Why Tim Curry left the spotlight

Few actors have had a career as long and varied as Tim Curry's. Whether on stage or on screen, Curry has created a stable of unforgettable characters, from his first big role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show to his Tony-nominated turns in Amadeus, My Favorite Year, and Spamalot. He even hit the charts as a rock 'n' roll singer and became an on-demand voice actor, adding his unmistakable dulcet tones to dozens of animated features and television shows. At the top of his game, however, with decades of great work behind him and many projects ahead of him, a devastating health condition left him unable to perform. Even today, his appearances are low-key, except for the many fans who show up to show their appreciation for the years of pleasure he's given them.

Let's take a look back at Tim Curry's career and find out why he dropped off the map, and what he's doing today.

Fake it 'til you make it

Curry was born in Cheshire, England and eventually attended the University of Birmingham, because it offered a drama degree — a rarity at the time. According to a website devoted to his work, Curry very rarely attended class; he "even claims one of his professors tried to stop him from taking his final exams because he had never met him before." After graduating in 1968, Curry debated his potential creative and career paths. "At the time I wasn't really sure whether I wanted to be an actor or a singer," he told the New York Times in 1990, "so I talked my way into Hair and postponed the decision for another year or so."

"Talking my way into Hair" meant lying about his previous stage experience (he'd only had roles in extracurricular university plays) and his Equity (actors union) card in order to get a role in the London production of the classic hippie musical. As his website notes, "by the time the producers found out the truth, they were sufficiently impressed with his talent and presence to sponsor him for his union membership." This led to a stint in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of David Mercer's drama After Haggerty, as well as the Glasgow Citizens Theatre (where he performed with future Phantom of the Opera phenom Michael Crawford) and several productions at the Royal Court Theatre, which ultimately led to his breakout role.

Rocky Horror

At the outset of one's career, one might not consider the role of a mad scientist/"sweet transvestite from transexual Transylvania" to be destined for iconic status, if not immortality. Curry certainly wasn't thinking along those lines when he was approached by fellow Hair alum Richard O'Brien to audition for O'Brien's new musical The Rocky Horror Show, to be staged at the Royal Court Theatre. Curry just liked the script, particularly the role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter. "When I read it, I thought it was very witty and funny and the most kind of economical script I had read for a very long time," he said in a 1975 interview. "I was hesitant in that, if it worked, it might be a difficult image to shake off. But I've always thought it wasn't worth doing unless you took the risk. So I took the risk."

The play went from London to Los Angeles and eventually to the silver screen, in 1975, as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film became a cult hit and played at midnight screenings for decades, often attended by audiences that came in costume, brought props, and acted out scenes. Buoyed by the underground success of the film, Curry starred in one last stage production of The Rocky Horror Show, in New York — a run that was savaged by critics and lasted only 45 performances.

Rock star dreams

Curry's success and the notoriety of his performance in the Rocky Horror play and film yielded more than simply other roles. His indecision over whether to devote himself to acting or music continued even after those twin triumphs. According to the New York Times, "He would alternate stints of acting with making rock-and-roll records and touring with a band." Particularly after the critical drubbing of the New York production of The Rocky Horror Show, Curry took an extended sabbatical from acting and tried his hand at his other passion, music.

The results were, at best, middling, though fans of the three albums he made (Read My Lips in 1978, Fearless in 1979, and Simplicity in 1981) seem to really like them. Read My Lips, which was produced by the legendary Bob Ezrin (who helmed classics by Lou Reed, Kiss, Pink Floyd, and others) featured epic covers of songs by Irving Berlin, Joni Mitchell, and the Beatles. Fearless contained mostly original material, even yielding a minor hit single in "I Do the Rock." Simplicity, released as Curry was returning to the stage in Amadeus, mixes originals and covers (including a slick version of Squeeze's "Take Me I'm Yours"). It was Curry's last hurrah as a rock singer, but greater things awaited him as an actor.

