Jamie Lee Curtis’ glittering Hollywood career began way back in 1978 with Halloween – and since then she’s transformed from indie “scream queen” to bonafide superstar. But as well as having appeared in scary movies, comedies and dramas, the actress’ appearance has changed just as dramatically as her on-screen roles.
As it turns out, Curtis isn’t the only scream queen in her family. Long before the actress starred in Halloween, her mother, Janet Leigh, had sent shivers down audiences’ spines in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho. In fact, Leigh’s performance – including her infamous hair-raising shower scene – earned her a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nod.
What’s more, Curtis’ father, Tony, had been a legendary Hollywood actor, too. He’d starred in acclaimed comedy Some Like It Hot alongside Marilyn Monroe in 1959 – a year after the birth of Curtis. But despite their successes in Hollywood, the talented family wouldn’t stay together for long.
Instead, Curtis’ parents went through a difficult split in 1962, when the future actress was just three years old. She and her sister, Kelly, stayed with their mom, and her relationship with her dad deteriorated. On an episode of The Talk in 2010, Curtis revealed, “He was not a father. He was not interested in being a father.”
So, Curtis grew up with her mom and sister – away from her actor dad. She graduated from high school in Connecticut before returning to the West Coast to attend the University of the Pacific. And at this point, as she revealed to Good Housekeeping in 2018, she didn’t have her sights set on becoming an actress.
Curtis divulged, “I was studying corrections at the University of the Pacific.” That’s right: the future star once dreamed of going into law enforcement. But unfortunately, there was one problem. Curtis 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.”
That said, Curtis’ return to L.A. would prove to be a life-changing decision. 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 that Curtis would be a great fit for an upcoming TV series based on Nancy Drew.
But while Curtis did try out for the part, she didn’t get it. And this would be just one of a series of misses for the fledgling actress. She even signed onto a seven-year contract with Universal, with that, too, proving unsuccessful. 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: she had a chance to audition for an independent horror film. She explained, “Had I not been fired, I would not have been able to go up for the movie Halloween, which basically gave me the life I have today.”
Halloween, which was helmed by director and co-writer John Carpenter, introduced audiences to Michael Myers – a serial killer out to get babysitters on the eve of October 31st. Curtis appears as the movie’s heroine, Laurie Strode, who fights to survive the night. And the indie flick defied expectations in a multitude of ways.
Indeed, while Halloween had a budget of only $325,000, it raked in approximately $70 million worldwide. This unexpected success meant that the cast didn’t exactly earn Hollywood-worthy paychecks for performing in the flick. Curtis, for one, made a mere $8,000 for her starring turn.
That said, Curtis’ role in Halloween proved to be a major turning point in her career. For one thing, it kicked off her reign as Hollywood’s so-called “scream queen.” And in the years that followed, she starred in a slew of similar slasher films – although they received wavering amounts of praise from critics.
For instance, Curtis followed up her performance in Halloween with 1980’s The Fog – another horror film directed by Carpenter. As the title hints, the movie sees a California town taken over by a strange mist, hidden within which are the ghosts of mariners who perished there a century before – and they want revenge.
That same year, Curtis starred in two more horror pictures: Prom Night and Terror Train. And while both films performed relatively well at the box office, critics pointed out how similar the scream queen’s roles had been. After all, in each scary flick, Curtis’ character loses all of her friends and manages to survive.
But Curtis herself had realized that her career had started to follow a pattern, too – and it wasn’t one that 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 continued, “I knew after I did the movie Halloween II that I needed to step away from the horror genre.” And so, after the sequel hit theaters in 1981, she moved on from scary movies. And her next step arguably couldn’t have been any more different.
Yes, with her part in 1983 comedy Trading Places, Curtis successfully began to chip away at her horror-heroine reputation. In the John Landis-directed flick, 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 a drug dealer. And Curtis’ radical career move seemingly paid off.
For one thing, Curtis’ turn in Trading Places bagged her a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress. But this wasn’t all. After sporting some revealing outfits in the movie – as well as appearing as a scantily clad aerobics teacher in 1985’s Perfect – the star earned a brand-new title: sex symbol.
But as Curtis revealed to The Washington Post in 1985, she wasn’t a big fan of her new reputation. “To me, unfortunately, the term ‘sex symbol’ connotes mindlessness,” she explained. “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.”
That said, Curtis’ new-found bombshell status seemed to have a positive impact on her career. She landed a slew of gigs in the late ’80s and early ’90s, including 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda. And Curtis’ performance in the cult comedy – which sees a group of jewel thieves double-cross each other to get their hands on a loot – earned her BAFTA and Golden Globe nods.
