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Burton Stephen "Burt" Lancaster (November 2, 1913 – October 20, 1994) was an American film actor and star, noted for his athletic physique, distinct smile (which he called "The Grin") and, later, his willingness to play roles that went against his initial "tough guy" image. Initially dismissed as "Mr Muscles and Teeth", in the late 1950s Lancaster abandoned his "all-American" image and gradually came to be regarded as one of the best actors of his generation. 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).
Lancaster was born in New York City, the son of Elizabeth (née Roberts) and James Henry Lancaster, who was a postman. Both of his parents were Protestants of working-class Irish origin, with Lancaster's grandparents having been immigrants to the U.S. from Belfast and descendants of English immigrants to Northern Ireland. Lancaster's family believed themselves to be related to Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts; their surname originates from 11th century French immigrants to England with the surname "de Lancastre". 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 the DeWitt Clinton High School. Later, he worked as a circus acrobat with childhood friend Nick Cravat -- who later appeared in nine films with Lancaster -- until an injury forced Lancaster to give up the circus. During World War II, Lancaster joined the United States Army and performed with the USO. Though 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 was not successful, Lancaster's performance drew the attention of a Hollywood agent, Harold Hecht, who introduced him to Hal Wallis who cast Lancaster in The Killers (1946). (Hecht and Lancaster later formed several production companies in the 50's to give Lancaster greater creative control.) 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 leading 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 he and Deborah Kerr 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. In the mid-1950s, Lancaster went on challenging himself with varied cinematic roles, and he satisfied longtime aspirations by forming a film production partnership, Hecht-Lancaster Productions (eventually Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions) as well, having a pioneering role in the development of independent cinema. His work was recognized in 1960 when he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, a Golden Globe Award, and the New York Film Critics Award for his performance in Elmer Gantry. In 1966, at the age of 52, Lancaster appeared nude in the film, The Swimmer.
Lancaster made several films over the years with Kirk Douglas, including I Walk Alone (1948), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), The Devil's Disciple (1959), Seven Days in May (1964), and Tough Guys (1986), which fixed the notion of the pair as something of a team in the public imagination. Douglas was always second-billed under Lancaster in these films, but with the exception of I Walk Alone, in which Douglas played a villain, their roles were usually more or less the same size.
During the later part of his career, Lancaster left adventure and acrobatic movies 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, was prepared to work for much lower pay than he might have earned elsewhere; he even helped to finance movies whose artistic value he believed in. He also mentored directors such as Sydney Pollack and John Frankenheimer and appeared in several TV films.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Lancaster has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6801 Hollywood Blvd. Lancaster vigorously guarded his private life. He was married three times, his first two marriages ending in divorce — to June Ernst from 1935 to 1946; to Norma Anderson from 1946 to 1969; and to Susan Martin from September 1990 until his death. All five of his children were with Anderson: Bill (who became a screenwriter), James, Susan, Joanna, and Sighle (pronounced Sheila). He was romantically involved with Deborah Kerr during the filming of From Here to Eternity in 1953. Lancaster was an unabashed liberal, who frequently spoke out with support for racial minorities. He was also instrumental in the formation of many liberal groups, through financial support. At one point, he was rumored to be a member of the Communist Party, because of his involvement in many liberal causes.
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 another soldier during the war. In 1968, Lancaster actively supported the presidential candidacy of antiwar Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and frequently spoke on his behalf in the Democratic primaries. In 1985, Lancaster, a longtime supporter of gay rights, joined the fight against AIDS after his close friend, Rock Hudson, contracted the disease. He campaigned for Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election
As Lancaster grew older, heart trouble increasingly hindered him from working. He nearly died during a routine gall bladder operation in January 1980. Following two minor heart attacks he had to undergo an emergency quadruple heart bypass in 1983, after which he was in frail health. He suffered a severe stroke in November 1990, which left him partly paralyzed and with restricted speech. Lancaster died in his Century City apartment in Los Angeles from a third heart attack on October 20, 1994, at the age of 80. He is buried at Westwood Memorial Park in Westwood Village in Los Angeles.