We all float down here

Curry's career on the stage and screen has been marked by roles that by turns display his depth, humor, and interest in the offbeat. In addition to his star-making stage performance in The Rocky Horror Show, he shone as Mozart in the original 1981 Broadway production of Amadeus, for which he received a Tony Award nomination (losing to co-star Ian McKellen). He returned to the Royal National Theatre in the mid-1980s for a string of performances, including the role of Macheath in Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. He received additional Tony nominations for My Favorite Year in 1993 and Spamalot in 2005. He also played the Prosecutor in the sole performance of Roger Waters' The Wall — Live in Berlin, in 1990.

Curry is perhaps more widely known for his popular film roles as Rooster Hannigan in Annie (1982), Wadsworth the butler in Clue (1985), Darkness in the Tom Cruise-led Legend (1985), and his performances in The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Charlie's Angels (2000), as well as a host of voiceover work in children's films. Perhaps his most memorable role, aside from Frank-N-Furter, is that of Pennywise, the murderous clown in the television miniseries It, based on the epic Stephen King novel of the same name.

Private health struggles

In July 2012, Tim Curry suffered a major stroke at his home in Los Angeles. The debilitating medical event left him partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, and affected his ability to speak. Somehow, those around him managed to keep the stroke and his condition out of the news for nearly 10 months — shocking, given the preponderance of paparazzi (especially in southern California) and the 24-hour global news cycle facilitated by the internet. This was good news for Curry, an intensely private man when he's not onstage or in front of movie or TV studio cameras. By the time The Daily Mail of London became the first news organization to run the story in late May of 2013, Curry had spent months working toward getting well again. "Tim is doing great," his agent Marcia Hurwitz said at the time. "He absolutely can speak and is recovering at this time and in great humor."

In the absence of facts, though, rumors will abound, and Curry's condition was no different. The Daily Mail piece revealed he had pulled out of a play in 2011 due to medical problems — "At the time, he was said to be having debilitating asthma attacks after a chest infection." In the years since the stroke, the American tabloid National Enquirer even announced Curry had "a tragic death wish" because he continued to smoke cigarettes during his recovery.

He returned to performance ... as a voice actor

When Curry was well enough after his stroke to return to some semblance of performance work, he did so not in front of a camera, but sitting in front of a microphone in a recording studio. As early as 1992 (with FernGully: The Last Rainforest), he'd lent his voice to a plethora of characters in dozens of television shows and animated features (both theatrical releases and direct to video). While his voiceover performances earned him critical praise and fans of all ages, he initially engaged with such productions for different professional reasons. "One of the reasons I started doing cartoons," Curry told syndicated columnist Frank Lovece in 1992, "is I really wanted to play American characters, and they let me play American characters in cartoons. So it's been a way for me to work on my American accents."

Left wheelchair-bound by his stroke and thus unable to perform onstage, Curry returned to voice acting in 2014, in the Cartoon Network production Over the Garden Wall. Curry plays Auntie Whispers, the oversized, turtle-eating but ultimately decent and caring guardian of a little girl possessed by an evil spirit. Curry's performance is understated but absorbing — a far cry from his more flamboyant characters of the past, but a perfect complement to this children's tale.

A lifetime of achievement

While recuperating from his stroke, Curry stayed largely out of the public eye, but did emerge on occasion, when the work or a cause called for him to do so. In 2015, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by The Actors Fund, a human services and assistance organization for the entertainment community, and appeared at a swanky Tony Awards viewing party to accept the honor, even appearing on the event's red carpet and taking questions from the assembled press. The award reminded him of how important his work in the theater was to him and his career. "[I]t just sort of solidifies the kind of work the American acting community has given me for years now," he told L.A. Magazine shortly before the ceremony. "It's very gracious of them, I think. I was thrilled when they told me."

