A Biography
Burt Lancaster
An Incredible Actor

Burt Lancaster(1913-1994)

                           Burt Lancaster's passing in 1994 left a huge gap in
                        my love of Hollywood films. I grew up watching the
                        versatile actor play a surprising variety of roles.  His
                        screen choices left me off balance,  unsure about my
                        own feelings about the star's persona.  He could be a
                        hero, like Dardo in The Flame and the Arrow(1950), a
                        spirited action film from Warner Brothers or a simple,
                        lustful, worker, as in The Rose Tatoo(1955). Of course,
                        in my youth, I appreciated the magnificence of
                        Lancaster's athletic presence, the power of his smile to
                        charm an audience from one corner of the theater to the
                        other, and the sheer  physically of the actor. In later
                        years, I learned to appreciate Lancaster's attempts to
                        explore the darker side. Above all, the actor was
                        unafraid to explore himself on the screen. 
                            Burt Lancaster was 33 years old when he made his
                        screen debut in The Killers(1946). Lancaster was a
                        force from the get-go, with his powerful frame matched
                        to strong dialogue delivery. There was nothing halfway
                        about the actor. Audiences sensed danger and integrity.
                        As a measure of integrity, I always think of Lancaster's
                        partner from his acrobat days , Nick Cravat, who had
                        significant parts in many Lancaster films once the star
                        could use some of that screen power behind the
                        scenes. Over the years, beginning in 1950's Flame and
                        the Arrow and finally with the 1977 The Island of
                        Doctor Moreau, the diminutive actor made seven films
                        that starred Lancaster.
                             One of the first actors to turn producer in a big way,
                        Lancaster sought to create a varied screen presence
                        through a lot of daring work. In 1948, he formed a
                        producing company with his agent Harold Hecht.
                        Lancaster was an active producer, often battling with the
                        other artistic talent involved in his company's
                        productions. He even directed two films, the less than
                        memorable The Kentuckian(1955) and the underrated
                        Midnight Man(1974). 
                             Lancaster, clearly made of the stuff of matinee idols, 
                        doggedly sought parts infused with character. Physical
                        actors like Lancaster often get pigeon-holed into safe
                        roles that maximize those physical assets. Lancaster in
                        succeeded in creating an interesting and diverse body of
                        work. For every Wyatt Earp (Gunfight at the OK
                        Corral/1957) on his filmography, there's a  Doc Delaney
                        (Come Back Little Sheba/1952). Critics often chastised
                        the actor for a similarity of line delivery no matter what
                        role he was playing, but it would have been foolish for
                        Lancaster to fail to make use of one of his grand assets.
                        His distinctive voice made believers of movie audiences. 
                        No, he never seemed the same from role to role, despite
                        almost never using an accent. 
                             Maybe his best role of all is the darkest, most
                        mean-spirited screen portrait of an entertainment
                        personality ever, J. J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of
                        Success(1957). Playing the manipulative and ruthless
                        gossip columnist opposite Tony Curtis's sniveling press
                        agent Sidney Falco, Lancaster overpowered everyone
                        around him with brute force. Elmer Gantry in 1960 won
                        the actor his lone Academy Award as Best Actor.
                        Lancaster pulled out all the stops as the charismatic
                        evangelist, calling on his great star presence for one
                        side for one side of Gantry and exploring the the darker
                        reaches of his soul to create a lasting character of the
                        other side of the tent preacher. One of my favorite
                        Lancaster roles is in Atlantic City(1980). The star plays
                        an aging small-time hood, decaying alongside the
                        splintered boardwalks of Atlantic City, pumping up his
                        memories of the past with false bravado. In the end,
                        Lancaster gives the character of Lou a great deal of
                        dignity. It's a wonderful and typically brave Burt
                        Lancaster performance Lancaster once again received
                        an Oscar® for his work, but failed to win a second time.
                             Lancaster was paired with many stars over the
                        years, but his six collaborative efforts with Kirk Douglas,
                        another notable independent film figure, top the list. I
                        Walk Alone(1948), a strong noir effort, was the first
                        Lancaster/Douglas film and Tough Guys(1986), a
                        good-natured homage to the two actors, was the last. In
                        between was Gunfight at the OK Corral, Devil's
                        Disciple(1959), List of Adrien Messinger(1963), and
                        Seven Days in May(1964). The last film featured the
                        actor in one of his darker roles as General James
                        Mattoon Scott, a presidential candidate with a plan for
                        certain victory in the works.
                             Most stars of Lancaster's stature are often
                        associated with one female star in series of films. Not
                        with Burt. He did make four movies with Deborah Kerr,
                        and their most famous pairing, From Here to
                        Eternity(1953),  includes one of the great movie love
                        scenes of all time, with the stars embraced in a kiss as
                        the ocean surf strokes their passions. Two or three
                        movies with Virginia Mayo or Yvonne De Carlo, maybe a
                        couple with Ava Gardner, but I think the roles were more
                        the thing for Lancaster; it was never a question of
                        looking for chemistry with that certain lady. 
                             Burt wore a military uniform in nine films,  including 
                        From Here to Eternity.  Western garb was the actor's
                        most frequent costume. In fourteen oaters, the rugged
                        actor with the mile wide smile played tough heroes and
                        likeable bad guys. The Professionals(1966) is
                        Lancaster at his most charismatic, from his first scene
                        as a prisoner in dirty long-johns to the lusty quips he
                        exchanges with Chiquita while holding the Mexican
                        pursuers at the pass. Whether soldier or cowboy, hood
                        or lover, Lancaster lit the screen with mile to mile smile
                        and thrilled audiences for five decades. 
                             The actor guarded his private life with the same vigor
                        he sought fine screen roles. Lancaster was married
                        three times and had five children, and was reputed to
                        have been a wild man with the woman, yet, he stayed
                        clear of the tabloids.