Nationality: American. Born: Burton Stephen Lancaster in New York City, 2 November 1913. Education: Attended DeWitt Clinton High School; New York University, 1930–32. Family: Married 1) circus performer June Ernst, 1935 (divorced 1936); 2) Norma Anderson, 1946 (divorced 1969), children: William, James, Susan, Joanna, Sighle; 3) Susie Martin, 1990. Career: 1932–39—toured vaudeville and played in circuses in acrobatic act with Nick Cravat, Lang and Cravat; 1939–42—after injury, worked as salesman in Marshall Field's, fireman, and in meatpacking plant, all in Chicago; 1942–45—served in entertainment section of the U.S. Army; 1945—role in play A Sound of Hunting on Broadway: then contract with Hal Wallis; 1946—critical success in film debut The Killers ; 1948—co-founder, with Harold Hecht, Hecht-Norma production company (later Hecht-Lancaster, then Hecht-Hill-Lancaster); 1955—directed the film The Kentuckian ; 1971—on stage in Knickerbocker Holiday , and The Boys of Autumn , 1981, both in San Francisco; 1977—narrator of TV series The Unknown War , and in mini-series Marco-Polo , 1982, On Wings of Eagles , 1986; also council member and past president, American Civil Liberties Union. Awards: Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for From Here to Eternity , 1953; Best Actor, Berlin Festival, for Trapeze , 1956; Best Actor, Academy Award, for Elmer Gantry , 1960; Best Foreign Actor, British Academy, for Birdman of Alcatraz , 1962; Best Actor Award, New York Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics, and British Academy, for Alantic City , 1981. Died: In Century City, California, 20 October 1994.
The Killers (Siodmak) (as the Swede)
Desert Fury (Lewis Allen) (as Tom Hanson); Brute Force (Dassin) (as Joe Collins); Variety Girl (George Marshall) (as guest)
I Walk Alone (Haskins) (as Frankie Madison); All My Sons (Reis) (as Chris Keller); Sorry, Wrong Number (Litvak) (as Henry Stevenson); Kiss the Blood off My Hands ( Blood on My Hands ) (Foster) (as Bill Saunders); Criss Cross (Siodmak) (as Steve Thompson)
Rope of Sand (Dieterle) (as Mike Davis)
The Flame and the Arrow (Jacques Tourneur) (as Dardo); Mister 880 (Goulding) (as Steve Buchanan)
Jim Thorpe: All American ( Man of Bronze ) (Curtiz) (title role); Vengeance Valley (Thorpe) (as Owen Daybright); Ten Tall Men (Goldbeck) (as Sgt. Mike Kincaid)
The Crimson Pirate (Siodmak) (as Capt. Vallo)
Come Back, Little Sheba (Daniel Mann) (as Doc); The Key (Parker—doc); South Sea Woman (Lubin) (as Sgt. O'Hearn); From Here to Eternity (Zinnemann) (as Sgt. Warden); Three Sailors and a Girl (Del Ruth) (as guest)
His Majesty O'Keefe (Haskins) (title role); Apache (Aldrich) (as Massai); Vera Cruz (Aldrich) (as Joe Erin)
The Rose Tattoo (Daniel Mann) (as Alvaro Mangiacavallo)
Trapeze (Reed) (as Mike Ribble); The Rainmaker (Anthony) (as Starbuck); Playtime in Hollywood (short)
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (John Sturges) (as Wyatt Earp); The Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick) (as J. J. Hunsecker); The Heart of Show Business (Staub—doc) (as narrator)
Run Silent, Run Deep (Wise) (as Lt. Jim Bledsoe); Separate Tables (Delbert Mann) (as John Malcolm)
The Devil's Disciple (Hamilton) (as Anthony Anderson)
The Unforgiven (Huston) (as Ben Zachary); Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks) (title role)
The Young Savages (Frankenheimer) (as Hank Bell); Judgment at Nuremberg (Kramer) (as Ernst Janning)
Birdman of Alcatraz (Frankenheimer) (as Robert Stroud)
A Child Is Waiting (Cassavetes) (as Dr. Matthew Clark); The List of Adrian Messenger (Huston) (as guest); Il gattopardo ( The Leopard ) (Visconti) (as Prince Don Fabrizio Salinas)
Seven Days in May (Frankenheimer) (as Gen. James M. Scott)
The Train (Frankenheimer) (as Labiche); The Hallelujah Trail (John Sturges) (as Col. Thadeus Gearhart); Handle With Care (doc) (as narrator); Operation Head Start (doc) (as narrator)
The Professionals (Richard Brooks) (as Bill Dolworth)
All about People (doc)
The Scalphunters (Pollack) (as Joe Bass); The Swimmer (Perry) (as Ned Merrill)
Castle Keep (Pollack) (as Maj. Falconer); Jenny Is a Good Thing (Horvath—doc) (as narrator); The Gypsy Moths (Frankenheimer) (as Mike Rettig); In Name Only (Swackhamer—for TV)
