Burt Lancaster was one of five children born to a New York City postal worker. He was a tough street kid who took an early interest in gymnastics. He joined the circus as an acrobat and worked there until he was injured. It was in the Army during WW II that he was introduced to the USO and acting. His first film was The Killers (1946), and that made him a star. He was a self-taught actor who learned the business as he went along. He set up his own production company in 1948 with Harold Hecht and James Hill to direct his career. He played many different roles in pictures as varied as The Crimson Pirate (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953), Elmer Gantry (1960) and Atlantic City (1980).
His production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, produced the such films as Paddy Chayefsky's Marty (1955) (Oscar winner 1955) and The Catered Affair (1956). In the 1980s he appeared as a supporting player in a number of movies, such as Local Hero (1983) and Field of Dreams (1989). However, it will be the sound of his voice, the way that he laughed, and the larger-than-life characters he played that will always be remembered.
|Susan Martin||(10 September 1991 - 20 October 1994) (his death)|
|Norma Anderson||(28 December 1946 - July 1969) (divorced) 5 children|
|June Ernst||(1935 - December 1946) (divorced)|
A killer smile, which he called "The Grin"
His movies often reflected his very liberal political beliefs
Roles in westerns
Very distinctive, clipped manner of speaking
Chosen by Empire magazine as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars in film history (#100). 
Graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in New York 
Ranked #85 in Empire (UK) magazine's "The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time" list. [October 1997]
Started out as a circus performer.
Father of actor/writer Bill Lancaster.
Was a big fan of the silent film The Unknown (1927), probably partially because the movie took place in a circus, and Burt himself spent a lot of time early in his life in a circus. He once said that no scene in any movie affected him as emotionally as the one in this movie in which Lon Chaney learns that Joan Crawford does not love him.
Suffered a severe stroke while visiting actor Dana Andrews, who was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. Lancaster remained hospitalized until February 1991, and incapacitated and unable to speak until his death in October, 1994. [November 1990]
5 children: James Stephen "Jimmy" (born June 30, 1946), Wlliam "Billy" (born in November, 1947), Susan Elizabeth (born July 5, 1949), Joanna Mari (born in July, 1951) and Sighle (born in 1954).
Son Jimmy was diagnosed as schizophrenic.
According to Kate Buford in her biography "Burt Lancaster: An American Life," he felt competitive with Marlon Brando, who achieved stardom playing Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, a role Lancaster turned down. A Top 10 box-office success in the early 1960s, it was this sense of competition with Brando, who was known as both an actor's actor and a major movie star, that led Lancaster to plunge into art films and riskier fare such as Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963), in order to prove himself as an actor and be known as an artist rather than just a movie star. After this refocusing of his career, he slipped out of the Top 10 and never again was a major box office attraction.
Descended from Irish Protestants from Ulster who emigrated to the United States in the 1880s.
Known for his liberal political sympathies, he was one of the Hollywood movie stars, along with Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr., Charlton Heston, Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman, who participated in Martin Luther King's March on Washington in August 1963. He flew home from Europe, where he was making a film, to participate. He was a financial supporter of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1947 he was offered the role of Stanley Kowalski in the original Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" after first choice John Garfield was rejected due to his demands for a ownership percentage of the play. He turned down the role that went to Marlon Brando and made him a legend.
He was voted the 39th Greatest Movie Star of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
One of his demands was that he have a high bar set up on sets and locations so he could perform acrobatics and stay in shape.
He admitted that an odd thing always happened to him on a movie set. He would complain about everything, sometimes very loudly. By the end of the shoot however, the crews loved him and hated to see him go, despite his complaints. He never understood why that happened.
He was an infamous ladies man in Hollywood, which eventually irritated his wife, Norma, enough for her to leave him.
Until undergoing emergency quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1983, he maintained the fantastic physical health he attained as an acrobat in his youth. He impressed many who knew him with his apparently enormous strength.
Despite his enduring stardom, he surprisingly only placed in Quigley Publications' Top 10 Poll of Money-Making Stars twice: #4 in 1956 and #10 in 1963. The annual poll of movie exhibitors ranks the top stars in terms of box-office drawing power. Even more surprisingly, his friend and co-star Kirk Douglas never made the list during his career.
Robert Altman wanted Lancaster for the role of Ned Buntline in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976) because he had the "stature" of a great movie star but was "able to play that as a kind of bullshitter", which was what Altman conceived the character to be: "He understood totally the bullshit factor and what he was playing." Buntline, a real-life writer of nickel Westerns, had invented Buffalo Bill Cody as a western hero; Altman knew that Lancaster had invented himself as a star, a new kind of star that had revolutionized the movies in the 1950s.
