Burton Stephen “Burt” Lancaster (November 2, 1913 – October 20, 1994) was an American film actor noted for his athletic physique, blue eyes, and distinctive smile (which he called “The Grin”). After initially building his career in “tough guy” roles, Lancaster abandoned his all-American image in the late 1950s in favor of more complex and challenging parts, and came to be regarded as one of the best motion picture actors in history.
Lancaster was nominated four times for Academy Awards and won once for his work in Elmer Gantry in 1960. He also won a Golden Globe for that performance and BAFTA Awards for The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and Atlantic City (1980). His production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, was the most successful and innovative star-driven independent production company in Hollywood in the 1950s, making movies such as Marty (1955), Trapeze (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), and Separate Tables (1958).
In 1999, the American Film Institute named Lancaster 19th among the greatest male star of classic Hollywood cinema.
Lancaster was born in Manhattan, New York City, at his parents’ home at 209 East 106th Street, between Second and Third Avenues, today the site of Benjamin Franklin Plaza. Lancaster was the son of Elizabeth (née Roberts) and James Henry Lancaster, who was a mailman. Both of his parents were Protestants of working-class origin. All of Lancaster’s grandparents were Irish immigrants to the U.S.; his maternal grandparents were from Belfast, and were descendants of English immigrants to Ireland. The family believed themselves to be related to Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts. Lancaster grew up in East Harlem and spent much of his time on the streets, where he developed great interest and skill in gymnastics while attending DeWitt Clinton High School, where he was a basketball star. Before he graduated from DeWitt Clinton, his mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Lancaster was accepted into New York University with an athletic scholarship, but subsequently dropped out.
Circus career and military
At the age of 19, Lancaster met Nick Cravat, with whom he developed a lifelong partnership. Together they learned to act in local theatre productions and circus arts at Union Settlement, one of the city’s oldest settlement houses. They formed the acrobat duo Lang and Cravat in the 1930s and soon joined the Kay Brothers circus. However, in 1939, an injury forced Lancaster to give up the profession, with great regret. He then found temporary work, first as a salesman for Marshall Fields and then as a singing waiter in various restaurants.
The United States having then entered World War II, Lancaster joined the United States Army in 1942 and performed with the Army’s Twenty-First Special Services Division, one of the military groups organized to follow the troops on the ground and provide USO entertainment to keep up morale. He served with General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army in Italy from 1943-45.
Although initially unenthusiastic about acting, he returned from service, auditioned for a Broadway play, and was offered a role. Although Harry Brown’s A Sound of Hunting had a run of only three weeks, Lancaster’s performance attracted the interest of a Hollywood agent, Harold Hecht and, through him, Lancaster was brought to the attention of producer Hal B. Wallis, who signed him to an eight movie contract. Lancaster’s first filmed movie was Desert Fury. Fortunately for Lancaster, producer Mark Hellinger approached him to star in The Killers, in 1946, which was completed and released prior to Desert Fury and to great critical success.
The tall, muscular actor won significant acclaim and appeared in two more films the following year. Subsequently, he played in a variety of films, especially in dramas, thrillers, and military and adventure films. In two, The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate, a friend from his circus years, Nick Cravat, played a key supporting role, and both actors impressed audiences with their acrobatic prowess.
In 1953, Lancaster played one of his best-remembered roles with Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. The American Film Institute acknowledged the iconic status of the scene from that film in which Deborah Kerr and he make love on a Hawaiian beach amid the crashing waves. The organization named it one of “AFI’s top 100 Most Romantic Films” of all time.
Lancaster won the 1960 Academy Award for Best Actor, a Golden Globe Award, and the New York Film Critics Award for his performance in Elmer Gantry. He followed this with widely diverse roles, including a Nazi war criminal on trial for his life in Judgment at Nuremberg, a convict serving a life sentence in Birdman of Alcatraz, and a proud Italian nobleman in The Leopard. He also played a U.S. Air Force general attempting a coup against the government in the political thriller Seven Days in May.
In 1966, at the age of 52, Lancaster appeared nude in director Frank Perry’s film, The Swimmer in what the critic Roger Ebert called, “his finest performance.” Prior to working on The Swimmer, Lancaster was terrified of the water because he did not know how to swim. In preparation for the film, the athlete took swimming lessons from UCLA swim coach Bob Horn. The film was not released until 1968, when it proved to be a commercial failure, though Lancaster remained proud of the movie and his performance.
Lancaster co-starred with Lee Marvin in the 1966 western adventure film, The Professionals, and with Dean Martin in the first of the so-called disaster film blockbusters, Airport, one of the biggest box-office hits of 1970 and, at that time, reportedly the highest-grossing film in the history of Universal Pictures.
During the latter part of his career, Lancaster left adventure and acrobatic films behind and portrayed more distinguished characters. This period brought him work on several European productions, with directors such as Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci. Lancaster sought demanding roles, and if he liked a part or a director, he was prepared to work for much lower pay than he might have earned elsewhere. He even helped to finance movies in whose artistic value he believed. He also mentored directors such as Sydney Pollack and John Frankenheimer and appeared in several television films. Lancaster’s last film was Field of Dreams (1989).
