Burt Lancaster (1913-1994)

Burt Lancaster
Burt Lancaster
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Burt Lancaster was an American film actor who, in a movie career of 43 years, became famous for his flashing smile, bright blue eyes and strong physical screen presence. Initially typecast as the tough guy villain in films noir, he deliberately sought out a variety of different roles in order to broaden his appeal. He is now regarded as one of the foremost actors of the postwar Hollywood period.

He received four Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and won the Oscar once, in 1960, for his performance as the corrupt evangelist in 'Elmer Gantry'. He was also a producer, director and writer and was in the forefront of Hollywood actors in forming his own highly successful production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, in the 1950's. In the American Film Institute's list of the Fifty Greatest Screen Legends he is placed at number nineteen.


Burt Lancaster was born Burton Stephen Lancaster on November 2, 1913, in East Harlem, New York City. He had three elder siblings and his father was a postal worker. The family was not well off but Burt grew up in a secure, loving environment. He enjoyed childhood visits to the movies particularly the swashbuckling stars like Douglas Fairbanks but his first ambition was to become an opera singer and indeed was a lifelong lover of opera and symphonic music.

When an operatic career proved impractical he switched to the more conventional aim of becoming a basketball star. He was naturally athletic and on leaving the DeWitt Clinton High School in New York in 1930 he began studying at New York University on a basketball scholarship.

Circus Performer

He quickly realised that he was not suited to the academic life and he began honing his acrobatic and gymnastic skills at East Harlem's Union Settlement, one of New York's oldest community houses, with the intention of becoming a gym teacher. He teamed up with a friend, Nick Cuccia to form an acrobatic duo called "Lang and Cravat" performing comic routines on horizontal bars. They went on the road with the Kay Brothers circus in Petersburg, Virginia, and then spent the next seven years working in fairgrounds, different circuses and nightclubs giving it up in 1939 only when Lancaster injured his hand. Nick Cuccia became an actor under the name Nick Cravat and the former acrobatic partners later worked together in several movies.

World War II

Burt was now in the position of having to seek work and he found it first as a firefighter, then as a floorwalker for the Marshall Fields department store and he also worked as a restaurant waiter until 1942 when he joined the army after Pearl Harbour. He spent 3 years with the USO providing entertainment to troops stationed in Italy, beginning as an athletic instructor, moving on to the job of entertainment specialist, where he wrote, directed and performed in sketches.

The Young Actor

His acting career started with an accidental meeting with Hollywood agent, Harold Hecht, who arranged for an audition for the war drama, 'A Sound of Hunting' which was about to be produced on Broadway. Lancaster got the part but his debut was an inauspicious one as the play flopped badly but it brought him to the notice of Hollywood producer Hal Wallis. Lancaster signed a contract with Hal Wallis Productions, Inc. on January 8, 1946 to make two films a year for seven years. In 1946 he made an impressive movie debut co-starring with Ava Gardner in the film noir 'The Killers' as an ex-prizefighter and almost immediately, found himself a successful and sought after Hollywood star.

Hollywood Star

He appeared in a series of action and adventure movies such as 'Desert Fury' in 1947 and 'Rope of Sand' in 1949 and his career accelerated in the 1950's when his good looks and athleticism made him a natural for a series of action films such as 'The Flame and the Arrow' in 1950, 'Vengeance Valley' in 1951 and 'The Crimson Pirate' in 1952 in which he was partnered once again with Nick Cravat.

Lancaster was a natural choice for the all action military, Western and thriller movies in which he appeared at this time but he successfully resisted being typecast as just an action man. He was restless to prove he was not merely a hunky screen presence, but an accomplished actor, too. So, although his performances in movies such as 'Brute Force' in 1947 and and 'I Walk Alone' in 1948, were extremely successful and seemed to be perfect for him, he actively sought other roles such as the ambitious husband of Barbara Stanwyck in 'Sorry, Wrong Number' in 1948 and the alcoholic doctor in 'Come Back, Little Sheba' in 1952.

As time went on he became increasingly in demand for more complex and challenging roles such as that of Sergeant Warden in the classic movie, 'From Here to Eternity' in 1953 for which he received the first of four Academy Award nominations for Best Actor. He supported and appeared in a movie and a radio play adaptation of Arthur Miller's Broadway play, "All My Sons" and a 1955 movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams's "The Rose Tattoo" both of which might not have otherwise been filmed .


