He was a former circus acrobat who usually did many of his own hair-raising stunts in movies. He was also a consummate actor, taking on roles that not only underlined his machismo but brought out the sensitive side of his characters as well.
He was an Oscar-winner, who gave a lot of his time to causes he deemed just.
All this, and Frank Gorshin could do a mean impression of him, too, laughing in his trademark rat-tat-tat style, eyebrows arched, speaking haltingly with that distinctive New York accent.
We’re talking Burt Lancaster here, who would have turned 100 years old on November 2nd. He passed away 19 years ago last month, but the memory lingers on, as does his larger-than-life personality in many a great film.
A whiff of that accent –and his streetwise New York City upbringing—was always there, whether Lancaster was swashing and buckling as a buccaneer in The Crimson Pirate, manipulating people as power-obsessed columnist J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, talking tough as western marshal Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, or lamenting the lost glory days—the “floy floy”—of a seaside resort as the elderly gangster Lou in Atlantic City.
A high school athlete with an expertise in gymnastics, Lancaster performed in the circus with Nick Cravat, who later co-starred in several films with the actor. Lancaster caught the acting bug while in the service, where he entertained troops in USO shows. Following a short stint on Broadway, Lancaster got a part in the oater Desert Fury, but when its release date was delayed, his attention-getting supporting part as the doomed character known as “the Swede” in the 1946 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers landed in theaters first.
His screen debut was greeted warmly by critics: “Film introduces Burt Lancaster from legit. He does a strong job, serving as the central character around whom the plot revolves,” wrote Variety.
Producer Mark Hellinger was so enamored with the actor’s effort that he gave him the lead in the intense prison drama Brute Force, helmed by Jules Dassin. Lancaster turned in a highly praised portrayal of a convict plotting an escape while being closely watched by sadistic security officer Hume Cronyn.
Lancaster’s next offering teamed him with Kirk Douglas, with whom he would eventually share the screen with six more times. The film was 1948’s I Walk Alone, a film noir in which Lancaster and Douglas are partners in a bootlegging operation turned bad. The two actors also starred together in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, with Douglas as Doc Holiday; the Revolutionary War saga The Devil’s Disciple; in a cameo in The List of Adrian Messenger; as combative members of the military brass in Seven Days in May; as participants in a real-life hostage situation in Uganda in Victory in Entebbe; and as Tough Guys, senior citizen ex-cons looking to get back into criminal activities.
An outspoken advocate for liberal causes throughout his career—he participated in the 1963 Martin Luther King “March on Washington,” backed George McGovern for President in 1972, did lots of work for the ACLU. and refused to star in Patton because he viewed the picture as pro-war at the height of Vietnam–Lancaster was nominated for Academy Awards four times: in From Here to Eternity (1953), which featured the famous scene of Lancaster and Deborah Kerr engaged in a long kiss on a Hawaiian beach as the tide sweeps over them; Elmer Gantry (1960), for which his performance as the huckster-turned-revival preacher won the Academy Award for Best Actor; The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), as real-life avian-obsessed inmate Robert Stroud; and as the aforementioned aging hood getting involved with newfangled drug dealers and wannabe casino dealer/younger woman Susan Sarandon in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980).
In the book Burt Lancaster: An American Life, author Kate Buford recounts the troubled production of Atlantic City, as the then-63-year-old actor and French director sparred regularly. Lancaster thought a broader approach worked better with his character, while Malle wanted things more subtle. ”O.K., we’ll do it the way the little froggie wants it, and then we’ll do it the way it should be done,” Lancaster said one day in front of Malle. Lancaster soon realized he was wrong, and his modified performance resulted in an Oscar nomination.
