In 1958, "The Defiant Ones" brought him an Academy Award nomination as best actor for his portrayal of a white racist who escaped from prison handcuffed to a black man, Sidney Poitier. The following year, he donned women's clothing and sparred with Marilyn Monroe in one of the most acclaimed film comedies ever, Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot."
His first wife was actress Janet Leigh of "Psycho" fame; actress Jamie Lee Curtis is their daughter.
"My father leaves behind a legacy of great performances in movies and in his paintings and assemblages," Jamie Lee Curtis said in a statement Thursday. "He leaves behind children and their families who loved him and respected him and a wife and in-laws who were devoted to him. He also leaves behind fans all over the world."
Curtis struggled against drug and alcohol abuse as starring roles became fewer, but then bounced back in film and television as a character actor.
His brash optimism returned, and he allowed his once-shiny black hair to turn silver.
Again he came back after even those opportunities began to wane, reinventing himself as a writer and painter whose canvasses sold for as much as $20,000.
"I'm not ready to settle down like an elderly Jewish gentleman, sitting on a bench and leaning on a cane," he said at 60. "I've got a helluva lot of living to do."
"He was a fine actor ... I shall miss him," said British actor Roger Moore, who starred alongside Curtis in TV's "The Persuaders."
"He was great fun to work with, a great sense of humor and wonderful ad libs," Moore told Sky News. "We had the best of times."
Actress and activist Marlo Thomas said she was saddened that Curtis' death so closely followed the Sept. 22 death in Berkeley, Calif., of Eddie Fisher, a superstar singer of the 1950s who was married to Debbie Reynolds and then to Elizabeth Taylor. Fisher was 82.
"Tony Curtis and Eddie Fisher in the same week. It's very sad," said Thomas, who starred in the late-1960s sitcom "That Girl" and won Emmy, Golden Globe, Grammy and Peabody awards. Thomas was in New York on Thursday promoting her book, "Growing up Laughing."
"He was funny, so very funny, very talented and a great spirit," Thomas said of Curtis. "I found him to be a darling guy."
Curtis perfected his craft in forgettable films such as "Francis," "I Was a Shoplifter," "No Room for the Groom" and "Son of Ali Baba."
He first attracted critical notice as Sidney Falco, the press agent seeking favor with a sadistic columnist, played by Burt Lancaster, in the 1957 classic "Sweet Smell of Success."
In her book "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," Pauline Kael wrote that in the film, "Curtis grew up into an actor and gave the best performance of his career."
Other prestigious films followed: Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus," "Captain Newman, M.D.," "The Vikings," "Kings Go Forth," "Operation Petticoat" and "Some Like It Hot." He also found time to do a voice acting gig as his prehistoric lookalike, Stony Curtis, in an episode of "The Flintstones."
"The Defiant Ones" remained his only Oscar-nominated role.
"I think it has nothing to do with good performances or bad performances," he told The Washington Post in 2002. "After the number of movies I made where I thought there should be some acknowledgment, there was nothing from the Academy."
"My happiness and privilege is that my audience around the world is supportive of me, so I don't need the Academy."
In 2000, an American Film Institute survey of the funniest films in history ranked "Some Like It Hot" at No. 1. Curtis -- famously imitating Cary Grant's accent -- and Jack Lemmon play jazz musicians who dress up as women to escape retribution after witnessing a gangland massacre.