Burt Lancaster (1913 -1994)

Biography from Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia:
In a postwar era that considered movie swashbuckling passé, Burt Lancaster kept the torch burningeven though he was equally at home in Westerns, crime thrillers, comedies, and serious drama-and approached his costume actioners with the nimble athleticism and Fairbanksian flamboyance of a born acrobat. In fact, he was, having worked in circuses at an early age with boyhood chum (and occasional supporting player) Nick Cravat. Though he initially professed disdain for acting, Lancaster tried out for and landed a part in a Broadway play; it was a failure, but he got good notices personally and landed an agent, Harold Hecht, who brought him to the attention of movie producer Mark Hellinger. Cast as the mysterious "Swede" in The Killers (1946), Lancaster was an instant success, and the next year starred or costarred in Desert Fury, Brute Force and I Walk Alone (the latter his first with longtime pal Kirk Douglas).

Lancaster turned to drama with All My Sons (1948), and more than held his own with veteran movie star Edward G. Robinson. The thrillers Sorry, Wrong Number, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (both 1948), Criss Cross and Rope of Sand (both 1949) all solidified his reputation as a grim, two-fisted lead in crime stories, but rather than risk further typecasting Lancaster produced and starred in The Flame and the Arrow (1950), a rousing swashbuckler that reunited him with old pal Cravat (playing his mute sidekick) and dazzled audiences with the star's athletic ability. The Crimson Pirate (1952) also saw Lancaster and Cravat performing amazing feats of derring-do, and was even more successful at the box office. Mister 880 (1950), Jim Thorpe, All-American (in which he was miscast as the Native American champion athlete), and Ten Tall Men (both 1951) found Lancaster running in place, but he took major strides forward with solid dramatic roles in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952, as a drunken, brooding ex-doctor) and From Here to Eternity (1953, playing a tough Army sergeant in pre-WW2 Pearl Harbor, sharing an iconographic beachside love scene with Deborah Kerr). An Oscar nomination for the latter performance lent additional prestige to Lancaster's career, and he and agent Hecht formed their own production company to develop star vehicles for him. Apache, Vera Cruz (both 1954), and The Kentuckian (1955, which he starred in and also directed) were successful if hardly challenging.

But Lancaster continued to push himself, taking a variety of parts in The Rose Tattoo (also 1955), Trapeze, The Rainmaker (both 1956), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957, playing Wyatt Earp to Kirk Douglas' Doc Holliday), Sweet Smell of Success (also 1957, a standout as steely columnist J. J. Hunsecker), Run Silent, Run Deep, Separate Tables (both 1958), The Devil's Disciple (1959, again with Douglas), and The Unforgiven (1960). He enjoyed one of his greatest successes as Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry (also 1960), winning a Best Actor Oscar, a Golden Globe, and the New York Film Critics Award for his portrayal of the fire-andbrimstone evangelist and con artist.

The 1960s found him involved in more prestige projects, including The Young Savages, Judgment at Nuremberg (both 1961), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962, in the title role, once again Oscar-nominated for his work), Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), The Train, The Hallelujah Trail (both 1965), The Professionals (1966), The Swimmer, The Scalphunters (both 1968), The Gypsy Moths (1969), and Airport (1970). Nearing 60, Lancaster eased into character roles, notably in a trio of offbeat Westerns: Valdez Is Coming (1970), Lawman (1971), and Ulzana's Raid (1972). Others in this period include Executive Action (1973), The Midnight Man (1974, which he cowrote, coproduced, and codirected with Roland Kibbee), Moses (1975, in the title role, cut down from a TV miniseries), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976, as Bill Cody), Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977), Go Tell the Spartans (1978), and Zulu Dawn (1979).

Able to pick and choose, Lancaster consistently went for the offbeat and the challenging-from Bertolucci's sprawling 1900 (1977) to Louis Malle's Atlantic City (1980), which gave him his greatest latterday success, as a small-time hood who misses "the old days" of that seaside resort. This superlative performance earned him a passel of awards, including an Oscar nomination.

He suffered a heart attack during production of Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1980), but was able to complete his work on this underappreciated film. Lancaster then appeared in the ultimate "sleeper," Bill Forsyth's endearing Local Hero (1983), as an eccentric industrialist. He went on to work with Sam Peckinpah on The Osterman Weekend (1983), with Kirk Douglas in the very silly Tough Guys (1986), as a retired general called back to action in the TV movie On Wings of Eagles (1986), in the sentimental Rocket Gibraltar (1988) as a dying patriarch, and in Field of Dreams (1989), as a kindly doctor who still cherishes his bygone experience as a ballplayer. By this time Lancaster wasn't so much an actor as an icon; his very presence lent distinction to every film. Shortly after completing the prestigious TV movie Separate but Equal (1990), as Thurgood Marshall's adversary, John W. Davis, he suffered a massive stroke and did not work after that.

Copyright ©1994 Leonard Maltin, used by arrangement with Signet, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.