Then, the following year, Curtis made the leap from the silver screen to television, joining the cast of Anything But Love. In the sitcom, she and Richard Lewis portray colleagues who can’t hide their feelings for each other. And Curtis won a Golden Globe and a People’s Choice Award for her performance in the series.
Next up, Curtis showed off yet another string to her bow with Blue Steel. In the 1990 crime drama, Curtis proved her chops as an action heroine, playing a rookie cop who shoots an armed man. Because someone runs off with the suspect’s weapon, though, it looks like he was a victim, thus threatening her career on the force.
But in 1991 Curtis changed pace yet again with a drastically different role in coming-of-age movie My Girl. Although the film largely focuses on the story of young protagonists Vada and Thomas, Curtis also shone as Shelly – a funeral home worker who builds up a friendship with Vada.
Three years later, Curtis filmed True Lies – an experience that she would describe to Interview in 2015 as “the best time ever.” Also 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 1994 movie, Curtis plays Schwarzenegger’s wife, who’s unaware that her computer salesman husband is actually a secret agent for an anti-terrorism arm of the U.S. government. His cover is blown, though, when the couple are kidnapped by the organization that Schwarzenegger’s task force has been tracking. Curtis’ performance won her another Golden Globe – this time for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.
Off camera, meanwhile, Curtis’ personal life seemed to be going just as well as her thriving career. The actress had tied the knot with fellow actor Christopher Guest a decade prior to the release of True Lies, for instance. After seeing a photo of Guest in Rolling Stone, Curtis had apparently told her friend that she’d marry him one day – and that day came five months later in December 1984. But Curtis would later admit that something was wrong.
In 1986 Curtis and Guest adopted their first child, a daughter named Annie, and the family-of-three seemingly got on happily. But there was something that Curtis had been hiding. After a cosmetic procedure to reduce under-eye puffiness, you see, she’d been suffering with 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. Plus, during that decade-long span, she and Guest adopted a second child, whom they named Thomas. But three years after that, Curtis finally came clean.
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 became sober. And even with all of Curtis’ enormous show-biz successes, she considers this journey to recovery her biggest 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. [It’s] bigger than my husband, bigger than both of my children and bigger than any work, success, failure – anything.”
And with that attitude, it’s hardly a surprise that Curtis has continued to defy the odds in her personal and professional life. She carried on acting post-rehab, taking part for instance in another Halloween sequel. Halloween: Resurrection, which hit theaters in 2002, marked the eighth of the franchise’s 11 installments – of which Curtis has appeared in five.
Then, 2003 saw Curtis share the screen with Lindsay Lohan in comedy flick Freaky Friday. Thanks to a magical fortune cookie, the mother-daughter duo have their bodies switched, and they learn a little bit more about each other in the midst of the chaos. And once again, Curtis earned a Golden Globe nod for her work.
Since the early 2000s, Curtis has only continued to expand her varied career path – one that has mimicked the transformation in both her public and personal lives. She’s had roles in movies such as Christmas With the Kranks and Beverly Hills Chihuahua and featured in TV’s Scream Queens and New Girl.
Interestingly, Curtis has also pursued a handful of other interests while maintaining her status as a Hollywood star. She has written 13 children’s books so far, for instance, and has worked alongside illustrator Laura Cornell to bring her titles to life. HarperCollins Children’s Books has published such Curtis pieces as 1996’s Tell Me Again About The Night I Was Born and 2006’s Is There Really a Human Race?
Meanwhile, Curtis also blogs for The Huffington Post and, through her website, describes herself as a writer before an actor. But the star’s creativity has manifested itself in some rather more unexpected ways, too. You see, Curtis can also call herself an inventor.
That’s right: Curtis filed for a U.S. patent to protect a product of her own creation in 1987. She envisioned a diaper with a built-in pocket for holding baby wipes, which parents can easily whip out with a single hand. But Curtis wouldn’t let any companies use her idea until they came up with a way to make the items biodegradable.
Curtis has no doubt managed to surprise fans over the years, then. And yet much of who she is remains the same as it was when she first broke onto the Hollywood scene in the late 1970s. In 2018 the actress proved it once again by starring in another sequel of Halloween. As Curtis told the South China Morning Post that year, reprising the iconic role was something that she’d never imagined would happen.
But, as Curtis told Good Housekeeping, she has come to thrive off surprises and change. 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 will no doubt 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.”