Jamie Lee Curtis’ glittering Hollywood career began way back in 1978 – and it has taken her from movie heroine to bonafide movie star. But alongside appearing in scary movies, comedies and dramas, the actress’ interests and even her appearance have changed just as dramatically as her on-screen roles.
Long before she starred in the horror movie Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh, proved that scream queen qualities ran in the family. Indeed, Leigh starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror flick Psycho, which earned her a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination.
On top of that, Curtis’ father Tony had a legendary Hollywood career, too. He starred in the acclaimed comedy Some Like It Hot one year after welcoming his and Leigh’s second daughter, Jamie Lee, in November 1958. But the talented family wouldn’t stay together for long.
Instead, Curtis’ parents went through a difficult divorce in 1962, when the future actress was just three years old. She and her sister, Kelly, lived with their mother, and the relationship with their dad fizzled. And in 2010 on an episode of The Talk, Curtis revealed, “He was not a father. He was not interested in being a father.”
So, Curtis grew up outside of Hollywood with her mom and sister, far from her actor dad. But after she graduated from high school in Connecticut, she returned to the West Coast. There, she attended the University of the Pacific and told Good Housekeeping about her career aspirations at the time. Spoiler alert – she didn’t plan on becoming an actress.
“I was studying corrections at the University of the Pacific,” Curtis divulged, adding that she dreamed of becoming a police officer. Unfortunately, though, she had one big problem. The star admitted, “I was a terrible student. School just… missed me. I probably had some learning thing that I didn’t know about. I had a D+ average and was a party girl.”
Still, Curtis’ return to L.A. would prove fruitful for the teenager. Amid her half-year stint as a college co-ed, she ran into a friend’s dad who just so happened to be an acting agent. And he thought Curtis would be a great fit for an upcoming TV series based on Nancy Drew.
So Curtis went out for the part, but she didn’t get it. And that would be just one of a series of misses for the fledgling actress. She next signed onto a seven-year contract with Universal but that, too, would end without a star-making role. Curtis told Good Housekeeping, “I got fired, along with 12 other actors. I was devastated. I thought it was the end of my life.”
However, when the Universal door closed, another big one opened for Curtis – a chance to star in the independent horror film, Halloween. She continued, “… Had I not been fired, I would not have been able to go up for the movie… which basically gave me the life I have today.”
Indeed, Halloween defied expectations in a multitude of ways. The movie, helmed by director and co-writer John Carpenter, introduced audiences to Michael Myers, a serial killer out to get babysitters on Halloween night. And Curtis played the movie’s heroine, Laurie Strode, who fights to survive the night.
Surprisingly, Halloween had a budget of up to $325,000, but it raked in approximately $70 million worldwide. That meant that the cast didn’t quite rake in a Hollywood paycheck for performing in the flick. Indeed, Curtis, for one, made a mere $8,000 for staring in Halloween.
However, taking the role proved to be a turning point in Curtis’s career. For one thing, it kicked off her reign as Hollywood’s so-called “scream queen.” And in the years following Halloween, she starred in a slew of similar slasher films, which received wavering amounts of praise from critics.
For instance, Curtis followed up the hit flick with The Fog, another horror film directed by Halloween mastermind, Carpenter. As the title hints, a strange fog blows into a California town. Hidden within it are the ghosts of mariners who perished there a century before – and they want revenge.
Then came Prom Night and Terror Train, two more horror films in which Curtis starred. Both films performed somewhat well at the box office, but critics realized that the scream queen had played the same role in several films with the same result. The protagonist loses all of her friends, yet somehow survives.
Indeed, Curtis herself had realized that her career had started to follow a pattern – and it wasn’t one she wanted to keep repeating. She told the South China Morning Post in 2018, “I felt honored that Halloween was and will be the greatest part of my creative life.”
“But I also grew up in show-off business and I recognized very early that a pigeonholing association with one genre only would be limiting,” Curtis explained. She concluded, “I knew after I did the movie Halloween II that I needed to step away from the horror genre.” So, after the sequel came out in 1981, she moved on from scary movies.
With her part in 1983’s Trading Places, Curtis successfully chipped away at her horror-movie image. In it, she plays a prostitute named Ophelia who agrees to help Dan Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe III after he’s wrongfully accused of being a thief and drug dealer.
For her part in the film, Curtis earned a BAFTA Award as that year’s Best Supporting Actress. She also showed a little bit of skin in Trading Places. That, plus her role as an aerobics instructor in the 1985 film Perfect gave her a new Hollywood reputation – sex symbol.
As Curtis told the Washington Post in 1985, she didn’t quite like her new reputation, either. The actress explained, “To me, unfortunately, the term ‘sex symbol’ connotes mindlessness. It connotes where your physical and sensual presence is the only thing people respond to.”
Curtis continued, “I do it because I like doing the work. I’m not a vamp girl, I’m very much the baby girl, especially in my private life. I walk around in Tretorns and baggy safari shorts and odd assorted T-shirts from my husband’s T-shirt collection. No makeup, like a very semi-geeky, awkward girl. Girl! And I stress girl!” The star concluded, “I really think of myself as a girl. I only put on my womanly stuff when I go to work.”
Still, the period after which the public deemed Curtis a sex symbol proved to be one of the most fruitful of her career. In 1988 for instance, she starred in A Fish Called Wanda and harnessed her femme fatale image into an incredible performance. The cult-classic comedy sees Curtis as part of a group of jewel thieves who double-cross each other to get the loot.