His son Bill Lancaster's screenplay for The Bad News Bears (1976) was based on his experience being coached by his father. Bill had been disabled by polio as a child, and according to friend Joel Douglas - the son of Kirk Douglas - the Tatum O'Neal character in the film, the odd kid out, was Bill. The coach played by Walter Matthau was based on Burt, who was known for his grumpiness.
Came up with $150,000 of his own money to complete Go Tell the Spartans (1978) after the production ran out of money with five days left to shoot. The shooting schedule already had been pared from 40 to 31 days to save money.
After placing tenth place in the Motion Picture Herald poll of most popular box-office stars in 1962, he dropped to 18th place in 1963 and never again appeared on the list.
Allegedly showed up at a Hollywood Oscar party in the late 1950s wearing a G-string and spray-painted gold, resembling an Academy Award statuette after a similar stunt had been done by Rock Hudson and Vera-Ellen.
Was forced by United Artists to make four films for $150,000 a picture in the 1960s: The Young Savages (1961), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Train (1964) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965) rather than his normal fee of $750,000, because of cost overruns at his production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, for which he was personally responsible.
In January 1980, he almost died during a routine operation to remove his gallbladder, when the operation, which should have lasted five hours, turned into an 11-hour ordeal. After the organ was removed, a team of doctors worked to repair an unusually small channel from the gallbladder to the intestines, although Lancaster later told a friend that a doctor had accidentally cut into a valve. A doctor reportedly got down on the floor to pray for the actor's life. Lancaster was in intensive care for 48-hours after the operation.
He made a great deal of money from Airport (1970), which was a huge hit, due to a 10% profit participation once the movie hit $50 million. (the film grossed $45.3 million in North America alone). Lancaster said that the movie was "the worst piece of junk ever made."
Told Bruce Davison, his co-star in Ulzana's Raid (1972), of a practical joke he played on Kirk Douglas, who was several inches shorter than Lancaster: "I'll never forget the time we were getting ready for our big two-shot and I hid his lifts on him. He was so pissed!"
His first TV role was a guest appearance on "Sesame Street" (1969) in 1969, reciting the alphabet.
A self-described atheist, Lancaster had turned down the role in the remake of Ben-Hur (1959) played by Charlton Heston, but followed in Heston's footsteps when he played the title role in "Moses the Lawgiver" (1974), the $5-million TV epic produced by Britain's ATV-ITC and Italy's RAI Television. When a reporter asked him if he was following in Heston's sandal-clad steps, Lancaster replied, "If Charlton was trapped in Biblical films, it was his own fault - he accepted the limitation." Though Lancaster claimed he was an atheist, some of his friends doubted him.
Turned down the lead in Patton (1970) due to his anti-Vietnam War sympathies, but actively campaigned for the title role in "Patton" screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola's next movie, The Godfather (1972). He offered to do a screen test for the role of Don Corleone, and even though Paramount brass was interested in casting him, Coppola wanted Marlon Brando, and got him after Brando made his own "screen-test" (actually a video Coppola shot of him improvising a makeup for the old Don). Both George C. Scott and Brando won, and refused, Oscars for the roles.
An unabashed political liberal, chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and an active campaigner for George McGovern in the 1972 Presidential election, Lancaster was one of the 575 people named on President Richard Nixon's 1973 "Enemies List," along with fellow actors Gene Hackman and Paul Newman, "Playboy" magazine publisher Hugh M. Hefner and TV producer Norman Lear.
Helped pay for the defense of Private Billy Dean Smith, an African American soldier accused of 'fragging' two officers in Vietnam in 1971. Lancaster gave $3,000 to his defense attorneys to hire ballistics experts to testify at his court-martial. Smith was acquitted.
Was cast in Old Gringo (1989) but was informed by Columbia when he arrived in Mexico City for rehearsals in December 1987 that he was being replaced with Gregory Peck, as the insurance for him was too high. He sued Columbia for his $1.5-million fee, and made an out-of-court settlement.
Had tried to raise financing for four years for Hector Babenco's film of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), based on the novel by Manuel Puig, after Babenco gave him the novel in 1981 at the NY Film Critics Society Ceremony. Lancaster was to have played the role of Molina, the gay hairdresser who shares a cell with Valentin, a political prisoner. However, Lancaster had a heart attack in June 1983, and subsequently a quadruple-bypass operation, and at the age of 70, he was essentially uninsurable. He had to withdraw from roles in Maria's Lovers (1984), Gorky Park (1983), Firestarter (1984) and the TV mini-series "A.D." (1985). The film was later made for less than $1 million with William Hurt in the role Lancaster wanted to play. Hurt won a Best Actor Oscar as Molina.
