Burt Lancaster

Burt Lancaster Headshot

Actor • Producer

Birth Date: November 2, 1913

Death Date: October 20, 1994

Birth Place: New York City, New York

Partners: Shelley Winters

Fame came to Burt Lancaster with his first film role, as the doomed Swede in Universal's "The Killers" (1946), but the former circus acrobat knew better than to leave his career in other hands. After less than two years in Hollywood, Lancaster formed his own production company and took the lead in such popular successes as the Technicolor swashbucklers "The Flame and the Arrow" (1950) and "The Crimson Pirate" (1952) and the noble failure "Sweet Smell of Success" (1959), later called one the greatest films of all time. The athletic, savvy but passionate Lancaster remained a box office draw for 20 years, winning a 1961 Academy Award for playing the corrupt evangelist "Elmer Gantry" (1960), but his power to pull in moviegoers waned with the death of the studio system and his own disinterest in acting the Hollywood hero. Lancaster took chances in such challenging films as "The Swimmer" (1968), "Castle Keep" (1969) and "Ulzana's Raid" (1972) while his best work through the next decade was often in European features like "1900" (1976) and "Atlantic City" (1980), which netted him an Oscar nomination. In his later years, the actor was better known to younger Americans from TV spots for MCI, the ACLU, and AIDS research, and for his final film role in the hit "Field of Dreams" (1989). Five years after his death in 1994, the American Film Institute pointed a new generation of film fans Burt Lancaster's way when they conferred upon him the posthumous designation of living legend.

Burton Stephen Lancaster was born on June 11, 1913, in the largely immigrant community of East Harlem in New York City. Lancaster's father, a second generation Irish-American and postal clerk at Manhattan's General Post Office, had won song and dance competitions in his youth based on the strength of his rich tenor voice and his mastery of several musical instruments. His mother, the former Elizabeth "Lizzie" Roberts, had had three children before him and one after his birth, who died in infancy. Lancaster's given name was in tribute to the surgeon who delivered him. Growing up in an Irish-Protestant household, he learned the ideals of honesty and charity but developed a yearning for adventure while exploring the streets of Manhattan. Early work came with a paper route and a job shining shoes outside of Macy's Department Store. A preteen Lancaster was knocked down by automobiles no less than eight times and once broke his nose falling from a fire escape. During the Depression, he performed in plays at the Union Settlement House in East Harlem and worked as a basketball coach. An incident in which Lancaster was stabbed accidentally by a friend led to a near fatal staph infection and a year's confinement in bed.

A star basketball player at DeWitt Clinton High School, Lancaster continued to New York University on an athletic scholarship. He quit NYU in 1932 to join the one-ring Kay Brothers Circus. After a single season, Lancaster moved to the Russell Brothers Circus and, later, with his marriage to acrobat June Ernst, to the three-ring Barnett Brothers Circus. Lancaster finished out the 1935 summer season working at Luna Park in Coney Island before going on government relief. Applying for a job with the Works Progress Administration, he performed in WPA-sponsored circuses. After an injury to his hand and the dissolution of his first marriage, Lancaster worked as a lingerie salesman in Chicago and singing waiter in New Jersey before joining the U.S. Army's Twenty-First Special Service Division during World War II. As part of the Army Service Forces, Lancaster put on shows for shell-shocked soldiers fresh from the frontlines, relying on his talents as a gymnast and vaudevillian to entertain the troops and his facility as a scrounger to retrieve props and costumes from bombed out buildings in Rome.

Back in the United States post-war, Lancaster pursued an acting career with some diffidence. He made his Broadway debut as Burton Lancaster in Harry Brown's wartime drama "A Sound of Hunting," the source for Edward Dmytryk's 1952 film "Eight Iron Men." Though the production closed after 12 performances, Lancaster caught the eye of Hollywood agent Harold Hecht. Hecht provided Lancaster with an introduction to producer Hal Wallis, who paved the way for the actor's debut as the doomed Swede in Robert Siodmak's noir classic "The Killers" (1946) at Universal. Siodmak and cinematographer Elwood Bredell employed stark chiaroscuro lighting to offset Lancaster's angular face and chiseled physique, creating an instant Hollywood star, along with his co-star Ava Gardner. Reviews of the day referred to Lancaster as a "brawny Apollo" and a "brute with the eyes of an angel." He celebrated his success by inhabiting plush new digs in Malibu's Pacific Palisades, into which he would move his family and his second wife, Norma Anderson, with whom he had already conceived one child.

