Burton Stephen Lancaster (born in New York City on November 2, 1913, died on October 20, 1994), a popular movie star, a respected dramatic actor, a successful producer of many of his own films and others like Marty (1955) and A Catered Affair (1956) starring Ernest Borgnine, was not cast in his first film, The Killers (1946), until age 32. In his youth he was a circus acrobat and developed the athletic skills that he would display in films like Jim Thorpe All-American (1951), The Crimson Pirate (1952) and Trapeze (1956) with Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida. The scene where he makes love to Deborah Kerr on the beach in From Here To Eternity (1953) by Fred Zimmerman has become iconic. And he still looked sexy in The Swimmer (1968), projecting an outward image of confident masculinity which was crumbling on the inside.
Interviewed by HFPA journalists in 1977, he said: “When I was on an athletic scholarship at New York University, although I was very good in American games like basketball and baseball and I could run like a deer, I was still developing. I was 16 years of age and about the same height I am now (6’2”), but I was tall and thin and I only weighed about 140 lbs., so I wasn’t strong. One day when I went up to the settlement house in my East Harlem neighborhood, I saw this man working out on horizontal bars doing these wonderful things; he was an Australian circus acrobat. He offered to teach me, and during that summer I worked out there every single day; when I went back to college for my sophomore year, I made the gym team. But I was totally bored with school, so I left and joined the circus as an apprentice, I earned $5 a week and my board, and there I was, in show business!”
But it was the depth and passion of his performances that made him an unforgettable actor in classic westerns like Vera Cruz (1954) with Gary Cooper, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) with Kirk Douglas, The Unforgiven (1960) by John Huston, powerful dramas like Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) with Shirley Booth, The Rose Tattoo (1955) with Anna Magnani, The Rainmaker (1956) with Katherine Hepburn, Sweet Smell of Success (1957) with Tony Curtis, Elmer Gantry (1960) with Jean Simmons. He was directed by John Frankenheimer in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Train (1964) and Seven Days in May (1964). He also worked with European directors: Luchino Visconti in The Leopard (Il Gattopardo, 1963) with Claudia Cardinale and Alan Delon, Bernardo Bertolucci in 1900 (Novecento, 1978) with Robert DeNiro and Donald Sutherland, Louis Malle in Atlantic City (1980), Liliana Cavani in The Skin (La Pelle, 1981) with Marcello Mastroianni. His final film, before suffering a stroke in November 1990, was Field of Dreams (1989) with Kevin Costner.
Lancaster was a vocal supporter of liberal causes, and he opposed the Vietnam War. In 1978 he told the HFPA that he chose to make Go Tell The Spartans, “because, in a small microcosmic way, from this incident a total picture of the political and social aspects of the Vietnam war emerges, the futility of the Americans being involved, their inability to understand the Vietcong people. I believe that war was a mistake; we should not have taken the attitude that communist Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh was going to be the representative of Russia.
I lived many years in Italy and you cannot tell me that the Italians are communists; they’re anarchists, they don’t believe in any government, they never have. They’ve had 3,000 years of one disappointment after another, so they only believe in the family.” He campaigned for democratic presidential candidates George McGovern in 1972 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, was a spokesman for the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and The People for the American Way, appeared in ads about AIDS in 1985, when his friend Rock Hudson revealed he was dying from the disease.
He was married three times and had five children with his second wife Norma, whom he met in Italy in 1944, where he was entertaining the troops as a US soldier of Special Services during World War II. He later lived in Rome from 1973 to 1976 with his long-time girlfriend Jackie. The problems he decried then in American politics are still unresolved today: “I think (Jimmy) Carter is a well-meaning man, he seems to want to do more for the domestic programs, which is absolutely essential, and I applaud him, but we’ll see how effective he is. All presidents have a tough road to hoe, because Congress is a jungle, and everybody is in there for themselves. That’s why the whole business of politics is tough, and you can’t help but get cynical about it. There’s no doubt that our governmental policy is endangered by corporate wealth. We think a President can wave a magic wand, and we have a Democratic congress right now, but we can’t get a goddamn bill passed through it. Nobody wants to do anything about the social problems of America, and yet we still have an enormous defense budget. It’s insane.”
The Hollywood Foreign Press honored Burt Lancaster with 5 Golden Globe nominations, for The Rainmaker 1957, Birdman of Alcatraz 1963, Atlantic City 1982, The Phantom of the Opera (TV) 1991, and one win, for Elmer Gantry 1961.