Burt Lancaster

November 2 (1913) is the birthday of Burt Lancaster, the renowned action, Western, and dramatic actor. He was tall and handsome, with blue eyes, a unique smile, and a characteristic laugh.

He was born Burton Stephen Lancaster in Manhattan, New York City. All of his grandparents were Irish immigrants. His father was a postman. He grew up in East Harlem, and spent lots of time on the streets. He graduated from Dewitt Clinton High School, where he developed skill in gymnastics. He was also a basketball star for the school. He was 6’2” and developed an excellent physique. 

After high school he attended New York University briefly on an athletic scholarship. He met Nick Cravat at 19 and they performed together in local theater and circus acts. They formed the acrobat team Lang and Cravat and joined the Kay Brothers Circus and later moved on to other circuses. But an injury 1939 forced Lancaster to give up the profession. He worked as a retail salesman and a singing waiter after that. 

He joined the army in 1942 and served in Italy from 1943 to 1945 as part of a special services division, providing entertainment for the troops. 

After the war he got a small part on Broadway and was noticed by a Hollywood agent. He won a starring role in the movie “The Killers” (1946) with Ava Gardner, a movie based on a Hemingway short story. The movie became a film noir classic, and it made Lancaster a star. In fact, now that I’m mentioning it, I’m going to have to get it from Netflix and watch it again. 

From there he went on to star in a variety of dramas, thrillers, Westerns, military, and action pictures. In “The Flame and the Arrow” (1950) and in “The Crimson Pirate” (1952) he teamed up with Nick Cravat again. The two movies showed off their acrobatic skills. Lancaster worked with Cravat all his life. They co-starred in nine movies over the years.

In 1953 he played Sgt. Milton Warden in “From Here to Eternity”. His love scene with Deborah Kerr on the beach in Hawaii has got to be one of the most famous love scenes in movies. The American Film Institute named the movie one of the Top 100 Most Romantic Films of all time. (Though I admit the scene I watch more frequently is the breakfast scene in the mess hall on December 7, 1941.) 

In 1960 Lancaster won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in “Elmer Gantry”. 

In 1999 the American Film Institute named him 19th on the list of greatest male stars of classic Hollywood films. 

Lancaster has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

Lancaster was also a successful producer, starting in 1952 with “The Crimson Pirate” with producer Harold Hecht. They formed a production company and soon added James Hill. They were the H-H-L team. The production company was very successful. It did dissolve in 1960, but Lancaster continued to work as a producer in collaboration with others. 

Lancaster made many Westerns, including such films as “Vera Cruz” (1954), “Apache” (1954), “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957), “The Unforgiven” (1960), “The Scalphunters” (1968),  “Valdez Is Coming” (1971), and “Ulzana’s Raid” (1972). 

But the Western of his I like the best is “The Professionals” (1966). The photo is Lancaster playing the character Bill Dolworth in the movie. The movie also had Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, Robert Ryan, Jack Palance, and Claudia Cardinale. It’s a gritty story that plays out in the Mexican desert. You feel hot and drenched in sweat just watching the picture. The movie was shot in Death Valley and the Valley of Fire. And the best part is the dramatic twist in the middle of the film – things aren’t what they thought! The movie got three Academy Award nominations and much critical acclaim. 

Lancaster was married three times: June Ernst (1935-46; divorce); Norma Anderson (1946-69; divorce), with whom he had five children; and Susan Martin (1990-94; his death). 

He was an active and vocal supporter of liberal political causes. 

He was beset with health problems including atherosclerosis, two minor heart attacks, and in 1983 an emergency quadruple coronary bypass operation. But he continued to act after that, weak as he was. He suffered a stroke in November 1990 which ended his acting career. He died on October 20, 1994, just shy of his 81st birthday, from a third heart attack.