtis, always a worker, made dozens more movies and was still working into the late 1990s, but poured most of his creative energy into painting, a passion until his death at 85.