Burton Stephen Lancaster, actor: born New York City 2 November 1913; married 1935 June Ernst (marriage dissolved 1936), 1946 Norma Anderson (two sons, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1969), 1990 Suzy Scherer; died Los Angeles 21 October 1994.
ROBERT SIODMAK's The Crimson Pirate is prefaced by a brief pre- credit sequence. In it Burt Lancaster, resplendent in striped crimson pants, silver dripping from his ears, with a grin as wide as a Cadillac's radiator, swings out from the rigging of his brig to the very foreground of the screen, so close that one half expects him to leap through it as gracefully as if it were merely a paper hoop in a circus ring and alight in the auditorium, breathless but upright. Directly addressing the audience, he asks them to believe everything they are about to see in the film. Just a moment later, however, following a second, equally implausible leap and a second, equally irresistible grin, he amends this to 'No - believe only half what you see]'
Yet the paradox of the film is that Lancaster's prodigious acrobatics, which find him, accompanied by Nick Cravat, swinging from balcony to wall, from wall to window, from window to rooftop and from rooftop right into the audience's laps, were entirely authentic. Lancaster, already the recipient of an athletics shcolarship to New York University, actually launched his show-business career in the Thirties as a professional acrobat, partnering the wiry, diminutive if not quite dwarfish Cravat (as 'Lang and Cravat') in third- rate circuses, night clubs and vaudeville theatres. And in such early swashbuckling movies as Jacques Tourneur's The Flame and the Arrow (1950), The Crimson Pirate (1952) and Byron Haskin's His Majesty O'Keefe (1954), in Carol Reed's melodrama Trapeze (1956) and also in numerous westerns, he was one of the rare Hollywood actors to dispense with stuntmen.
Though he would subsequently extend his range to the point where it became impossible to imagine a genre to which his personality was unsuited, and at the close of his career he would appear totally at ease in films (specifically of European origin) which succeeded in eluding the tentacular influence of genre altogether, the essence of Lancaster's presence as an actor continued to reside in this intense, if increasingly introverted, physicality - the physicality, so to speak, of the acrobat in mufti. Nor was it without latent sexual connotations. At an era of film-making when moral convention required that bodies be 'masked', like faces in a carnival, his glistening, muscular, irremediably proletarian physique tended to remain disturbingly indiscreet.
Lancaster, who had been raised in the violent East Harlem area of New York, mooched around for years after the failure of his circus act. In 1940 he enlisted and saw action with Special Services in the North African and Italian campaigns. Then in 1945, according to the sort of Hollywood legend of which one should probably believe only half, he chanced to share an elevator ride with a theatrical producer who assumed that someone so rugged, virile and good-looking could only be an actor and who consequently invited him to audition for a leading role in a Broadway play, The Sound of Hunting.
Whatever the truth of that, it is a fact that, by virtue of his performance, he was almost at once cast opposite Ava Gardner in Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946), a tight, atmospheric, low-budget thriller that established Lancaster's reputation in Hollywood.
Lancaster's career spanned 40 years and encompassed more than 50 movies; and, at least until the Seventies and Eighties (ungrateful decades for stars of his generation) when Hollywood utterly capitulated to the Fordist (Henry, not John) assembly-line ideology of remakes and premakes, sequels and prequels, he had the good fortune to make fewer outright duds than most of his peers.
His natural extroversion and ebullience were seen to advantage in westerns, of which some memorable examples were Robert Aldrich's Apache and Vera Cruz (both 1954), John Sturges's Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), in which he played Wyatt Earp to the Doc Holliday of Kirk Douglas (a not dissimilar actor whose career has run oddly parallel to Lancaster's), John Huston's The Unforgiven (1960), Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid (1972), which was widely read as an allegory of the Vietnam War, and Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).