Some would argue that the actor never gave a bad performance. Certainly, he was impressive in several other films throughout his career that got overlooked by the Academy. Who could forget him as the GI who returns home to father Edward G. Robinson and family strife in the Arthur Miller-penned All My Sons (1948), or as a medieval Robin Hood-like figure in The Flame and the Arrow (1950)? What about the actor playing the hubby scheming to murder invalid wife Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)? Then there’s the alcoholic “Doc,” interested in a new, young houseguest (Terry Moore) while his marriage to Oscar-winning Shirley Booth fades away, in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), and the simplistic truck driver wooing an Italian widow (Oscar-winning Anna Magnani) in the Tennessee Williams-penned The Rose Tattoo (1955). Let’s not forget to mention his work in two knockout film noirs, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) and Criss Cross (1949), or his con man attempting to fix a drought faced by Katharine Hepburn and her western townsfolk in The Rainmaker (1956), or the German jurist who sent innocent people to death at the behest of the Nazis during World War II in Stanley Kramer’s all-star Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).
Lancaster had a restlessness and sense of wanderlust since he was a young performer. He was married three times and had five children, including Bill Lancaster, who scripted The Bad News Bears and 1983’s The Thing. Reportedly, the actor had affairs with such actresses as Gina Lollobrigida, Joan Blondell, Katy Jurado, Yvonne De Carlo, Deborah Kerr, and Shelley Winters. Rumors about other extra-curricular bedroom activities abound. He once said: “I found marriage somewhat stifling. I don’t know that I am the kind of man who ought to be married.”
Even after he became a big star, Lancaster liked to push the envelope with his craft, tackling unusual projects, and often ventured overseas. He starred in two films by Italy’s Luchino Visconti, playing an Italian prince in The Leopard (1963) and an American professor having a tough time living in Italy in Conversation Piece (1974), and he essayed the role of a family patriarch in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic 1900 (1976).
But in a 1986 with Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times, Lancaster pinpointed this practice to have begun even earlier in his career.
“I started going in new directions back in 1953,” he told the film critic. “That was when I went from From Here to Eternity to Come Back, Little Sheba.
“I always tried to do things that would expand me as an actor. You find out people don’t want you to do that. ‘Make another Vera Cruz’, they say. ‘Make another picture like Trapeze. Don’t do The Leopard, for God’s sake’!”
Lancaster was something of a trailblazer in the business side of Hollywood, as well. To keep control of his career, he joined with his agent Harold Hecht (and, at some point, producer James Hill) to form their own production company, with United Artists handling the distribution chores. Among their output were such Lancaster-starring winners as Apache, Vera Cruz, The Kentuckian (which he also directed), Trapeze, Run Silent, Run Deep, Separate Tables, and Sweet Smell of Success, all top-notch projects featuring fine lead performances. The company also produced the Lancaster-less Oscar-winners Marty and Cat Ballou.
Meanwhile, for the all-star 1970 blockbuster Airport, Lancaster, who plays the manager of the titular Minnesota facility, made a sweet deal that paid him 10% of the profits after the film took in $50 million around the world. The film took in $100 million in the United States alone. Not one to mince words, Lancaster called it “the worst piece of junk ever made.”
One of the actor’s most fruitful relationships was with director John Frankenheimer. Along with Birdman of Alcatraz, the two also made the intense drama The Young Savages (1961), with Lancaster as an assistant district attorney working on the case involving the stabbing of a blind Puerto Rican kid; the aforementioned crackerjack political thriller Seven Day in May (1964), in which Lancaster goes head-to-head against Kirk Douglas over a political coup of the U.S. government; The Train (1964), with Lancaster as a member of the French Resistance trying to stop Nazis from stealing priceless artwork; and The Gypsy Moths (1969), in which he played a barnstorming skydiver and reunited with From Here to Eternity/Separate Tables co-star Kerr.
During the same period, Lancaster took the lead in The Swimmer (1968), Frank Perry’s adaptation of John Cheever’s existential study of a desperate, broken man who encounters his neighbors while swimming from pool to pool in the backyards of a suburban town in Connecticut.
”Burt Lancaster is 52,” Cheever wrote in a letter when The Swimmer went into production in 1967. ”Lithe, comely and somewhat disfigured by surgical incisions and he looks both young and old, masterful and tearful.”
Lancaster seemed comfortable on screen in any type of film, set in any period. Although raised in a strict Protestant household, he was an adamant atheist throughout much of his adult life—so much so, in fact, he turned down the lead for 1959’s Ben Hur, even though he would have netted him a record salary. But he apparently had no problem playing Moses the Lawgiver in a 1974 miniseries shot in Europe.