Lancaster's film roles through the next few years traded on his tough guy image in such films as Jules Dassin's "Brute Force" (1947), Byron Haskin's "I Walk Alone" (1948) and Robert Siodmak's "Criss Cross" (1949). He varied the image slightly, playing Barbara Stanwyck's weakling husband in Anatole Litvak's "Sorry, Wrong Number" (1948) and Edward G. Robinson's conscience-bound son in Irving Reis' "All My Sons" (1948), a personal project for which he took a $50,000 salary cut. With agent Hecht, Lancaster formed his own production company. Hecht-Lancaster enjoyed its first popular success with the swashbuckler "The Flame and the Arrow" (1950), directed by Jacques Tourneur. This and subsequent films, such as Michael Curtiz' "Jim Thorpe: All American" (1951) and Robert Siodmak's "The Crimson Pirate" (1952), allowed the actor to showcase his natural athleticism, while straight dramas such as Daniel Mann's "Come Back, Little Sheba" (1952) and Fred Zinnemann's "From Here to Eternity" (1953), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, encouraged him to stretch and mature as a performer.

Pushing into middle age, Lancaster enjoyed a string of star turns in such high-profile productions as Robert Aldrich's "Vera Cruz" (1954) opposite Gary Cooper, Daniel Mann's "The Rose Tattoo" (1955) with Italian actress Anna Magnani, and as the title character in Joseph Anthony's "The Rainmaker" (1956), co-starring Katharine Hepburn. Lancaster tried his hand at directing a feature with "The Kentuckian" (1955) and financed with Hecht and producer James Hill the Academy Award-winning "Marty" (1955), starring Ernest Borgnine. A pet project was the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster production "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957), a scalding expose of the New York publicity industry with Lancaster playing a thinly-veiled caricature of gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Shot on location in Manhattan by James Wong Howe and briskly directed by Alexander Mackendrick, the film was a box office disappointment whose failure wounded Lancaster deeply. More successful that year was John Sturges' "The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (1959), in which Lancaster played frontier lawman Wyatt Earp to Kirk Douglas' hair-trigger Doc Holliday.

Lancaster won an Academy Award for his portrayal of corrupt evangelist "Elmer Gantry" (1960) but the milestone also marked the downward arc of his tenure as a Hollywood leading man. Nonetheless, the actor received another Oscar nod for playing Robert Franklin Stroud, a criminal recidivist known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962), and traveled to Italy to work for Luchino Visconti in "The Leopard" (1963), opposite Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale. A crowd pleaser for Lancaster was "The Professionals" (1966), a rousing Western co-starring Lee Marvin, Woody Strode and Robert Ryan. More pet projects included John Frankenheimer's "The Train" (1964), Frank Perry's "The Swimmer" (1968), and Sydney Pollack's "Castle Keep" (1969). Uninterested in playing heroes or characters with whom he was in agreement politically, Lancaster seemed to relish thwarting audience expectations. Going through the motions in Arthur Hiller's cash cow "Airport" (1970), Lancaster was more in his element in a string of revisionist Westerns, among them Robert Aldrich's grim Vietnam parable "Ulzana's Raid" (1972). He directed a second film, the murder mystery "The Midnight Man" (1974), and traveled to the Middle East to appear as "Moses, the Lawgiver" (1976), with his own son Bill contributing a cameo as the young Moses.

Better late-life roles for Lancaster were as Robert De Niro's autocratic grandfather in Bernardo Bertolucci's "1900" (1976) and as a military advisor in the Vietnam War drama "Go Tell the Spartans" (1979), directed by Ted Post. Now firmly in elder statesman mode, the actor scored sterling notices for his roles as an aging gangland flunky in Louis Malle's "Atlantic City" (1980) - which earned him his fourth and final Academy Award nomination - as an elderly outlaw in Lamont Johnson's distaff Western "Cattle Annie and Little Britches" (1981), and as an astronomy-obsessed Texas oilman in Bill Forsythe's wry comedy "Local Hero" (1983). Near the end of his life, Lancaster capped his career by reteaming with frequent co-star Kirk Douglas for Brian De Palma's "Tough Guys" (1986), playing the dying patriarch of a sprawling but dysfunctional Long Island family in Daniel Petrie's "Rocket Gibraltar" (1988) and appearing in the small but memorable role of an aging baseball rookie who remembers his glory days with the Chicago White Sox in the Kevin Costner classic "Field of Dreams" (1989). The production marked Lancaster's last feature film appearance and one of his most successful.

