Though already in his early thirties when he arrived in Hollywood, this onetime circus acrobat achieved star status after his first performance, and between his thoughtful craftwork, versatility, and the pure masculine power of his presence, Burt Lancaster continued to nurture that status over four decades. Born into the family of a New York City postal worker in 1913, Burton Stephen Lancaster evidenced his signature athleticism at an early age, obtaining a basketball scholarship to NYU. He abandoned scholastics by age 17, forming a tumbling act with lifelong friend Nick Cravat. After sustaining an injury, Lancaster turned to the Army, where he got his first taste of performing at USO shows.
After WWII, his first acting job on Broadway caught the attention of agent Harold Hecht, who on turn got Lancaster an entrée with Hal Wallis and Paramount; with his turn as the doomed gang muscle Swede Anderson in The Killers (1946), opposite Ava Gardner, who was also proving to audiences that she was more than just a pretty face. Burt’s path was set — the imposing physique and toothy smile made him an immediate object of demand, and he’d remain busy through the remainder of the `40s in projects like Brute Force in 1947, as an embittered inmate in director Jules Dassin’s powerful, noir-flavored prison drama.
1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number cast him as Barbara Stanwyck’s conflicted husband in a brilliant performance for both stars, and I Walk Alone (also ’48), the first of seven career-spanning pairings with Kirk Douglas. Criss Cross (1949), another memorable “noir” thriller slickly staged by director Robert Siodmak, also includes the film debut of young Tony Curtis. And in the taut action yarn Rope of Sand (’49), Lancaster stars as an American who’s tortured and nearly killed by Paul Henried for the location of a stash of diamonds found in the desert, also being sought by Hollywood veterans Claude Rains and Peter Lorre. Thirty years later, he confided that he did not enjoy the experience offering, “When I think of my least favorite, I think of Rope of Sand. I did that thing under great duress. I hated it.”
While his physicality made him a natural for swashbucklers, sagebrushers, war flicks and other testosterone-fueled fare, his naturally empathetic performance skills made him no less effective in straight drama, and he’d juggle his assignments with ease over the course of his `50s heyday.
Notables from the early `50s included the rousing adventure saga, The Flame and the Arrow, set in medieval Italy also starring gorgeous Virginia Mayo. In his first change-of-pace role, Mister 880, the much requested charmer based on a true story casts Burt as a newly minted Secret Serviceman taking on the challenge of finding kindly elderly counterfeiter Edmund Gwenn, who has been eluding capture for decades.
Lancaster endeared himself to filmgoers everywhere when he tackled the portrayal of the Native American super-athlete who won both the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the superb biographical drama, Jim Thorpe-All American (1951). In the offbeat adult sagebrusher Vengeance Valley, Burt becomes embroiled in a nasty feud with bad boy half-brother Robert Walker when he’s accused of fathering an illegitimate child and The Crimson Pirate (1952) saw Burt’s return to his swashbuckling talents.
His appearance in 1953’s From Here to Eternity is legendary, where his work as the sergeant locked in an adulterous affair with his C.O.’s wife Deborah Kerr landed him his first career Best Actor Oscar nomination and credited him and Deborah with one of the most romantic scenes ever filmed. When filming began, Lancaster realized co-star Montgomery Clift’s great stage presence and said, “The only time I was ever really afraid as an actor was that first scene with Clift. It was my scene, understand: I was the sergeant, I gave the orders, he was just a private under me. Well, when we started, I couldn’t stop my knees from shaking. I thought they might have to stop because my trembling would show. I was afraid he was going to blow me right off the screen.”
Burt was very effective as recovering alcoholic Doc Delaney in the powerful 1952 melodrama, Come Back, Little Sheba starring opposite frumpy, neglected wife Shirley Booth (in a Best Actress Academy Award-winning role) who are both fixated on their lost dog’s return. About his experience on Sheba, he said, “In my opinion, Shirley Booth is the finest actress I have ever worked with.”Along the way, he joined forces with Hecht to become one of the first stars to form his own production company, ensuring the quality of his own vehicles as well as producing projects for other actors like Marty, the Ernest Borgnine classic. Memorable works from the balance of the decade found him reunited with co-star Mayo in South Sea Woman (1953) and was part of a stellar cast screen icons in Vera Cruz.