Curry even got to see his co-star in Annie, Aileen Quinn, who attended the ceremony. The reunion was sweet, Quinn told London's Daily Mail: "When I came up to him I was like, 'Tim, do you remember this face?' And he said, 'Of course I do!' and he had kind of this wry smile … He has that twinkle in his eye as always. Even though it's not quite the same as 30 years ago because he's older now, we had a very nice moment."  Of Curry's condition, Quinn said, "He's fighting the good fight. He's hanging in there."

A Rocky Horror revival

In April, 2015, Fox announced it was making a new version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for television, continuing a trend that had, to that point, seen such musicals as The Sound of Music and Peter Pan remade for prime time television. Early in 2016, the studio announced the cast of the production, including Curry as the Criminologist/Narrator.  "I'm coming back to the project, which I hold very dear," he told PeopleTV. "It's been exciting. It will be interesting, because it's very close to me." Asked closer to the October 2016 airing of the special whether he'd given Fox his endorsement of the project, Curry responded, "I do indeed," and that he remembered "quite a lot" about making the original film, because, in his words, "I didn't miss much." His co-stars were also excited to have him involved.

Reviews were mostly lukewarm to cold, though, with particular criticism reserved for Laverne Cox, whose stint as Frank-N-Furter was, unfairly or not, compared to Curry's original performance. "Cox's suffers most from the weight of what came before her," said the AV Club. "As the original Frank-N-Furter, in film and on stage, Tim Curry exuded both sex and danger. There was no question he could both arouse and consume you if he wanted … Cox, however, never makes Frank truly unsettling or malevolent." The New York Times concurred: "Certain performances simply can't be topped. Tim Curry's original rendition of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the 'sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania,' falls into that category."

Still singing Broadway

Tim Curry has, on occasion, performed standards and other songs from musicals at the Los Angeles cabaret Rockwell Table & Stage, appearing as a guest during the venue's regular series An Evening of Classic Broadway. At these low-key performances, he's been accompanied on vocals by Jamie Donnelly, who played dual roles as Magenta and Trixie, the Belasco Popcorn Girl, in the 1974 Los Angeles production of The Rocky Horror Show that marked the American debut for both Curry and the play.

Audience-filmed video exists of two of these performances. Two songs represent a December 2015 show — one of Curry and Donnelly performing "I Remember It Well," which Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold made famous in Gigi (1958); and the other of Curry singing solo a witty, self-penned tune called "Scene of the Crime." A review of the performance noted that Curry "has not lost an ounce of that great indomitable spirit that has always made him a sparkling stage talent"; of "Scene of the Crime," the review added, "He performed it with the same wit that has endeared him to us. Great to see him onstage again! Bravo!"

Curry and Donnelly returned to Rockwell in March 2017 for another guest slot, and Curry sang a moving take on the classic Irving Berlin number "What'll I Do." Moments like this one show that, even confined to a wheelchair, Curry still has the passion to perform, and a voice that still resonates with an audience.

Giving back to the fans

With five decades of performing under his belt, Tim Curry has amassed a multitude of fans for whom his take on characters like Frank-N-Furter, Pennywise, and Mozart have left an indelible mark. And even though he's in the spotlight less often these days, those fans will still flock to see him at every opportunity. For example, in the waves of Rocky Horror nostalgia over the film's 40th anniversary in 2015, Curry took part in a Halloween evening celebration of his first movie in West Hollywood, California, and was awarded the key to the city in front of a raucous and appreciative crowd.

Curry has also made appearances at FAN eXpos and Comic Cons (each a "geek extravaganza," according to one host city's newspaper), meeting fans, signing autographs, and answering questions during panel discussions. At one such panel, at the 2017 FAN eXpo Canada, Curry held forth for nearly an hour, discussing his favorite among his films (Clue and Muppets: Treasure Island), his favorite singer (Billie Holiday), and what kind of performance he hasn't done ("I've never been a contortionist," he told the crowd, to great laughter). Though limited in what he is able to do physically, Curry still has a keen wit, a voluminous memory, and a warmth toward his many admirers.