In his final years, Lancaster was a tireless spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the People for the American Way, liberal political organizations either targeted for derision by then-President George H. W. Bush as un-American or founded to counter the demographic swing in the United States toward conservatism. Lancaster also appeared in print ads supporting aid for AIDS and TV spots that urged consumers to be wary of the bold claims of the large pharmaceutical companies. Though he projected the image of ageless vitality well into his seventies, Lancaster was plagued by heart troubles, requiring quadruple bypass. In 1990, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Burt Lancaster died of a heart attack on Oct. 21, 1994, at his home in Century City, CA, just weeks before his 81st birthday. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked the actor at 19th on its list of "50 Male Movie Legends."

By Richard Harland Smith

Credits

1900

Actor
Alfredo Berlinghieri Sr
Show
2018

Cine Clásico

Producer
Show
2013

Separate but Equal

Actor
John W. Davis
Show
1991

Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair

Actor
Leon Klinghoffer
Show
1990

The Phantom of the Opera

Actor
Gérard Carrière
Show
1990

Phantom of the Opera

Actor
Gerard Carriere
Movie
1990

I promessi sposi

Actor
Federigo Borromeo
Show
1989

CopsStream

Narrator
Reality
1989

Field of DreamsStream

Actor
Dr. Archibald 'Moonlight' Graham
Movie
1989
88%

Rocket Gibraltar

Actor
Levi Rockwell
Movie
1988

The Jeweller's Shop

Actor
The Jeweller
Movie
1988

Sins of the Fathers

Actor
Geheimrat Carl Julius Deutz
Movie
1988

Control

Actor
Dr. Herbert Monroe
Movie
1987

On Wings of Eagles

Actor
Lieutenant Colonel Arthur E. "Bull" Simons
Show
1986

Il giorno prima

Actor
Movie
1986

On Wings of Eagles

Actor
Lieutenant Colonel Arthur E. "Bull" Simons
Movie
1986

Tough Guys

Actor
Harry Doyle
Movie
1986

Barnum

Actor
Phineas Taylor `'P.T.'` Barnum
Movie
1986

Tenth Annual Circus of the Stars

Host
Show
1985

Scandal Sheet

Actor
Harold Fallen
Movie
1985

Little Treasure

Actor
Delbert Teschemacher
Movie
1985

The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts

Self
Show
1983

Local HeroStream

Actor
Happer
Movie
1983
100%

The Osterman Weekend

Actor
Maxwell Danforth
Movie
1983

La Pelle

Actor
Gen. Mark Clark
Movie
1981

La Peau

Actor
Le général Mark Cork
Movie
1981

Atlantic CityStream

Actor
Lou
Movie
1980
100%

Cattle Annie and Little Britches

Actor
Bill Doolin
Movie
1980

Zulu Dawn

Actor
Col. Durnford
Movie
1979

America 2Night

Guest Star
Show
1978

Go Tell the Spartans

Actor
Maj. Asa Barker
Movie
1978

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Actor
Dr. Paul Moreau
Movie
1977

Twilight's Last Gleaming

Actor
Gen. Lawrence Dell
Movie
1977

The Cassandra CrossingStream

Actor
Col. Stephen Mackenzie
Movie
1977
36%

Exploring the Unknown

Narrator
Movie
1977

The Unknown

Narrator
Movie
1977

Victory at Entebbe

Actor
Shimon Peres
Movie
1976

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Actor
The Legend Maker / Ned Buntline
Movie
1976