Airport (Seaton) (as Mel Bakersfield); King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis (Mankiewicz and Lumet—doc) (as co-narrator)
Lawman (Winner) (as Jerred Maddox); Valdez Is Coming (Sherin) (as Bob Valdez); H + 2 (Coombs—doc) (as narrator)
Ulzana's Raid (Aldrich) (as McIntosh); Mose ( Moses ) (De Bosio—for TV) (title role)
Scorpio (Winner) (as Cross); Graduation (Stanfield—doc) (as narrator); Executive Action (Miller) (as Farrington)
Gruppo di famiglia in un interno ( Conversation Piece ) (Visconti) (as the Professor); James Wong Howe (Quo—doc) (as narrator)
A Life in Your Hands (doc) (as narrator)
Buffalo Bill and the Indians (Altman) (as Ned Buntline); 1900 ( Novecento ) (Bertolucci) (as Alfredo Berlinghieri); Victory at Entebbe (Chomsky—for TV) (as Defense Minister Peres)
The Cassandra Crossing (Cosmatos) (as MacKenzie); The Island of Dr. Moreau (Taylor) (title role); On the Edge of Reality (doc); Twilight's Last Gleaming (Aldrich) (as Lawrence Dell)
Go Tell the Spartans (Post) (as Major Asa Barker)
Zulu Dawn (Hickox) (as Col. Durnford); Arthur Miller on Home Ground (Rasky—doc); Cattle Annie and Little Britches (Johnson) (as Bill Doolin)
La Pelle ( The Skin ) (Cavani) (as Gen. Mark Cork); Atlantic City (Malle) (as Lou)
The Osterman Weekend (Peckinpah) (as Maxwell Darnforth); Local Hero (Forsyth) (as Happer); The Making of a "Local Hero" ( With a Little Help from His Friends ) (Turner—doc)
Scandal Sheet (Rich—for TV) (as Harold Fallen); Little Treasure (Sharp) (as Teschemacher)
Tough Guys (Kanew) (as Harry Doyle)
Il giorno prima (Montaldo); Jeweller's Shop (Anderson); The Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist (Chailin—for TV) (as narrator); Control (Montaldo—for TV) (as Herbert Monroe)
Rocket Gibraltar (Petrie) (as Levi Rockwell)
Field of Dreams (Robinson) (as Dr. "Moonlight" Graham)
Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair (Negrin—for TV) (as Leon Klinghoffer); Phantom of the Opera (Richardson—for TV) (as Gerard Carrier)
Separate but Equal (Stevens, Jr.—for TV) (as John W. Davis)
The Kentuckian (+ ro as Big Eli)
The Midnight Man (co-d, + co-pr, co-sc, ro as Jim Slade)
"Hollywood Drove Me to a Double Life," in Films and Filming (London), January 1962.
Vermilye, J., Burt Lancaster: A Pictorial Treasury of His Films , New York, 1970.
Thomas, Tony, Burt Lancaster , New York, 1975.
Richards, Jeffrey, Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York , London, 1977.
Clinch, Minty, Burt Lancaster , London, 1984.
Hunter, Allan, Burt Lancaster: The Man and His Movies , London, 1984.
Windeler, Robert, Burt Lancaster , London, 1984.
Lacourbe, Roland, Burt Lancaster , Paris, 1987.
Fury, David, The Cinema History of Burt Lancaster , Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1989.
Crowther, Bruce, Burt Lancaster: A Life in Films , London, 1991.
Fishgall, Gary, Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster , New York, 1995.
Karney, Robyn, Burt Lancaster: A Singular Man , North Pomfret, 1996.
Munn, Michael, Burt Lancaster: The Terrible Tempered Charmer , Jersey City, 1997.
Andreychuk, Ed, Burt Lancaster: A Filmography & Biography , Jefferson, 2000.
Buford, Kate, Burt Lancaster: An American Life , New York, 2000.
Morgan, J., "Hecht-Lancaster Productions," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1955.
Schuster, Mel, "Burt Lancaster," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1969.
Drew, Bernard, "Burt Lancaster," in The Movie Star , edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Hunter, Allan, "A Perfectly Mysterious Man," in Films and Filming (London), October 1983.
Current Biography 1986 , New York, 1986.
Lantos, J., "The Last Waltz," in American Film (New York), October 1986.
"Burt Lancaster," in Shooting Stars: Heroes and Heroines of the Western Film , edited by Archie P. McDonald, Bloomington, Indiana, 1987.
Buford, Kate, "Lancaster: Dance with the Leopard," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1993.
Obituary, in New York Times , 22 October 1994.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 24 October 1994.
Goodman, Mark, "The Daredevil," in People Weekly , 7 November 1994.
Lane, Anthony, in New Yorker , 14 November 1994.
Obituary, in Current Biography 1995 , New York, 1995.