The actor was featured in many westerns, dating back to the 1950s, but made a cluster of them in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were all-out meat-and-potatoes actioners such as Richard Brooks’ rip-snorting The Professionals (1965), in which he shared the screen with Lee Marvin, Claudia Cardinale and Robert Ryan; the broad (and expensive) sagebrush comedy The Hallelujah Trail (1965); and 1966’s The Scalphunters, with Ossie Davis. Things got more serious in the 1970s with such efforts as Lawman (1971), with Lancaster as a sheriff looking to bring justice to seven murderous cowboys ; Valdez is Coming (1971), based on an Elmore Leonard story involving an aging constable (Lancaster) looking for revenge after being duped into killing a man; and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Robert Aldrich’s politically complex tale of a grizzled Indian scout (Lancaster) and young army officer (Bruce Davison) trying to track down a marauding Apache leader and his followers.
Into the 1970s and 1980s—and into his 50s—Lancaster maintained his screen persona and cinematic gravitas, even if the films varied in quality. There was no shortage of thrillers, such as the self-directed The Midnight Man (1974), in which he plays an ex-con security man who discovers that residents of a college town have disturbing secrets.
Of special note is Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), a political drama centering on a renegade Air Force General (Lancaster) who takes over a missile silo and seeks support for his plan to have the government make public secrets about the Vietnam War.
Lancaster did take on another role involving the war he vehemently opposed by playing Major Asa Barber in Go Tell the Spartans (1978), a film dealing with America’s early involvement in Vietnam. In fact, when the tightly budgeted film—that was shot near Los Angeles—ran short on funds, Lancaster footed the $150,000 bill for completion. Lancaster later considered the part of the veteran officer who recognizes he must carry out futile orders from above as one of his favorites, while The New Republic’s film critic Stanley Kauffman labeled Go Tell the Spartans as “the best film I’ve seen about the Vietnam War.”
Around the same time, Lancaster took on a part played earlier by Charles Laughton (and would be later by Marlon Brando) in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), an adaptation of the H.G. Welles novel concerning a not-so good island-bound scientist experimenting with turning animals into humans. This popcorn-styled treatment of the material did ok with audiences, as Lancaster channeled his inner-Elmer Gantry as the doc messing with Mother Nature. Observed one critic: “Lancaster’s warm persona seemed a leftfield choice. However, Lancaster is ideal as Moreau, as he perfectly balances a benevolent calm with a chilling lack of remorse, as if his quest for scientific advancement has detached himself from the issues of morality and humanity.”
Lancaster—who also was recruited for such high profile TV parts as like Lt. Col. “Bull” Simons in the highly acclaimed Iranian hostage saga On the Wings of Eagles (1986), circus impresario P.T. Barnum in Barnum (1986), and hostage Leon Klinghoffer in Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair (1990) –became a dependable character actor into his later years, always bringing his star stature to supporting parts. His Texas oil executive adverse to new therapies and in love with astronomy in Bill Forsyth’s wonderful Local Hero (1983) won the actor raves, while his quietly commanding turn in Field of Dreams (1989) as Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, the ex-baseball player who never got an at-bat in the big leagues, brought soul to the part—and may have elicited tears from the audience in the process.
“You have to fight against being an antique,” he once quipped.
Ironically, one of Lancaster’s last films barely received a theatrical release, although it has remained popular over the years, thanks to home video and cable. Rocket Gibraltar (1988) showcases the 75-year-old actor, frail and weakened by a series of health problems, as Levi Rockwell, a widowed writer who gathers his family together to celebrate his 77th birthday at his summer home in the Hamptons. Rockwell hints at his final wish to his grandchildren—that he would like a Viking funeral as his sendoff, having his body set out to sea in a ship and lit on fire while his family watches from the shore.
Eventually, Levi Rockwell gets his wish, a fitting farewell to a memorable character. And Lancaster, too.
Oddly enough, the actor didn’t want—or get—a real-life funeral or memorial, allowing his work and personality stand on its own.