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Lancaster has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard.
Directing and producing
Lancaster was an early and successful actor/producer. When approached to venture into the film business, after having been in the theater for only a brief period, he chose not to sign with a major studio. Instead he signed with agent Harold Hecht, who promised him the opportunity to produce their own movies within five years of hitting Hollywood. Hecht kept his promise and the two formed a partnership production company under the name Norma Productions, named after Lancaster’s wife. Their first movie together was Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, released in 1948. Hecht and Lancaster produced two additional films in the early 1950s under the Norma Productions company; The Flame and the Arrow in 1950 and Ten Tall Men in 1951, two swashbucklers selected to showcase Lancaster’s acrobatic skills.
In 1951 the actor/producer duo changed the company’s name to Hecht-Lancaster Productions. The first film under the new name was another swashbuckler: The Crimson Pirate, released in 1952. This was followed by Apache two years later. In 1954 Lancaster was hired to star in the Warner Brothers film His Majesty O’Keefe. This proved to be a turning point for both Lancaster and his company. Lancaster had insisted that the film be produced by Hecht. This gave him the freedom to (unaccreditedly) co-direct the film, his first foray into the position. His Majesty O’Keefe featured a new Hollywood writer on board. James Hill immediately hit it off with Lancaster and Hecht and he was invited to co-produce upcoming Hecht-Lancaster films, giving up his writer position. Hill co-produced the next two Hecht-Lancaster films; Vera Cruz, released in 1954 and The Kentuckian released in 1955 and directed by Lancaster in his accredited directorial debut.
Without Hill, Hecht and Lancaster produced Marty, a 1955 film starring Ernest Borgnine, which won both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. Marty was also the first film produced by the company not to feature Lancaster in an acting role. Vera Cruz had been a huge success but Marty secured Hecht-Lancaster as one of the most successful independent production companies in Hollywood at the time. In 1955 Hill was made an equal partner in the company and the name was upgraded to Hill-Hecht-Lancaster, releasing their first film in 1956; Trapeze. Trapeze went on to become the production company’s top box office success. Following Trapeze Lancaster worked with Tony Curtis again on Sweet Smell of Success (released in 1957), a co-production between Hill-Hecht-Lancaster and Curtis’ own company Curtleigh Productions (co-owned with his wife, Janet Leigh).
Hill-Hecht-Lancaster produced seven additional films in the late 1950s; four starring Lancaster; Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Separate Tables (1958), The Devil’s Disciple (1959) and The Unforgiven (1960), and three without Lancaster: The Bachelor Party (1956), Take a Giant Step (1959) and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1960). Additionally Hill-Hecht-Lancaster served as the production company for the 1960-1961 TV series Whiplash. The “H-H-L” team impressed Hollywood with its success; as Life wrote in 1957, “[a]fter the independent production of a baker’s dozen of pictures, it has yet to have its first flop … (They were also good pictures.).”
The Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions company dissolved in 1960, after Hill ruptured his relation with both Hecht and Lancaster. Hill went on to produce a single additional film, The Happy Thieves in a new production company, Hillworth Productions, co-owned with his wife Rita Hayworth. Hecht and Lancaster worked on two more films together; The Young Savages, released in 1961 and Birdman of Alcatraz, released in 1962 through Norma Productions as the production company’s final film. Hecht went on to produce five films without Lancaster’s assistance, through his company Harold Hecht Films Productions between 1961 and 1967, including another Academy Award winner, Cat Ballou, starring Lee Marvin and Jane Fonda. Lancaster and Hecht would reunite twelve years after Birdman of Alcatraz, for what ended up being Hecht’s final film, Ulzana’s Raid in 1972.
In 1967 Lancaster formed a new partnership with Roland Kibbee, who had already worked as a writer on five Lancaster projects; Ten Tall Men, The Crimson Pirate, Three Sailors and a Girl (in which Lancaster made a cameo appearance), Vera Cruz and The Devil’s Disciple. Through Norlan Productions, Lancaster and Kibbee produced The Scalphunters in 1968, Valdez Is Coming in 1971 (which was also written by Kibbee) and The Midnight Man in 1974. The Midnight Man was written and directed by both Kibbee and Lancaster, and would be the actor’s final film as a producer. In his career, Lancaster produced twenty-three films, directed three and wrote for one.
Burt Lancaster appeared in a total of seventeen films produced by his agent Harold Hecht. Eight of these were co-produced by James Hill. He also appeared in eight films produced by Hal B. Wallis and two with producer Mark Hellinger. Although Lancaster’s work alongside Kirk Douglas was mostly known as a successful pair of actors, Douglas in fact produced four films for the pair, through his production companies Bryna Productions and Joel Productions. Roland Kibbee also produced three Lancaster films. Lancaster was also cast in two Stanley Kramer productions.
- John Frankenheimer directed five films with Lancaster: The Young Savages (1961), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), The Train (1964), and The Gypsy Moths (1969).