"Never to Be Forgotten," in Psychotronic Video (Narrowsburg), no. 20, 1995.
Lucas, Tim, " The Killers. Criss Cross. The Underneath. Brute Force. The Naked City, " in Video Watchdog (Cincinnati), no. 32, 1996.
Norman, Barry, "Small-time Losers, Big-time Dreamers," in Radio Times (London), 18 October 1997.
* * *
Burt Lancaster started his life by running off to the circus, leaving New York University where he had been a basketball star, and becoming an acrobat with partner Nick Cravat, who would later appear alongside Lancaster in many films, such as Trapeze , the actor's sober tribute to the daredevil life of the aerial artist he once had been. Lancaster's circus experience supplied him with certain qualities that were advantageous to a movie actor: a powerful physique and complete physical control. Nature supplied him with other features that contributed to his star quality: rugged good looks and, especially, the keyboard smile that would become his trademark.
His first screen roles, obtained for him by agent Harold Hecht, usually cast Lancaster as a brooding ex-convict, a taciturn villain, or a tense goon—most notably in Ernest Hemingway's The Killers , Lancaster's screen debut, where he played a crooked prizefighter nicknamed the Swede who is marked for death. It was only a few years after this that Lancaster followed the groundbreaking lead of actor James Stewart and went freelance, starting his own film production company in partnership with Hecht and James Hill. Hecht, Hill, and Lancaster's first picture was the well-received Apache , directed by Robert Aldrich. Lancaster starred as Massai, a warrior who refuses to surrender to the white man's ways after the capture of Geronimo, and is marked for extinction. Over Lancaster and Aldrich's objections, the film's grim conclusion was compromised in favor of a happier one for box-office reasons. The same star-director team followed Apache later that year with the acerbic Western adventure, Vera Cruz , a smash hit. Several decades later, Aldrich and Lancaster teamed again for Ulzana's Raid , a potent saga of the Indian Wars that also mirrored the then-current Vietnam conflict; it concluded on the bleak, more realistic note denied them earlier on Apache .
Lancaster has projected earnestness as the truth-seeking son of Edward G. Robinson in All My Sons , lovability as the truck driver opposite Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo , and perseverance as the Native American athlete Jim Thorpe in Jim Thorpe: All-American . For all of his brawn, he was also quite good at communicating vulnerability, gentleness, and self-doubt. All these elements were combined in his Oscar-nominated performance as Sergeant Warden in From Here to Eternity and as convicted killer Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz , a pet project.
Early in his career, Lancaster also developed another quite different character: the grinning mischief-maker. This character first appeared in The Flame and the Arrow , which was followed by the delightful adventure comedy The Crimson Pirate , a hilarious parody of—and homage to—the films of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. that Lancaster had enjoyed as a youth. Lancaster seized every opportunity to take his shirt off, swing on ropes from ship to ship, and smile from ear to ear. He brought the same qualities to his role as The Rainmaker , one of the most ingratiating conmen in the history of the movies—and then combined them with his unique brand of bravado, energy, and physicality to create his Oscar-winning role as Elmer Gantry in which he was the embodiment of Sinclair Lewis's famous charlatan evangelist, orator, businessman, hustler, and lover.
A former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Lancaster espoused liberal causes most of his life. Perhaps to understand them himself—and illuminate them for others—he liked playing characters diametrically opposed to his own political beliefs. Examples include John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May , as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs who tries to orchestrate a military coup d'etat, and Robert Aldrich's potent political thriller Twilight's Last Gleaming , where he played the messianic General Dell, who commandeers a nuclear silo and threatens to launch a strike if the Pentagon refuses to own up to the real motives behind the Vietnam War. The latter role and film remained among his favorites.
In another favorite role, he was again the embodiment of a character taken from a famous novel, although of a totally different nature from Elmer Gantry. Guiseppe Di Lampedusa's physical description of the Sicilian prince in his novel The Leopard fits Lancaster to a tee, and director Luchino Visconti saw to it that Lancaster got the part in the Italian-made film version of the novel. Though not of the Method school, Lancaster always carefully prepared for and immersed himself in his roles. In fact, he reportedly knew more about Sicilian aristocracy, customs, traditions, and history than anyone else connected with the film except Visconti and Di Lampedusa. His authoritative demeanor, melancholic expression, and meditative mien contribute to one of the most believable historical figures in modern cinema. He starred again for Visconti as a retired, reclusive professor besieged by modernity in Conversation Piece . Also noteworthy is one of Lancaster's last screen appearances in Atlantic City where he plays an aging two-bit crook still hoping for his big chance, a performance that earned him another Oscar nomination.
Lancaster's career remains unmatched for his persistent refusal to allow Hollywood to typecast him strictly as a he-man. Because of his deep concern for the content of his films and eagerness to work with directors he considered important, he was willing to undertake virtually any kind of part.
—Elaine Mancini, updated by John McCarty