A Tribute to Burt Lancaster
In looking at the Burt Lancaster’s almost 100 films over his long career, I noticed two things: I’ve seen most of them, and I can’t really remember a bad performance. While he could play sympathetic characters and make you love them, Lancaster was also one of those rare actors who could play characters who weren’t entirely respectable and make you like them, or at least feel some kind of sympathy for them, in spite of their deeds. Men like Elmer Gantry and Bill Starbuck and Ernst Janning, and even General James Matoon Scott and J.J. Hunsecker. When he flashed those teeth and laughed, or looked at you with those soulful eyes, or spoke in that deep, self-assured voice, you couldn’t help thinking that his character wasn’t so bad, after all.
Born on November 2, 1913, Burton Lancaster was a poor kid who grew up in East Harlem, and learned early the value of hard work and learning. Interestingly enough, he originally wanted to be an opera singer, then a gym teacher, and eventually quit school and joined the circus — every kid’s dream! (His training as a circus acrobat came in handy later in his career.) He joined the Army during World War II and got involved with the USO, then appeared in an unsuccessful play following the war. Hollywood discovered him and made him an instant star when he appeared in The Killers in 1946.
He might have been in danger of being typecast as a tough guy after his roles in films like Brute Force (1947) and I Walk Alone (1948), but managed to land roles with more diversity, including Barbara Stanwyck’s husband in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and later the lead in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), which he basically took away from Humphrey Bogart. It was at this time that he started his own production company with Harold Hecht and James Hill, one of the first actors to do so. Among their productions was the much-praised Marty (1955), which won a Best Picture Oscar.
Lancaster went on to be nominated for four Oscars, winning once for Elmer Gantry (1960). Atlantic City (1980) was one of his last big starring roles, and resulted in his final Oscar nomination. Near the end of his career he began appearing in strong supporting roles in good films such asLocal Hero (1983) and Field of Dreams (1989). He died in 1994.
Unfortunately, there are no pages on the Web that are specifically devoted to Lancaster’s life and career, but since he appeared in so many memorable films, there are lots of pages with reviews, posters, etc. You’ll find all the links in Parts II, III, and IV of this article.
Part I: Introduction
Part III: Movie Reviews & Where to Find His Movies
Part IV: Books, Posters