His Majesty O’Keefe (1954) is a colorful adventure starring Lancaster as an American who helps the natives of a South Seas island modernize their technology and is soon considered a god by the tribe. In 1955, Burt took on double duty as actor and director in the spirited adventure saga The Kentuckian, in which he plays a widower who takes his young son with him on a journey from his native Kentucky to Texas and in 1955, He was the amorous and demonstrative truck driver in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, which also starred Anna Magnani who won an Oscar for her portrayal of a Sicilian-born widow in a small Louisiana fishing town whose faithfulness to her late husband is tested by Burt’s attentions. Then in 1956, he reunited with Tony Curtis and another fiery Italian beauty, Gina Lollobrigida in the thrilling romantic circus drama, Trapeze and the same year, as the titular character in The Rainmaker (1956), Lancaster is a charismatic con man who breezes into a drought-stricken Western town claiming he can bring the rain but winds up transforming it, and local spinster Katharine Hepburn, more with his audacity and idealism than from any unproved weather-changing powers.
His work with co-star Curtis continued with Sweet Smell of Success in 1957, another of his Hecht-Hill-Lancaster productions, playing a tough, unscrupulous gossip columnist, supposedly based on the real-life New York newsman Walter Winchell. As Wyatt Earp in the superbly mounted, landmark western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, he and dentist-turned-gunfighter Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) hunt down the murderous Clanton Gang, headed by despicable Walter Brennan in a film that authentically depicts the famous showdown. Run Silent, Run Deep (1957) brought him together with screen legend Clark Gable in an exciting, expert submarine epic, playing feuding Naval officers who find themselves going head-on against a Japanese submarine during World War II. In 1958. Lancaster again joined forces with Kerr and movie greats David Niven, Wendy Hiller and Rita Hayworth in Separate Tables, an exceptional version of the Terence Rattigan play dealing with the hopes and heartbreaks of the occupants of a British seaside resort.
He was at the top of his game in the late ’50s, finding him again opposite Douglas in The Devil’s Disciple (’59) along with contemporary actor Laurence Olivier. The `60s began with The Unforgiven, a sprawling, star-laden saga of two families in 1850s Texas in conflict with the neighboring Indians over suspected half-breed Audrey Hepburn. John Huston directed an impressive cast that featured Lancaster along with Audie Murphy, Lillian Gish, Charles Bickford, and Doug McClure.
He did unforgettable work as the huckster turned revival preacher in Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry (1960). Burt always told people he was an atheist and claimed that the only reason he consented to playing the corrupt evangelist Gantry, was because it was his way of making a statement against religious crusader Billy Graham with his anti-Graham performance being so good, it landed him the Academy’s Best Actor Oscar that year. The dominant run continued over the next several years with The Young Savages in 1961 and his brilliant performance as Dr. Ernst Janning in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment At Nuremberg, as well as his third Oscar nomination in the title role of Birdman of Alcatraz (’62).
In 1963’s The Leopard, set in mid-1800’s revolutionary Italy, director Luchino Visconti wove his masterful ode to a bygone age starring Lancaster as a Sicilian prince who seeks to preserve his family’s aristocratic way of life by marrying off nephew Alain Delon to beautiful (and rich) Claudia Cardinale. Trivia fans probably know that Burt and Visconti shared the same birthday. Next, five-time Lancaster collaborator, John Frankenheimer directed Burt in Rod Serling’s script for Seven Days in May (1964), a political thriller about U.S. president Fredric March, whose nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets motivates a right-wing general to plot to overthrow the government, also starring Douglas. Kirk once said that his role was switched with Lancaster’s after shooting began when he realized Burt wanted to play the bad guy more than he did, giving away the juicier role.
By the mid-`60s, Lancaster was desirous of taking on chancier assignments, and that, combined with the encroachment of age, served to take him out of the ranks of the elite box-office draws. His charisma continued to mark projects through the balance of the decade like The Professionals, a lusty, rousing tale about four soldiers of fortune (Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode) in the 1917 West hired by a cattle baron to rescue his kidnapped wife from a Mexican bandit. He followed with The Scalphunters, The Swimmer, Castle Keep and The Gypsy Moths.