By what is only an apparent paradox, however, his physicality was intensified when, chafed and trammelled and internalised, it was left to coil in upon itself. In Brute Force (1947), a repellently grim prison melodrama by Jules Dassin, the sweaty glitter of his bared torso was transformed by William Daniels's high-contrast cinematography into an Expressionist icon not unworthy of O'Neill's Hairy Ape. In Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity (1953) he made love to Deborah Kerr in a beach scene that set a standard in romantic soft-core eroticism for years to come and represents (as many parodies bear witness) the filmic equivalent of an oft-fingered page in some faintly risque bestseller. In Daniel Mann's The Rose Tattoo (1955, from Tennessee Williams's play) and Joseph Anthony's The Rainmaker (1956), his brawny volupte caught the eye of, respectively, a volcanic Italian widow played by Anna Magnani and a simpering, strait-laced American spinster played by Katharine Hepburn.
As was clear from his performance as Sinclair Lewis's evangelist in Richard Brooks's glib, florid, effective adaptation of Elmer Gantry (1960), a performance for which he won his sole Oscar, Burt Lancaster and ham were no strangers to one another. In most of his dramatic roles, though, he was not the common type of ham whose characterisations are all surface. In his case, the bias was reversed: he would contrive rather to suggest that too much was going on underneath the surface, even in fairly innocuously written exchanges. He possessed what might be called an obtrusive inwardness, which, if not reined in, would occasionaly blister out in an irritating rash of tics and mannerisms. Yet he was the kind of actor, too, who was seldom capable of disguising his own intelligence, irrespective of the film's, thereby conferring an unwarranted toughness and integrity on routine westerns, thrillers and war movies.
That intelligence also served him well as a producer. In 1948, along with his agent Harold Hecht (the man who spotted him on Broadway) and the producer Harold Hill, he founded one of the movie industry's very first independent production companies, responsible for, notably, Marty (1955), The Bachelor Party (1957), Separate Tables (1958), The Devil's Disciple (1959) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962, for whose title-role Lancaster won an award at that year's Venice Festival). The best of all Hecht-Hill-Lancaster films was one of the masterpieces of the Fifties, Alexander Mackendrick's squalid, glitzy Sweet Smell of Success (1957), which starred Lancaster, in his own finest performance, as the megalomaniac newspaper columnist JJ Hunsecker, remembered for the phrase with which he would ask a toadying press agent (played by Tony Curtis) for a light: 'Match me, Sidney.'
In 1962, when his initial choice, Marlon Brando, had the temerity to decline, Luchino Visconti amazed his court of collaborators by offering Lancaster the role of the elderly, disabused Prince Fabrizio in his film version of Lampedusa's The Leopard. The film is a masterpiece, and Lancaster's performance is part of what makes it so, but Visconti could only achieve what he sought from Lancaster by rendering him, in the words of the director's biographer, Laurence Schifano, 'so docile that he became (his) admiring shadow'. Somewhat euphemistically, Visconti himself described the reign of terror he felt obliged to impose in order to turn an ex- athlete and swashbuckler into a Sicilian prince as a 'gradual development, hard to achieve, that benefited the film'. And he and Lancaster were to work together again, 13 years later, in the director's penultimate film, Conversation Piece (1975), about an ageing professor whose monastic fastness is abruptly invaded by the external world. Referring to Visconti's own undoubted identification with the role, Lancaster said, 'I knew the old man I was playing was him. In fact, he told me so.' The film is thus not merely about a lonely, egocentric old aesthete but by one, and it is precisely its narcissism, its forgivable solipsism, that makes it so moving an experience.
From the last years of Lancaster's career two performances will be fondly recalled: that of the gentle gangster adrift in Louis Malle's Atlantic City (1980); and that of the Texan oilman who, from a private helicopter silhouetted against the very image of a Celtic twilight, descends on the tiny Scottish fishing village of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983). It was the then relatively untested Forsyth who in a humorous aside to his producer, David Puttnam, spoke what might be the actor's epitaph, 'I've just seen Burt Lancaster in my viewfinder. Now I know I'm in the movie business.'
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