Burt Lancaster (1913-1994), one of the most popular film stars of all times, never wanted to be an actor. Falling into acting by chance, Lancaster proceeded to become a star, although he had no dramatic training. He made 85 movies during his long career and won an Academy Award.
Burton Stephen Lancaster, the fourth of five children, was born on November 2, 1913 in New York City to James Lancaster, a postal worker, and Elizabeth Roberts Lancaster. Although the family was descended from Irish and English stock, they resided in Italian East Harlem. When Lancaster and his brothers were old enough, they shoveled snow, sold newspapers, and shined shoes to earn money for the family. While James Lancaster was a gentle, warm father, Elizabeth was a strict disciplinarian, instilling in her children the virtues of honesty and loyalty, with whippings if necessary. She had no prejudices against the many different ethnic groups in her neighborhood and treated them all kindly, which made a strong impression on her son.
Lancaster attended Public School 121 for the lower elementary grades. There he did well, especially in reading and writing. He then transferred to Public School 83, where he enjoyed English and history, but did poorly in math. Lancaster loved reading and claimed to have read every book at the 110th Street library by the time he was 14. He also adored movies, especially those of the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, but he did not want to become an actor. Until he was 15, Lancaster wanted to be an opera singer. Throughout his life he retained a love of opera and symphonic music.
At the age of 13, Lancaster lost his baby fat and grew into a tall, athletic young man. He ran in the streets and parks with neighborhood children, and at the Union Settlement House he appeared in a play. A famous director, Richard Boleslavsky, saw him in the show and was so impressed, he discussed the possibility of drama school with Elizabeth Lancaster. Her son, however, was not willing, calling acting "sissy stuff."
At camp, when he was nine, Lancaster met his lifelong friend Nick Cravat, a tough little fellow with whom Lancaster would later work. Lancaster attended DeWitt Clinton High, an all boys academic school for students who intended to go on to college. In his senior year, Lancaster's mother died of chronic intestinal nephritis. He graduated from high school on June 26, 1930 and entered New York University in September of 1931. He hoped to be a gym teacher and became involved with gymnastics. Lancaster left college early in his sophomore year and joined a circus with his friend Cravat. They earned three dollars a week as acrobats.
Fell into Show Business
Lancaster met June Ernst, an acrobat, and married her in 1935 when he was 21 and she 18. They separated in 1937 and divorced in 1940. That same year, when Lancaster seriously injured his right hand, he decided to give up the circus. He worked for a department store, a refrigeration company, and at several other jobs, including that of a singing waiter, until he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942.
Lancaster became part of Special Services, whose purpose was to entertain the soldiers and provide them with off-duty activities. He began as an athletic instructor, moving on to the job of entertainment specialist, where he wrote, directed and performed in skits.
While putting on shows for the troops in Italy in 1944, Lancaster met the woman who was to become his second wife, Norma Anderson, a United Service Organization (USO) entertainer. Later, in New York, Lancaster visited Anderson, who worked for ABC radio. In the building's elevator, a man asked him if he was an actor. Lancaster responded that he was a "dumb actor," meaning he performed without words, as an acrobat. A few minutes later, the man telephoned the office where Lancaster was visiting and asked him to audition for the play, A Sound of Hunting.
An Actoris Born
Lancaster got the part. After three weeks of rehearsals, the play opened on November 6, 1945 and closed three weeks later. Lancaster then got an agent, Harold Hecht, and signed a contract with Hal Wallis Productions, Inc. on January 8, 1946 to make two films a year for seven years. He was also able to work for other companies. Lancaster took the train to California with one set of clothes and thirty dollars.
Not only was Lancaster a capable actor, but he looked very good on camera. He stood six feet two inches tall, weighed 180 pounds, and had a large chest and a small waist. He looked younger than his thirty-two years and had a gorgeous smile and bright blue eyes. While waiting to make his first film for Hal Wallis, Lancaster signed a contract with Mark Hellinger to make one picture a year for up to five years. Lancaster was paid $2,500 a week for his work in The Killers, which became a big hit and launched Lancaster's film career. He later said of that time, as quoted in a Sidney Skolsky syndicated column of 1950, "I woke up one day a star. It was terrifying."
After finishing the film, Lancaster drove back east to be with Anderson, who had given birth to their first child, James, on June 30, 1946. Lancaster and Anderson had not yet married, but would do so on December 28, 1946 in Yuma, Arizona. Their second son, Billy, was born in November of 1947.
On Lancaster's second film, Desert Fury, the actor argued angrily with the director when he disagreed about how something should be done in the film. This was a habit he never lost and stemmed from his intense involvement with his work. In his third film, I Walk Alone, Lancaster starred with Kirk Douglas, with whom he would make other films, including Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The two had a love-hate relationship until Lancaster's death.
In September 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed 34 people from Hollywood to investigate the extent of Communist infiltration in the movie industry. To protest, several people in the industry, including Lancaster, formed the Committee for the First Amendment. This represented the beginning of his involvement with liberal political causes. In March 1948, Lancaster began work on Kiss the Blood off My Hands, the first project of his new company, Hecht-Norma Productions, that he had formed with Harold Hecht.
