Despite winning an Academy Award for Elmer Gantry (1960) and receiving three other Oscar nominations, Burt Lancaster has not always received appropriate recognition for his acting and other contributions to film. Perhaps the reason is that many of his popular films were bravura entertainments, while the “art films” that he liked to alternate with them were undervalued in their day, though discerning critics and film enthusiasts have subsequently discovered their merit. Having started his career with tough roles in The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), and other noirish films, and having later made numerous Westerns, Lancaster got a reputation for toughness (actor-filmmaker John Turturro wrote a film in which the lead character shouts that no one messes around with Burt Lancaster), for his unruly hair, for being “Mr. Muscles and Teeth.” As Lancaster wryly observed, “Most people . . . seem to think I’m the kind of guy who shaves with a blowtorch. Actually I’m inclined to be bookish and worrisome.”
Lancaster was a complex, often troubled man. Born of Irish ancestry in 1913, he grew up in East Harlem, a poor, working-class neighborhood of mostly Italian immigrants. He attended the best high school in the city; while at the Union Settlement House, his refuge from the streets, he took up boxing and acted in many amateur productions, but turned down a scholarship to the American Laboratory Theater. Instead, he worked during the Depression as an acrobat in a number of itinerant circuses and vaudeville shows. Drafted during World War II, he was assigned to Army Service Forces, a new unit that entertained the troops; he served with the unit all through the Italian campaign, often under fire. Back home, a talent scout saw him, still in uniform, thought him strikingly handsome, and cast him as one of the leads in a dugout drama, A Sound of Hunting, which ran only two weeks but led to a Hollywood contract and the male lead as the target of the hit men in The Killers, based on Ernest Hemingway’s story. Lancaster’s riveting performance made him an instant star. Within a year he teamed up with Harold Hecht to found his own independent production company, Norma Productions, named for his second wife. Evolving into Hecht-Lancaster and then Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, it became the major independent studio of the era, producing not only many of Lancaster’s films but also Marty, the low-budget Oscar winner of 1955.
Lancaster married three times. During the circus years he was married to acrobat June Ernst. At the end of the war he married Norma Anderson (the mother of his five children), an intelligent, witty woman who was also a hopeless alcoholic. Though Lancaster had numerous affairs, including ones with Shelley Winters, Marlene Dietrich, and Deborah Kerr, he and Norma remained married for twenty-five years. In his old age he married Susie Martin.
A very private person, Lancaster was hard to get to know (even by Kirk Douglas, with whom he did six films and a stage play). However, he was intensely loyal to his friends, such as Nick Cravat, his diminutive circus partner, whom he cast in many of his films, and with whom he remained close all their lives. He was vulnerable to depression and could break out into terrifying rages, but could also be warm, generous, and charming. His associates considered him fearless. Though he dropped out of New York University after a brief stint, he was an autodidact—an omnivorous reader of history and philosophy as well as literature, and such a zealous devotee of opera and other classical music that he became a member of the board of the Los Angeles Opera. He was so dedicated to filmmaking that he taught himself every detail of the craft. Often he worked on the script and had a hand in the direction, and he directed two films himself. A self-made intellectual, he was as much concerned with the art of his films as with the nuts and bolts of making them.
From his childhood in an immigrant neighborhood and his attendance at East Harlem’s Union Settlement House, with its social gospel, Lancaster was a concerned citizen who believed that all people should be treated as equals, and he actively championed the underdog. Unlike onetime liberals such as Frank Sinatra and Charlton Heston, who made a sharp turn to the right, Lancaster remained so generously committed to progressive causes that he earned a place on Richard Nixon’s “enemies” list. During the dark days of House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings, McCarthyism, and the blacklist, Lancaster stood up for the First...
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