Hand color tinted photo of Burt Lancaster
Burton Stephen “Burt” Lancaster (November 2, 1913 October 20, 1994) was an American film actor and star, noted for his athletic physique, distinct smile (which he called “The Grin”) and, later, his willingness to play roles that went against his initial “tough guy” image. Initially dismissed as “Mr Muscles and Teeth”, in the late 1950s Lancaster abandoned his “all-American” image and gradually came to be regarded as one of the best actors of his generation.
Lancaster was nominated four times for Academy Awards and won once, for his work in Elmer Gantry in 1960. He also won a Golden Globe for that performance, and BAFTA Awards for The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and Atlantic City (1980).
Lancaster was born in New York City, the son of Elizabeth (nee Roberts) and James Henry Lancaster, who was a postman. Both of his parents were Protestants of working-class Irish origin, with Lancaster’s grandparents having been immigrants to the U.S. from Belfast and descendants of English immigrants to Northern Ireland. Lancaster’s family believed themselves to be related to Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts; their surname originates from 11th century French immigrants to England with the surname “de Lancastre”. Lancaster grew up in East Harlem and spent much of his time on the streets, where he developed great interest and skill in gymnastics while attending the DeWitt Clinton High School. Later, he worked as a circus acrobat until an injury forced him to give up the profession. During World War II, Lancaster joined the United States Army and performed with the USO.
Though initially unenthusiastic about acting, he returned from service, auditioned for a Broadway play and was offered a role. Although Harry Brown’s A Sound of Hunting was not successful, Lancaster’s performance drew the attention of a Hollywood agent who had him cast in the 1946 motion picture The Killers. The tall, muscular actor won significant acclaim and appeared in two more films the following year. Subsequently, he played in a variety of films, especially in dramas, thrillers, and military and adventure films. In two, The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate, a friend from his circus years, Nick Cravat, played a leading role, and both actors impressed audiences with their acrobatic prowess.
In 1953, Lancaster played one of his best remembered roles with Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. The American Film Institute acknowledged the iconic status of the scene from that film in which he and Deborah Kerr make love on a Hawaiian beach amid the crashing waves. The organization named it one of “AFI’s top 100 Most Romantic Films” of all time. In the mid-1950s, Lancaster went on challenging himself with varied cinematic roles, and he satisfied longtime aspirations by forming a film production partnership (ultimately Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions) as well, having a pioneering role in the development of independent cinema. His work was recognized in 1960 when he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, a Golden Globe Award, and the New York Film Critics Award for his performance in Elmer Gantry. In 1966, at the age of 52, Lancaster appeared nude in the film, The Swimmer.
Lancaster made several films over the years with Kirk Douglas, including I Walk Alone (1948), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), The Devil’s Disciple (1959), Seven Days in May (1964), and Tough Guys (1986), which fixed the notion of the pair as something of a team in the public imagination. Douglas was always second-billed under Lancaster in these films, but with the exception of I Walk Alone, in which Douglas played a villain, their roles were usually more or less the same size.
During the later part of his career, Lancaster left adventure and acrobatic movies behind and portrayed more distinguished characters. This period brought him work on several European productions, with directors such as Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci. Lancaster sought demanding roles and, if he liked a part or a director, was prepared to work for much lower pay than he might have earned elsewhere; he even helped to finance movies whose artistic value he believed in. He also mentored directors such as Sydney Pollack and John Frankenheimer and appeared in several TV films.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Lancaster has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6801 Hollywood Blvd.
Lancaster vigorously guarded his private life. He was married three times; his first two ended in divorce: to June Ernst from 1935 to 1946; to Norma Anderson from 1946 to 1969; to Susan Martin from September 1990 until his death. All five of his children were with Anderson: Bill (who became a screenwriter), James, Susan, Joanna, and Sighle (pronounced Sheila). He was romantically involved with Deborah Kerr during the filming of From Here to Eternity in 1953.
Lancaster was an unabashed liberal, who frequently spoke out with support for racial minorities. He was also instrumental in the formation of many liberal groups, through financial support. At one point, he was rumored to be a member of the Communist Party, because of his involvement in many liberal causes. He was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and political movements such as McCarthyism, and he helped pay for the successful defense of a soldier accused of fragging another soldier during the war. In 1968, Lancaster actively supported the presidential candidacy of antiwar Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and frequently spoke on his behalf in the Democratic primaries. In 1985, Lancaster, a longtime supporter of gay rights, joined the fight against AIDS after his close friend, Rock Hudson, contracted the disease. He campaigned for Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election.
Health problems and death
As Lancaster grew older, heart trouble increasingly hindered him from working. He nearly died during a routine gall bladder operation in January 1980. Following two minor heart attacks he had to undergo an emergency quadruple heart bypass in 1983, after which he was in frail health. He suffered a severe stroke in November 1990, which left him partly paralyzed and with restricted speech. Lancaster died in his Century City apartment in Los Angeles from a third heart attack on October 20, 1994, at the age of 80. He is buried at Westwood Memorial Park in Westwood Village in Los Angeles.