Movie Stars: Lancaster, Burt–Great Actor and Screen Persona

Burt Lancaster, the versatile, muscular star, had just about appeared in every Hollywood genre: film noir, biopics, thrillers, Westerns, melodramas.

The first images that come to my mind when thinking of Burt Lancaster are his distinctive smile, which reveals rows of big white teeth, unruly hair, and of course, his athletic body.

After initially building his career on “tough guy” roles, Lancaster abandoned his “all-American” image in the late 1950s in favor of playing more complex and challenging roles, and came to be regarded as one of the best actors of his generation.
Lancaster was nominated four times for Academy Awards and won the Best Actor once, for Elmer Gantry, in 1960. For that performance, he was also singled out by the New York Film Critics Circle.

Burton Stephen “Burt” Lancaster was born on November 2, 1913 to a working class family in New York City, at 209 East 106th Street. His father, James Henry Lancaster, was a postman. Both of his parents were Protestants of working-class origin. Lancaster’s grandparents were Northern Irish immigrants.

Growing Up in Harlem

He grew up in East Harlem, spending time on the streets, where he developed interest in gymnastics. At the DeWitt Clinton High School, he was a basketball star.

Lancaster was accepted into New York University with an athletic scholarship but dropped out.

At 19, Lancaster met Nick Cravat, with whom he continued to work throughout his life. Together they formed the acrobat duo “Lang and Cravat” and later joined the Kay Brothers circus. However, in 1939, an injury forced Lancaster to give up acrobatics. He then worked as a salesman, waiter, and other jobs. Lancaster joined the Army, where he performed with the Twenty-First Special Services Division, one of the military groups that offered entertainment.

The Killers: Stunning Debut

When he returned from service, he auditioned for a Broadway play, and was offered a role in Harry Brown’s A Sound of Hunting. The play ran for three weeks, but Lancaster’s performance drew the attention Hollywood agent, Harold Hecht. Hecht introduced him to producer Hal Wallis, who cast Lancaster in The Killers (1946).

The actor won significant acclaim and appeared in two more films the following year. Subsequently, he played in dramas, thrillers, and military and adventure films. In two, The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate, his friend Nick Cravat played a supporting role.

In 1953, Lancaster played one of his best remembered roles with Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity, which swept the Oscars. But the film became famous and iconic due to one scene, in which he made love to Deborah Kerr on a Hawaiian beach amid the crashing waves.

During the latter part of his career, Lancaster sought demanding roles and portrayed more interesting characters in films directed by such European masters as Luchino Visconti (“The Leopard”) Bernardo Bertolucci (“1900”), and Louis Malle (“Atlantic City”).

In 1952, Lancaster co-produced The Crimson Pirate with producer Harold Hecht (who had previously produced three Lancaster films under his own production company Norma Productions; Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), The Flame and the Arrow (1950), and Ten Tall Men (1951)).

In 1954, they collaborated again on His Majesty O’Keefe, with Lancaster acting and Hecht producing. The writer for this film was James Hill. The trio started a production company, originally with Hill as a silent partner, under the name “Hecht-Lancaster.” The name was later extended to include all three with Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, the most successful star-driven independent company in Hollywood in the 1950s.

The H-H-L team impressed Hollywood with its track record, as Life wrote in 1957, “after the independent production of a baker’s dozen of pictures it has yet to have its first flop … (They were also good pictures.).” This company was responsible for making Apache (1954), Vera Cruz (1954), Marty (1955) (which won both the Best Picture Oscar and the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival), The Kentuckian (1955), Trapeze (1956), The Bachelor Party (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Separate Tables (1958), The Devil’s Disciple (1959), Take a Giant Step (1959), and The Unforgiven (1960).

The company dissolved in 1960, but Hecht produced three more films in which Lancaster acted, The Young Savages (1961) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), and Ulzana’s Raid (1972).

In the late 1960s, Lancaster teamed with Roland Kibbee to form “Norlan Productions” and along with “Bristol Films” produce The Scalphunters (1968),Valdez Is Coming (1971), and The Midnight Man (1974).

Lancaster directed two films, The Kentuckian (1955) and The Midnight Man (1974).

Career Trends

All in all, he acted in 17 films produced by Harold Hecht, and 8 produced by Hal B. Wallis.

Lancaster’s most frequent star was not a female, but a male, Kirk Douglas, appearing together in I Walk Alone (1948), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Devil’s Disciple (1959), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963),Seven Days in May (1964), Victory at Entebbe (1976) and Tough Guys (1986). The public perceived them as a team, and the duo appeared together for the last time in Tough Guys.

Despite the size of their roles, Douglas was always second-billed after Lancaster in these films.

In I Walk Alone, Douglas played a villain, and in Seven Days in May, Douglas’ part was larger than Lancaster’s.

Lancaster starred in three films with Deborah Kerr: From Here to Eternity, Separate Tables, and The Gypsy Moths.

John Frankenheimer directed Lancaster in five films: The Young Savages (1961), The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), The Train (1964), and The Gypsy Moths (1969).

The most amazing thing about Lancaster’s illustrious career is that, unlike many stars, he continued to develop as a dramatic actor up to the end of his life.

Arguably, his strongest performances is in the 1981 Atlantic City, for which he received his last Oscar nomination.

Atlantic City (1981): Louis Malle’s Oscar-Nominated Fable, Starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon in Top Form

Lancaster’s last major film was Field of Dreams (1989).

He died in in Los Angeles from a third heart attack on October 20, 1994, age 80.

For his contribution to film, Lancaster has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard.

Salary (source IMDB)

The Killers (1946) $20,000
Brute Force (1947) $45,000
Desert Fury (1947) $1,250/week
From Here to Eternity (1953)$120,000
The Young Savages (1961) $150,000
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) $150,000
The Train (1964) $150,000
The Hallelujah Trail (1965) $150,000
Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977) $750,000