Turned down a $1-million offer to appear in the remake of Ben-Hur (1959). If he had accepted the offer, he would have beaten both Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra (1963)) as the first female star and Marlon Brando (The Fugitive Kind (1959)) as the first male star, to breach that million-dollar threshold.
In July 1965, United Artists made a settlement with Lancaster to end is association with his production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, which had financially floundered in the late 1950s due to a few flops and exorbitant spending, and wound up operations in 1959. The payoff amount was $920,954.85, approximately $5,223,000 in 2003 dollars. In 1964, part of the proposed settlement with UA had been for Lancaster to star in Khartoum (1966) but that role eventually was played by Charlton Heston.
Was named the #19 greatest actor on the 50 Greatest Screen Legends by the American Film Institute
During World War II, he served as a member of the Special Services branch, entertaining troops. He was stationed in Italy for much of the war.
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6801 Hollywood Blvd.
Suffered his first heart attack during the making of Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981) in 1979.
He and Kirk Douglas acted together in 7 movies: Victory at Entebbe (1976) (TV), Tough Guys (1986), Seven Days in May (1964), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), I Walk Alone (1948), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and The Devil's Disciple (1959)
Lancaster lost out on two roles he lobbied for to Marlon Brando (roles that helped make Brando a legend): that of Stanley Kowalski in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' (1951) and that of Don Vito Corleone in 'The Godfather' (1972).
He was not close friends with Kirk Douglas as was often perceived. The closeness of their friendship was largely fabricated by the publicity-wise Douglas, while, in reality, they were very competitive with each other and sometimes privately expressed a mutual personal disdain despite a mutual respect for their acting talents.
One of the very few humanitarian causes he publicly associated himself with was AIDS research. In 1985 he read out a letter from Rock Hudson announcing he was dying of AIDS, although there was later some controversy as to whether the letter had been written by Rock or his secretary (in a 2010 Paley Center for Media documentary about gay visibility on TV, writer Bruce Vilanch said that he had written the letter at Hudson's request). This was at a Hollywood dinner to raise awareness, which only a very few stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Burt Reynolds dared attend. In 1988 there was a poster of Lancaster holding a rose and a caption urging people to be careful.
Was considered for the role of Jason Colby in "The Colbys" (1985).
Luchino Visconti wanted to cast Laurence Olivier in the title role of the Italian prince in "The Leopard" (1963), but his producer overruled him. The producer insisted on a box office star to justify the lavish production's high budget and essentially forced Visconti to accept Burt Lancaster. A decade later, the two Oscar-winning actors competed again for the role of another Italian prince, Mafia chieftain Don Corleone, in "The Godfather" (1972), ultimately losing out to Marlon Brando.
Died the very same year as his long-time friend, circus acrobat partner and frequent co-star Nick Cravat.
His performance as J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is ranked #76 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time (2006).
Frequently compared with the English actor Sir Dirk Bogarde. Both achieved stardom in purely commercial films, then deliberately broke away from their images to star in artistic films and in so doing lost their box office popularity. Both actors were directed twice to great effect by Luchino Visconti - Lancaster in The Leopard (1963) and Conversation Piece (1974), Bogarde in The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971).
Attended Visconti's funeral in Rome in March 1976.
His performance as J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is ranked #61 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.
When Republican candidate George Bush referred to the American Civil Liberties Union as "un-American" during the 1988 presidential election, Lancaster responded by appearing in a television advertisement in which he said, "My name is Burt Lancaster and I've a confession to make. I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU.".
A lifelong Democrat and liberal activist, Lancaster appeared prominently on President Richard Nixon's "List of Enemies" due to his support for Senator George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election.
He was nearly blacklisted in the late 1940s due to his liberal political beliefs, and the FBI kept a file detailing his activities.
Campaigned for Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election.
Go Tell the Spartans (1978), though little seen at the time of its release, is widely considered the greatest anti-war movie about Vietnam.
Shortly before his massive stroke in November 1990 Lancaster had discussed starring in a sequel to The Leopard (1963). Some of his friends had told him he would be making a big mistake.
He could not attend the funeral of close friend Telly Savalas as he was so ill.
Was a close, longtime friend of Telly Savalas.