He helped change the stranglehold of the big Hollywood studios by forming with his agent Harold Hecht a series of independent production companies starting with Norma Productions in 1948, then the Hecht-Lancaster company and, in 1954 with the writer-producer James Hill, the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster company.

Through Hecht-Hill-Lancaster he made the successful drama 'Marty' in 1955 which won Academy Awards in four categories including Best Picture and 'Bachelor Party' in 1957 as well as films in which he himself starred such as the submarine drama, 'Run Silent, Run Deep' in 1958, with Clark Gable.

After memorably playing a cynical journalist in the cult hit, 'Sweet Smell of Success' in 1957, he took the role of charlatan preacher in 'Elmer Gantry' in 1960, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor, and in 1962 he received a third Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a rehabilitated convict Robert Stroud, in 'Birdman of Alcatraz'.

One of Lancaster's most frequent co-stars was Kirk Douglas with whom he appeared seven times in such films such as 'I Walk Alone' in 1948, 'Gunfight at the OK Corral' in 1957, 'Seven Days in May' in 1964, and 'Tough Guys' in 1986. He and Douglas were not close friends off screen and maintained a healthy competitive working relationship.


Lancaster was a lifelong political liberal and democrat, and gave financial support to many liberal groups. He was also a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam, and of anti-communist witch hunts and anti-Communist political movements such as McCarthyism. He was also one of the actors and artists who joined Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in 1963. Lancaster was a longtime supporter of gay rights, and in 1985 joined the fight against AIDS after his close friend, Rock Hudson, contracted the disease.

Lancaster was known as an outspoken character with a somewhat prickly personality. He guarded his private life fiercely but in his youth was regarded as a womaniser. As well as affairs with leading ladies such as Deborah Kerr and Shelley Winters he was married three times. He met and married June Ernst, an acrobat, in 1935 when he was 21 and she 18. They separated in 1937 and divorced in 1940. He was then married from 1946 to 1969 to Norma Anderson, with whom he had five children. His third wife was Susan Martin whom he married in September 1990 until his death in 1994.

Later Career

Lancaster's career surge faltered in the 1960's due to his attempts to explore his artistic limits with demanding and unusual roles as demonstrated in 1962 when he took the lead role in 'Il Gattopardo' (The Leopard), made in Italy by Luchino Visconti. It is this constant refocusing which caused him to slip in the star rankings and after this time he was never again such a force at the box office.

He continued to give full commitment to his roles during the 1960's as in his performance as a power-hungry general in 'Seven Days in May' in 1964, and in 'The Swimmer' in 1968 but his best movies were behind him. During the 1970's he made a number of movies but none struck a popular chord. Lancaster himself began drinking heavily and his looks began to fade.

Nevertheless he received a fourth Oscar nomination as well as the New York Film Critics' Best Actor award for his excellent portrayal of an aging conman in 'Atlantic City' in 1980.

As he grew older he became active in television with such mini-series and TV movies as 'Moses, the Lawgiver' and 'On Wings of Eagles' but his naturally robust constitution began to fail and increasing ill health prevented him from working as much as he wished.

After a gallbladder operation in 1980 he had to undergo a quadruple heart bypass in 1983 after which his health never recovered. He was wheelchair bound, partly paralyzed and with restricted speech after a stroke in 1990.

Burt Lancaster died in his Los Angeles apartment from a heart attack on October 20, 1994. He is buried at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

Burt Lancaster Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actor ... Elmer Gantry (1960)

Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... From Here to Eternity (1953)
Best Actor ... Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Best Actor ... Atlantic City (1980)


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Burt Lancaster Filmography

The Killers
Brute Force
Desert Fury
Variety Girl
I Walk Alone
All My Sons
Sorry, Wrong Number
Blood on My Hands
Criss Cross
Rope of Sand
The Flame and the Arrow
Mister 880
Vengeance Valley
The Screen Director
Man of Bronze
Ten Tall Men
The Crimson Pirate
Come Back, Little Sheba
South Sea Woman
From Here to Eternity
Three Sailors and a Girl (uncredited)
His Majesty O'Keefe
Vera Cruz
The Kentuckian
The Rose Tattoo
Screen Snapshots: Playtime in Hollywood
The Rainmaker
Gunfight at the OK Corral
Sweet Smell of Success
The Heart of Show Business
Run Silent Run Deep
Separate Tables
The Devil's Disciple
Take a Giant Step
The Unforgiven
Elmer Gantry
The Young Savages
Judgment at Nuremberg
Birdman of Alcatraz
A Child Is Waiting
The Leopard
The List of Adrian Messenger
Seven Days in May
The Train