- He was directed four times by Robert Aldrich.
- He was directed three times by Robert Siodmak.
- He was directed three times by Sydney Pollack.
- He was directed twice by the following directors; Byron Haskin, Daniel Mann, John Sturges, John Huston, Richard Brooks, Alexander Mackendrick, Luchino Visconti and Michael Winner.
Roland Kibbee wrote for seven Lancaster films.
- Lancaster often asked his close friend Nick Cravat to appear in his films. They costarred in ten: The Flame and the Arrow (1952), Ten Tall Men (1951), The Crimson Pirate (1952), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), The Scalphunters (1968), Airport (1970), Valdez Is Coming (1971), Ulzana’s Raid (1972), The Midnight Man (1974), and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977).
- Lancaster made seven films with Kirk Douglas, 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). Additionally, the pair acted in comedy-musical sketches for the 1958 and 1959 Oscar celebrations. Although perceived as an amicable collaboration, the two actors were never friends or fond of each other in real life, as was depicted in their respective biographical books.
- Lancaster appeared in six films with Whit Bissell; Brute Force, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Manchurian Candidate, Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May and Airport.
- Lancaster appeared in four films with Sam Levene; The Killers, Brute Force, Three Sailors and a Girl and Sweet Smell of Success.
- Lancaster appeared in four films with Tony Curtis; Criss Cross, Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success and The List of Adrian Messenger.
- Lancaster starred in three films with each of the following actors; Deborah Kerr ( From Here to Eternity, Separate Tables and The Gypsy Moths), Ava Gardner ( The Killers, Seven Days in May and The Cassandra Crossing ), Telly Savalas ( The Young Savages, Birdman of Alcatraz and The Scalphunters), Edmond O’Brien ( The Killers, Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May), Hugh Marlowe ( Elmer Gantry, Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May), John McIntire (Apache, The Kentuckian and Elmer Gantry), Robert Ryan ( The Professionals, Lawman and Executive Action) and Ernest Borgnine ( From Here to Eternity, Vera Cruz and Marty).
Lancaster used make-up veteran Robert Schiffer in twenty credited films, hiring Schiffer on nearly all the films he produced.
Health problems and death
As Lancaster grew older, he became increasingly plagued by atherosclerosis, barely surviving a routine gall bladder operation in January 1980. Following two minor heart attacks, he had to undergo an emergency quadruple coronary bypass in 1983, after which he was extremely weak. However, he still managed to continue acting, and attended a 1988 Congressional hearing with old colleagues such as Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers to protest media magnate Ted Turner’s plan to colorize various black-and-white films from the 1930s and 1940s. His acting career ended after he suffered a stroke on November 30, 1990, which left him partly paralyzed and largely unable to speak. He died in his Century City apartment in Los Angeles from a third heart attack at 4:50 am on October 20, 1994 at the age of 80.
Lancaster was cremated and his ashes were buried under a large oak tree in Westwood Memorial Park located in Westwood Village, Los Angeles County, California. A small, square ground plaque inscribed only with “BURT LANCASTER 1913-1994” marks his final resting place. Upon his death, as he requested, he had no memorial or funeral service.
Marriages and relationships
Lancaster vigorously guarded his private life. He was married three times. His first two marriages – to June Ernst from 1935 to 1946 and to Norma Anderson from 1946 to 1969 – ended in divorce. His third marriage, to Susan Martin, was from September 1990 until his death in 1994. All five of his children were with Norma Anderson: Bill, who became a screenwriter, James, Susan, Joanna, and Sighle (pronounced Sheila). He claimed he was romantically involved with Deborah Kerr during the filming of From Here to Eternity in 1953. However, Kerr stated that while there was a spark of attraction, nothing ever happened. He did have an affair with Joan Blondell. In her 1980 autobiography, Shelley Winters claimed to have had a long affair with him. Years after his death, documents released by the FBI and his family revealed that Lancaster had been troubled by bouts of insecurity and depression and had an intensely predatory sex life which included many affairs with men.
Lancaster was a vocal supporter of liberal political causes, and frequently spoke out in support of racial minorities, including at the March on Washington in 1963. He was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and political movements such as McCarthyism, and he helped pay for the successful defense of a soldier accused of “fragging” (murdering) another soldier during that war. In 1968, Lancaster actively supported the presidential candidacy of antiwar Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and frequently spoke on his behalf during the Democratic primaries. He campaigned heavily for George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election. In 1985, Lancaster joined the fight against AIDS after his close friend, Rock Hudson, contracted the disease. He campaigned for Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election.
Box office ranking
For a number of years exhibitors voted Lancaster as among the most popular stars:
- 1950 – 16th (US)
- 1951 – 25th (US)
- 1952 – 24th (US)
- 1953 – 17th (US)
- 1954 – 13th (US), 7th (UK)
- 1955 – 16th (US)
- 1956 – 4th (US), 3rd (UK)
- 1957 – 15th (US), 3rd (UK)
- 1958 – 20th (US)
- 1960 – 19th (US)
- 1961 – 11th (US)
- 1962 – 10th (US)