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Burt Lancaster - Proud, Independent Hollywood

Updated on November 13, 2011

Burt Lancaster

Burt Lancaster was an American film actor famous for his athleticism and menacing, tough guy image mixed with a surprising tenderness. He actively sought out a variety of roles to avoid being typecast and he came to be regarded as one of the foremost actors of his generation.

He was nominated four times for Oscars and won the Best Actor Award in 1960 for his Performance in 'Elmer Gantry'. He also turned his hand to producing, directing and writing and was one of the first Hollywood actors to form his own production company. That company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, was one of the most innovative and successful production companies in
Hollywood in the 1950's. In the American Film Institute's list of the Greatest Screen Legends, Burt Lancaster is ranked at number nineteen.

The aspiring young actor
The aspiring young actor
Lang and Cravat
Lang and Cravat

Early Years

He was born Burton Stephen Lancaster on November 2, 1913 in New York City, the youngest of four children. His father was a postal worker and the family was was not well off. He enjoyed going to  movies as a child, particularly liking swashbucklers like Douglas Fairbanks, but his first ambition was not the cinema but  to become an opera singer.

He was a natural athlete and developed a great interest and skill in both gymnastics and basketball while attending the DeWitt Clinton High School in New York. When he left school in 1930, aged 17, he enrolled in New York University with an athletics scholarship, but decided that the academic life was not for him.

With a friend, Nick Cuccia, he learned to act in local dramatic productions and also picked up acrobatic skills at Union Settlement, one of the city's oldest community houses. Together they became the acrobatic duo "Lang and Cravat" performing on horizontal bars, and soon joined the Kay Brothers circus in Petersburg, Virginia.

Burt and Cuccia worked for the next seven years for several circuses as well as funfairs and nightclubs  until in 1939 Burt injured his right hand and was forced reluctantly to give it up. He
later teamed up in Hollywood in several films with Nick Cuccia who became an actor under the name Nick Cravat.

Burt found employment first as a firefighter, then as a salesman with the department store Marshall Fields and also worked restaurants as a singing waiter, but in 1942 when the US entered the war he joined the Army as an entertainer providing USO entertainment to keep up morale. He served with the Fifth Army in Italy for the last 2 years of the war.

The Killers, 1946, with Ava Gardner
The Killers, 1946, with Ava Gardner
With Shirley Booth in 'Come Back, Little Sheba', 1952
With Shirley Booth in 'Come Back, Little Sheba', 1952

Hollywood Actor

n 1945 he made his Broadway debut in 'A Sound of Hunting' which, although it folded after a short run, brought the muscular, good looking actor to the attention of Hollywood agent, Harold Hecht, who introduced him to producer Hal Wallis. He made an impressive debut as a co-star in the film noir 'The Killers' in 1946 (see photo, right, with Ava Gardner) as an ex-prizefighter and almost overnight, found himself a Hollywood star.

He began appearing in a series of adventure films such as 'Blood on My Hands' in 1948 and 'Rope of Sand' the following year and continued with 'the Flame and the Arrow' in 1950 and 'The Crimson Pirate' in 1952 in which his partner fom his acrobat years, Nick Cravat, also appeared. Although a natural for the roles in the military, Western and thriller movies in which he appeared, Burt resisted being typecast as just an action man. So, although his tough guy roles in 'Brute Force' in 1947 and and 'I Walk Alone' in 1948, seemed a natural fit, he campaigned for and obtained more diverse 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. He became increasingly in demand for more challenging dramatic roles such as that of Sergeant Warden in 'From Here to Eternity' in 1953 for which he received the first of
four Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, and he supported adaptations of notable stage plays which might not have otherwise been filmed such as Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" in 1948, and Tennessee Williams's "The Rose Tattoo" in 1955.

With Gable in 'Run Silent, Run Deep'
With Gable in 'Run Silent, Run Deep'

Hollywood Star

Burt helped change the face of Hollywood studio control by forming a series of independent production companies starting with Norma Productions in 1948, which became in 1954 Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. Through it he made the Oscar-winning drama 'Marty' in 1955 and 'Bachelor Party' in 1957 as well as films in which he himself starred such as the tense drama, 'Run Silent, Run Deep' in 1958, with Clark Gable.

He memorably played a cynical journalist in 'Sweet Smell of Success' in 1957, a charlatan preacher in 'Elmer Gantry' in 1960, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor, and in 1952 he received a third Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a rehabilitated convict in 'Birdman of Alcatraz'.

His most notable co-star was Kirk Douglas in films such as 'I Walk Alone' in 1948, 'Gunfight at the OK Corral' in 1957, and 'Seven Days in May' in 1964, and continued with 'Tough Guys' in 1986.

Elmer Gantry
Elmer Gantry

Lancaster never stopped trying to explore his artistic limits with demanding and unusual roles and in 1962 he again extended his range 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 a top box office attraction.


Lancaster was a lifelong Democrat and supporter of liberal political causes, 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 political movements such as McCarthyism. He was a longtime supporter of gay rights, and in 1985 joined the fight against AIDS after his close friend, Rock Hudson, contracted the disease.

He was known as an outspoken character with a somewhat prickly personality and although he guarded his private life fiercely he became known as something of a womaniser. He married three times, firstly to June Ernst from 1935 to 1946, then to Norma Anderson from 1946 to 1969, with whom he had five children. His third marriage, to Susan Martin, was from September 1990 until his death in 1994.

The End

As he grew older increasing ill health prevented him from working as much as he wished. He came back from a gall bladder operation in 1980 to receive a fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for the Louis Malle film, 'Atlantic City', in 1981 but he had to undergo a quadruple heart bypass in 1983 after which his health never fully recovered. A stroke in 1990 left him partly paralyzed and with restricted speech. Burt Lancaster died in his Los Angeles apartment from a heart attack on October 20, 1994. He is buried at Westwood Memorial Park in Westwood Village in Los Angeles.

Burt Lancaster Books on Amazon


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