The next year, Curtis jumped from the silver screen to television, joining the cast of the sitcom Anything But Love. In it, she starred opposite Richard Lewis as colleagues at a magazine who can’t hide their feelings for one another. For her part in the series, Curtis won a Golden Globe, as well as a People’s Choice Award.
Next up – the 1990 film Blue Steel, which saw Curtis show off yet another side of her acting abilities. This time, she becomes an action hero in playing a rookie NYPD officer who kills an armed man. However, because someone runs off with the suspect’s weapon, it looks like he was a victim, thus threatening her career on the force.
Meanwhile, by 1991 Curtis had shed her action-star skin in order to play a leading role in the movie My Girl. Although the movie focuses on the coming-of-age story of main characters Vada Sultenfuss and Thomas J. Sennett, Curtis’ Shelly DeVoto befriends Vada while working at the latter’s father’s funeral home.
Three years later, Curtis would have what she described to Interview in 2015 as “the best time [she] ever had” while filming the movie True Lies. Talking of the action-comedy flick, in which she starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, she said, “It was the single most freeing experience as an actor I’ve ever had.”
In the movie, Curtis plays Schwarzenegger’s wife, a woman unaware that her computer salesman husband is actually a covert operative for a counter-terrorism arm of the U.S. government. Then, the couple gets kidnapped by the organization that Schwarzenegger’s task force has been tracking. Once again, Curtis’ acting won her a Golden Globe, this time for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.
Behind the scenes, things in Curtis’s personal life seemed to be going just as well, but the actress later admitted that something was amiss. Indeed, the actress had married Christopher Guest a decade prior to the release of True Lies. After seeing a picture of the actor in Rolling Stone, Curtis told her friend she’d marry him one day – and that day came five months later in December 1984.
In 1986 Curtis and Guest adopted their first child, a daughter named Annie. From there, the family-of-three got on happily, but Curtis had effectively hidden one thing from her beloved husband. Ever since a cosmetic procedure to reduce undereye puffiness, she’d had an addiction to painkillers and alcohol.
“I had a ten-year run, stealing, conniving. No one knew. No one. I had all the fame and wealth, and my marriage was intact, and my kids were with me,” Curtis told People in 2018. During that decade-long span, she and Guest adopted a second child, a son named Thomas. But three years after that, Curtis could no longer live a lie.
In 1999 Curtis told her husband about her struggles, and she recalled to People that he was “incredulous that he’d never noticed.” Still, he supported her as she checked into rehab and maintained her sobriety ever since. Even considering the progression of her on-screen career, Curtis considers this moment her life’s greatest achievement.
“I’m breaking the cycle that has basically destroyed the lives of generations in my family,” Curtis continued. “Getting sober remains my single greatest accomplishment… bigger than my husband, bigger than both of my children and bigger than any work, success, failure. Anything.”
And, with that attitude, Curtis continued to defy the odds in both her personal and professional lives. Of course, she continued to act post-rehab, taking part in one of four Halloween sequels in which she has starred. The 2002 version, Halloween: Resurrection, came out one year before a much more comedic flick.
Meanwhile, 2003’s Freaky Friday saw Curtis starring as Lindsay Lohan’s mother. Thanks to a magical fortune cookie, the duo have their bodies switched, and they learn a little bit more about each other in the midst of their mother-teen daughter drama. Once again, Curtis earned a Golden Globe nomination for her work.
And, since then, Curtis has only continued to follow her varied career path, one that has mimicked the transformation in both her public and personal lives. Since the early 2000s, she has had roles in movies such as Christmas With the Kranks and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, as well as on TV’s Scream Queens and New Girl.
Interestingly, Curtis has also pursued a handful of side interests while still maintaining her status as a Hollywood star. For instance, she has written 13 children’s books so far, and has worked alongside illustrator Laura Cornell to bring her titles to life. HarperCollins Children’s Books has published such Curtis pieces as Tell Me Again About The Night I Was Born in 1996 and 2006’s Is There Really a Human Race?
Curtis also blogs for The Huffington Post and, through her website, describes herself first as a writer, then as an actor. Clearly, she has a creative streak, but it has also manifested in ways more out of the ordinary than writing children’s books and blogging. Apparently, the actress has invented something, too.
Indeed, Curtis filed for a U.S. patent to protect an invention of her own creation in 1987. She envisioned a diaper with a built-in pocket that contained baby wipes, which parents could open and whip out with a single hand. Curtis filed the patent, but wouldn’t let companies use her idea until they came up with a way to make diapers biodegradable.
And yet, so much of who Curtis is remains the same as it was when she broke onto the Hollywood scene in the late 1970s. In 2018 she proved it once again – starring in that year’s remake of Halloween, which shared the same title as the original. Curtis told the South China Morning Post she never thought she’d reprise the role.
But, as Curtis told Good Housekeeping, she has come to expect the unexpected – much of her life changes have come at her own hand. She said, “I am a constant editor. I shed people, I shed clothing, I shed possessions, I shed ideas. The biggest thing I’ve shed is my own limitations and perception of who I am.”
Indeed, as Curtis pursues acting, writing, inventing and more, she has to keep pushing her boundaries. The star concluded, “It has to come from me. And even if I stumble in my pursuit, that’s okay. We are all looking for a fast track to enlightenment, but it’s sweat equity, sweat equity, sweat equity.”