In July 1948, Lancaster bought his first home. Located in Bel-Air, the large colonial housed the Lancasters, Burt's father, and Burt's widowed sister-in-law, Julia. Over the years Lancaster added a pool, tennis court, guesthouse, projection room, gym, kennel, and a baseball diamond. Lancaster also began collecting modern French paintings. He loved playing bridge and took the game very seriously.
In 1949, Lancaster began an affair with actress Shelley Winters. His marriage to Norma had problems because of her drinking, and Lancaster was often unfaithful. Norma gave birth to their third child, Susan, in July 1949. In 1950, when Norma again became pregnant, Winters realized that her relationship with Lancaster had no future. She burned all her photos of him and ended the affair.
In 1952, Lancaster made the film Come Back, Little Sheba with actress Shirley Booth. Twenty years later, Lancaster would call Booth the finest actress he had ever worked with. His portrayal of a middle-aged alcoholic surprised audiences and displayed his acting abilities and willingness not to be typecast. Of this shift in his career, he later said, in an article in Films and Filming, "Suddenly they began to think of me as a serious actor."
In 1953, Lancaster starred in From Here to Eternity as Sgt. Warden, a tough, serious soldier who falls in love with his commanding officer's wife. The film contains one of the most famous love scenes of all times, with Lancaster and his co-star Deborah Kerr kissing on a beach as waves wash over them. From Here to Eternity earned more money than any other film in the history of Columbia Pictures to that point. Lancaster won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for the best actor of 1953. He was nominated for, but did not win, the Academy Award for best actor of that year.
In 1954, Lancaster directed his first movie, The Kentuckian, in which he also starred. Directing had been a dream of his, but after the lukewarm reception the film received, Lancaster was terribly disappointed and directed only one other movie, The Midnight Man, in 1974.
Lancaster starred in Elmer Gantry, (1960), about a larger-than-life evangelist. Later Lancaster was to say that of all the roles he had played, Elmer Gantry was the most like himself. Gary Fishgall wrote in Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, "If one had to chose a single picture from the prime of Lancaster's career to define the essence of his stardom, Elmer Gantry would be that film." For his work in the film Lancaster won the New York Film Critics Award for best actor of 1960, the Golden Globe for best motion picture actor in a drama, for 1960, and the Academy Award for best actor of 1960.
In late 1960, Lancaster began filming Birdman of Alcatraz, in which he plays a prisoner who raises birds. Lancaster became very emotionally involved with his role. "One of the problems an actor faces, and it's a very dangerous thing, is to get so involved in a role he loses control of what he is doing. With Birdman of Alcatraz, I couldn't stop crying throughout the film," Lancaster explained in Take 22: Moviemakers on Moviemaking. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Robert Stroud.
Lancaster began filming Judgment at Nuremberg in early 1961. The movie detailed the 1948 war crimes trial of four Nazi judges. Lancaster played Ernst Janning, but was not popular in the role.
Personal Tragedies and Triumphs
In September 1961, Lancaster's father died. James Lancaster had lived with his son since 1947. The two had been very close. In November of that year, the Lancaster's home burned to the ground in a fire that destroyed 456 homes in Bel-Air. Luckily Lancaster's art collection survived since it had been lent to the Los Angeles County Art Museum only the week before. The family rebuilt their home on the same site.
In 1964, Lancaster began filming The Hallelujah Trail in New Mexico. On the set he met a hairdresser named Jackie Bone, who would be his girlfriend for the next 20 years. Although Lancaster was still married to Norma, he fell very much in love with Bone. He and Norma finally separated in 1967, but did not divorce until 1969. The end of his marriage was hard on Lancaster, who considered himself a family man, but he could not deal with his wife's alcoholism. Lancaster's relationship with Bone was stormy. Once they argued in a restaurant and Bone broke a pitcher over his head.
As the 1970s began, Lancaster had not had a successful movie for three years. His good looks were fading, and he drank to excess. He became depressed. Although he made 14 films in the 1970s, they were not very popular. In 1973, Lancaster and Bone moved to Rome. He learned to speak some Italian, cook spaghetti and even grew his own herbs for cooking. Their relationship remained stormy, and he cheated on her, as he had with Norma. The couple moved back to the U.S. in 1976.
Final Blaze of Glory
In late 1979, Lancaster began work on Atlantic City, a film about two elderly gangsters. It was the first film in which he played a senior citizen. For his work in the film, Lancaster earned several awards including the BAFTA Film Award for best actor, 1980; the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for best actor, 1980; and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best actor, 1980.
At a party in 1985, Lancaster met Susie Scherer, a legal secretary who began to work for him. They fell in love and married in September 1990. In 1988, Lancaster made the very popular film Field of Dreams, his last film for the big screen. Lancaster's last work was a television mini-series called "Separate But Equal."
In November 1990, Lancaster suffered a major stroke which left him with paralysis on his right side and difficulty speaking. Lancaster died in Century City, California on October 20, 1994, only two weeks away from his 81st birthday.
Further Reading on Burt Lancaster
Fishgall, Gary, Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, Scribner, 1995.
Windeler, Robert, Burt Lancaster, St. Martin's Press, 1984.
"Burt Lancaster," The Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com (October 20, 1999).