Eagerly sought the role of a dying composer who discovers his homosexuality in Luchino Visconti's masterpiece Death in Venice (1971). Although the role went to Dirk Bogarde, Lancaster later played a reclusive professor who is brought face to face with his latent homosexuality in Visconti's Conversation Piece (1974).
Signed a letter in 1947 deploring the anti-communist witch hunts in Hollywood.
In 1987 he joined Gregory Peck, Martin Sheen and Lloyd Bridges in narrating a television advertisement by People for the American Way, a liberal action group founded by Norman Lear, in opposition to President Ronald Reagan's appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
He would frequently turn down lifetime achievement awards during the 1980s, saying half-jokingly, "Give them to my good friend Kirk", since he knew Douglas would be happier in the limelight.
On the set of Ulzana's Raid (1972) Lancaster told actor Bruce Davison that he had undergone so much plastic surgery over the years that at the age of 58 the most real thing about him were his eyes. He also advised Davison not to become too publicly involved in the anti-Vietnam movement until he was more established in Hollywood.
He was 33 when he appeared in his first movie, The Killers (1946), having worked as a circus acrobat since his late teens and following war service and acting on Broadway.
During the late 1950s John Wayne approached Lancaster, suggesting they make a western together. Lancaster laughed off the idea, suggesting they would need Kirk Douglas in the film as well. In reality, Lancaster would not work with Wayne, Hollywood's most prominent Republican supporter who had been actively involved in the McCarthy witch hunts as a founding member and later President of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Lancaster had only agreed to co-star opposite Gary Cooper, a moderate Republican who gave a vague testimony to the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, after Cooper had starred in the anti-McCarthyism western High Noon (1952). Despite this, Lancaster joined a minute's silence for Wayne on 11 June 1979 while filming Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981) after Wayne died in Los Angeles.
Supported Tom Bradley's unsuccessful campaign for Mayor of Los Angeles in 1969.
Replaced Sir Laurence Olivier as Dr Ernst Janning in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Lancaster had not been impressed when Olivier kept confusing him with Kirk Douglas while filming The Devil's Disciple (1959).
A self-described "Kennedy man", Lancaster dined with President John F. Kennedy at the White House. He delayed the release of Seven Days in May (1964) when the President was assassinated, and later joined fellow liberal activists Robert Ryan and Will Geer in starring in Executive Action (1973), the first Kennedy assassination conspiracy movie. Its "real purpose", Lancaster stated, was "to make people skeptical.".
Attended Elizabeth Taylor's "Commitment to Life" fundraiser on 19 September 1985, despite being warned his appearance would resurrect the longtime rumors about his sexuality. At the event Lancaster read out Rock Hudson's letter admitting that he had AIDS.
He was prevented from playing William Hurt's Oscar-winning role as a flamboyant gay hairdresser in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) when forced to undergo quadruple bypass surgery on 26 August 1983 following a heart attack. He believed his vocal chords were damaged after tubes were inserted down his throat during the operation.
In 1961 he announced his intention to produce a biopic of Michelangelo, in which he would play the title role and possibly portray the painter as a homosexual although Michelanglo's sexuality unknown. However, he was forced to shelve this project due to the five-month filming schedule on The Leopard (1963). Later, Charlton Heston starred as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) and denied that the painter had been gay, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Took a pay cut to make Castle Keep (1969), which he intended to be the ultimate anti-war film and an allegory for the Vietnam conflict.
Turned down Clint Eastwood's role as Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971). The plot some called fascist of the lawman who goes beyond the limits of the law to kill a marginalized criminal contradicted his belief in a collective responsibility for criminal and social justice and the protection of individual rights.
Was ill with hepatitis while filming Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981).
Voted "Man of the Year" by Aid for AIDS in 1987 for his extensive work on their behalf, including allowing his photograph to be used on their annual Christmas card.
Starred in five films directed by John Frankenheimer.
In 1957 he requested a meeting with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who responded, "I will not greet Lancaster in view of his subversive associations.".
In order to get his passport renewed in January 1954, he was forced to send a letter to the State Department in which he wrote, "I am not now a Communist. I never been a Communist and I am not in sympathy with the Communist movement.".
He has only one grandchild, granddaughter Keigh, born in 1966 to his son, Bill Lancaster.
Daughter Sighle worked as a model then became a social worker.
His daughter Sighle's name is pronounced Sheila.
His son Jimmy was born with a foot deformity and as a baby had to wear a cast that had to be constantly changed. When daughter Joanna was born with the same deformity, they decided not to use a cast but to see if she would outgrow the deformity.