The `70s found him with the occasional lead, but firmly nestled within star-filled ensembles or in showy support; highlights include Airport in which he headed an all-star cast of players including Helen Hayes, Dean Martin, Jacqueline Bissett, Van Heflin, Jean Seberg and the list goes on and on. Realizing the movie was successful, he said, “I don’t know why Airport was nominated for any Oscars – it’s the biggest piece of junk ever!” In 1971, Valdez Is Coming was a rugged, guns-a-blazin’ western tale, adapted from an Elmore Leonard story, starring Burt in the title role as a Mexican-American sheriff who kidnaps the wife of a wealthy rancher who has disgraced him.
Reuniting with Visconti for Conversation Piece in 1974, the compelling Italian drama stars Burt as a misanthropic American professor whose life is changed when an eccentric countess and her daughter move into his palazzo, causing him to face his latent homosexuality. Three years earlier, Burt had eagerly lobbied for the role of a dying composer discovering his homosexuality in another of Visconti’s films, Death in Venice, but that role eventually went to Dirk Bogarde. Considering his thoughts on organized religious, he surprised many of his colleagues when he accepted the role of Moses in the exciting Bible epic (1975).
He continued working in both theatrical and made-for-TV movies such as Executive Action, exploring the conspiracy theories behind the Kennedy assassination; The Cassandra Crossing;Bernardo Bertolucci’s sweeping epic 1900; Twilight’s Last Gleaming, the expert political suspense yarn in 1977; The Island Of Dr. Moreau; and the powerful, overlooked Vietnam War drama chronicalling the early days of U.S. involvement, Go Tell the Spartans (which he thought was one of the best scripts he ever read); and in 1976, he joined the all-star cast of Victory at Entebee, playing real-life Israeli statesman Shimon Peres.
Although Lancaster did not appear in the 1976 hit movie, The Bad News Bears, his son Bill Lancaster wrote the screenplay which was based on his personal experience with his famous dad as coach of his little league team and that the coach, played by Walter Matthau in the film was based on Burt who was known for being grumpy at times — and that the Tatum O’Neal role was based upon Bill himself being the odd kid out.
The `80s found the now-industry elder statesman remaining busy, opening with his final career Oscar nomination for his work as the aging low-level hoodlum of Atlantic City. He continued with more flavorful work in The Life of Verdi (1982); Cattle Annie and Little Britches; an understated comedy from Bill Forsyth about an American oil executive sent to a Scottish seacoast village full of offbeat residents, 1983’s Local Hero; The Osterman Weekend with expert action sequences orchestrated by director Sam Peckinpah; and Rocket Gibraltar, the heartfelt drama of an elderly man who, faced with imminent death, uses his birthday party as a chance to reunite his family and, with his grandchildren’s help, to fulfill his dream of being set out to sea in a Viking ritual funeral boat; and in one final sunset vehicle as well opposite Douglas, the action-comedy Tough Guys.
Interestingly enough, and even though he and Douglas appeared together so often, it’s been reported that they were actually not as close friends as it seemed. Burt said, “Kirk would be the first to admit that he’s difficult to work with – and I would be the second.” Lancaster would often turn down opportunities to receive lifetime achievement awards during the ’80s, saying in a joking manner, “Give them to my good friend Kirk” knowing that Douglas was much happier being in the limelight. According to Kirk, this rumor doesn’t hold water as he stated in his book, “Let’s Face It,” that they were indeed friends, always jokingly calling each other “Koik” and “Boit.”
He’d make a wistful final film bow as Moonlight Graham in Field of Dreams, the beautifully filmed adaptation of W.P. Kinsella’s novel “Shoeless Joe” and accrued a few more made-for-TV credits (The Phantom Of The Opera, Voyage Of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair, Separate But Equal) until 1990, when a severe stroke rendered this once most physically robust of talents partially paralyzed and largely unable to speak; a final heart attack ended his life four years later when Hollywood lost one of its most prolific entertainers. Oddly enough, Lancaster passed away the very same year as his long-time friend, circus acrobat partner and frequent co-star Nick Cravat, who appeared in nine of Burt’s films.
The very private Lancaster requested that he have no funeral or memorial service and to be cremated with his ashes buried under a large oak tree in Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles County, with only a small square horizontal plaque marking his grave with the simple inscription, “Burt Lancaster 1913-1994.”
Read more about Burt’s illustrious career in Movie Irv’s article, The Lancaster Brand: To Burt on His 100th.