1900: Extended

Actor
The old patron - Alfreds granddad
Movie
1976

The Cinema According to Bertolucci

Actor
Movie
1976

Moses

Actor
Moses
Movie
1976

Moses the LawgiverStream

Actor
Miniseries
1975

Ali the Fighter

Self
Movie
1975

Conversation Piece

Actor
Il Professore
Movie
1975

The Midnight Man

Actor
Jim Slade
Movie
1974

The Midnight Man

Director
Movie
1974

The Midnight Man

Producer
Movie
1974

Scorpio

Actor
Cross
Movie
1973

Executive Action

Actor
Farrington
Movie
1973

Ulzana's RaidStream

Actor
McIntosh
Movie
1972
90%

Ulzana's RaidStream

Producer
Movie
1972
90%

LawmanStream

Actor
Bannock Marshal Jared Maddox
Movie
1971
70%

Valdez Is ComingStream

Actor
Valdez
Movie
1971

Valdez Is ComingStream

Executive Producer
Movie
1971

AirportStream

Actor
Mel Bakersfeld
Movie
1970
75%

Sesame StreetStream

Guest
Series
1969

Castle Keep

Actor
Maj. Abraham Falconer
Movie
1969

The Gypsy Moths

Actor
Mike Rettig
Movie
1969

The ScalphuntersStream

Actor
Joe Bass
Movie
1968
70%

The SwimmerStream

Actor
Ned Merrill
Movie
1968
100%

The ProfessionalsStream

Actor
Bill Dolworth
Movie
1966
89%

The Hallelujah Trail

Actor
Col. Thaddeus Gearhart
Movie
1965

The Train

Actor
Paul Labiche
Movie
1965

Le Train

Actor
Labiche
Movie
1965

Seven Days in MayStream

Actor
Gen. James Mattoon Scott
Movie
1964
92%

The List of Adrian Messenger

Actor
Cameo
Movie
1963
67%

A Child Is Waiting

Actor
Dr. Matthew Clark
Movie
1963

The LeopardStream

Actor
Prince Don Fabrizio Salina
Movie
1963
98%

La Celda del Olvido

Actor
Movie
1962

Birdman of AlcatrazStream

Actor
Robert Stroud
Movie
1962
91%

Judgment at NurembergStream

Actor
Dr. Ernst Janning
Movie
1961
92%

The Young Savages

Actor
Hank Bell
Movie
1961

Elmer GantryStream

Actor
Elmer Gantry
Movie
1960
94%

The UnforgivenStream

Actor
Ben Zachary
Movie
1960
60%

The Devil's Disciple

Actor
The Rev. Anthony Anderson
Movie
1959

Run Silent, Run Deep

Actor
Lt. Jim Bledsoe
Movie
1958

Separate TablesStream

Actor
John Malcolm
Movie
1958
67%

Gunfight at the O.K. CorralStream

Actor
Wyatt Earp
Movie
1957
85%

The Bachelor Party

Producer
Movie
1957
80%

Sweet Smell of Success

Actor
J.J. Hunsecker
Movie
1957

Sweet Smell of Success

Executive Producer
Movie
1957

The RainmakerStream

Actor
Bill Starbuck
Movie
1956
80%

TrapezeStream

Actor
Mike Ribble
Movie
1956
75%

TrapezeStream

Producer
Movie
1956
75%

The Rose TattooStream

Actor
Alvaro Mangiacavallo
Movie
1955
63%

The Kentuckian

Actor
Elias Wakefield
Movie
1955

The Kentuckian

Director
Movie
1955

ApacheStream

Actor
Massai
Movie
1954
64%

ApacheStream

Producer
Movie
1954
64%

Vera CruzStream

Actor
Joe Erin
Movie
1954
81%

South Sea Woman

Actor
Master Gunnery Sgt. James O'Hearn
Movie
1953

His Majesty O'Keefe

Actor
Captain David Dion O'Keefe/Narrator
Movie
1953

From Here to EternityStream

Actor
1st Sgt. Milton Warden
Movie
1953
88%

Come Back, Little ShebaStream

Actor
Doc Delaney
Movie
1952
78%

The Crimson Pirate

Actor
Capt. Vallo (The Crimson Pirate)
Movie
1952

The Crimson Pirate

Producer
Movie
1952

Jim Thorpe, All AmericanStream

Actor
Jim Thorpe
Movie
1951

Ten Tall Men

Actor
Sergeant Mike Kincaid
Movie
1951

Vengeance ValleyStream

Actor
Owen Daybright
Movie
1951
100%

Mister 880

Actor
Steve Buchanan
Movie
1950

The Flame and the Arrow

Actor
Dardo Bartoli
Movie
1950

Rope of Sand

Actor
Mike Davis
Movie
1949

Criss Cross

Actor
Steve Thompson/Narrator
Movie
1948

All My Sons

Actor
Chris Keller
Movie
1948

Sorry, Wrong NumberStream

Actor
Henry J. Stevenson
Movie
1948
87%

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands

Actor
William Earle "Bill" Saunders
Movie
1948

Brute Force

Actor
Joe Collins
Movie
1947

I Walk Alone

Actor
Frankie Madison
Movie
1947

Desert Fury

Actor
Tom Hason
Movie
1947

Variety Girl

Actor
Movie
1947

The KillersStream

Actor
Ole "The Swede" Andersen/Pete Lund
Movie
1946
100%