Son Billy was named after Lancaster's dead brother. His daughter Susan Elizabeth was named after his mother, Lizzie.
He has a step-son, John Scherer, from his widow, Susie.
One of his first acting roles, if not his first professional role, was a part in the non-musical Broadway play "A Sound of Hunting" (1945) playing character "Sgt. Joseph Mooney". He co-starred in his first movie the next year (The Killers (1946)).
His house burned down (as did many others) in the famous Bel Air - Brentwood fire of November 6, 1961.
Ironically, he was not a very good swimmer despite being an extremely versatile athlete from his days as a circus acrobat, and had to train with a professional swimming coach for his role in The Swimmer (1968), a role he took after asking his daughter Joanna what she thought of the script.
According to his wishes, he was buried without any memorial or funeral service. His grave in Westwood Memorial Park has a headstone that simply reads, ""Burt Lancaster, 1913-1994".
Burt Lancaster was offered the Montgomery Clift role by agent Charles K. Feldman, who was trying to sign the former acrobat, but Lancaster had just signed with agent Harold Hecht and so turned down the role to star in The Killers (1946), his film debut.
Most people seem to think I'm the kind of guy who shaves with a blowtorch. Actually I'm bookish and worrisome.
[on being a director] It's the best job in the picture business because when you're a director, you're God. And you know that's the best job in town.
Life is to be lived within the limits of your knowledge and within the concept of what you would like to see yourself to be.
[speaking in 1983] Tits and sand - that's what we used to call sex and violence in Hollywood.
I don't know why Airport (1970) was nominated for any Oscars - it's the biggest piece of junk ever.
We're all forgotten sooner or later. But not films. That's all the memorial we should need or hope for.
I woke up one day a star. It was terrifying. Then I worked hard toward becoming a good actor.
[advice to actor Bruce Davison, on the set of Ulzana's Raid (1972)] You try to please the director, and the cameraman and the soundman, and you're acting and acting and acting and by the time you come to your close-up, you've shot your wad. It's like making love to a woman: you can't try to come all at once, son. A bit of a tit here, a bit of an inner thigh there, and you have a performance!
[upon being offered Ben-Hur (1959)] I don't want to make this film. It's a piece of crap.
If I'm working with frightened people, I do tend to dominate them. I'm no doll, that's for sure.
[on Kirk Douglas] Kirk would be the first to admit that he's difficult to work with - and I would be the second.
[in 1976] Whether you like it or not, when you're 62 you are fulfilled.
[in 1985] If anyone should have gotten AIDS from an active sex life, it is me.
[on Montgomery Clift] He had so much power, so much concentration. Clift was a complicated man, there's no question about it. He was a very sweet man, Monty, very emotional.
[on Kirk Douglas] We both came from, sort of, well, shall we say, humble beginnings. We were both young, brash, cocky, arrogant. We knew everything, were highly opinionated. We were invincible. Nobody liked us.
In my opinion, Shirley Booth is the finest actress I have ever worked with.
[on working with Montgomery Clift on From Here to Eternity (1953)] The only time I was ever really afraid as an actor was that first scene with Clift. It was my scene, understand: I was the sergeant, I gave the orders, he was just a private under me. Well, when we started, I couldn't stop my knees from shaking. I thought they might have to stop because my trembling would show. I was afraid he was going to blow me right off the screen.
Genius is a pretty dangerous thing to have. Genius is too erratic. It's better just to be talented.
[on "Go Tell the Spartans"] One of the best scripts I've read and certainly the best I've had for myself in a few years.
[In 1984 about his career] When I think of my least favorite, I think of "Rope of Sand". I did that thing under great duress. I hated it.
|The Killers (1946)||$20,000|
|Brute Force (1947)||$45,000|
|Desert Fury (1947)||$1,250/week|
|From Here to Eternity (1953)||$120,000|
|The Young Savages (1961)||$150,000|
|Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)||$150,000|
|The Train (1964)||$150,000|
|The Hallelujah Trail (1965)||$150,000|
|Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)||$750,000|
(1985) Release of the book, "Burt Lancaster" by Minty Clinch.
(1995) Release of the book, "Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster" by Gary Fishgall.
(2000) Release of the book, "Burt Lancaster: An American Life" by Kate Buford.
(May 2013) New York City: In the year that marks the centennial of his birth in 1913, Lancaster is being honored with a 12-film tribute at Lincoln Center ranging from 1946's The Killers (1946) to _Atlantic City (1981)_ in 1981.
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