Burt Lancaster

December 2010

 

Stephen Burton Lancaster learned at a very young age that he had an audience. Constantly in trouble while growing up on the streets of East Harlem, Burt learned to calm his motherís violent reprimands by singing to her at the top of his little lungs. Burt would later claim that his motherís tough love was his greatest influence in life. Young Burt soon discovered the Union Settlement House, where kids could play sports or attend classes in sewing, painting, hygiene, or drama. Burt began acting in plays and had his first leading role at age 11, as the wheelchair-bound little boy in Three Pills in a Bottle. Burt was later offered a scholarship with a theater company but instead attended the demanding De Witt Clinton High School at his motherís insistence.

 

After graduation, Burt and his buddy Nick Cuccia (later Cravat) developed a trapeze act, and away they went with a traveling circus. Burt performed up and down the East Coast for several years before being drafted into the Army. Lancaster didnít let the war get in his way, but kept right on performing for his fellow troops: singing, acting, and acrobatics. While in Italy with a USO group, Lancaster met his future wife Norma, a native of Webster, Wisconsin.

 

After the war, when actors were in short supply, Lancaster starred in his first Hollywood film, Ernest Hemingwayís The Killers. Lancaster played The Swede, a boxer whose broken hand ends his boxing career but doesnít stop him from falling prey to shady characters on the wrong side of the law. Lancasterís convincing portrayal launched his career. After several years of acting success, Lancaster turned his hand to producing and directing. He and Harold Hecht created the production company Hecht-Lancaster and later Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. Lancaster was a major player in changing the structure of Hollywood, bringing more freedom to actors and in turn, higher quality motion pictures.

 

Lancasterís talent was multi-faceted. He could do drama, comedy, action, and play the romantic lead. His range was boundless; he was a cowboy, a swashbuckler, a criminal, and a lover. A signature role for Lancaster was as Sergeant Milt Warden in 1953ís From Here to Eternity. His erotic beach scene with Deborah Kerr is well-remembered today, more than 50 years later. His amazing physicality in 1964ís The Train, as a 50-year-old, kick-started the action-hero genre, paving the way for Dirty Harry, Rambo, and Die Hard. Director John Frankenheimer commented, ďLancaster was the strongest man physically Iíve ever known. He was one of the best stuntmen who ever lived. I donít think anybodyís ever moved as well on screen.Ē

 

Lancaster died just shy of his 81st birthday, and left a legacy of 81 theater and television movies.