Burt Lancaster

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Burt Lancaster Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 01/03/17

Once a successful circus aerialist, Burt Lancaster’s natural athleticism brought him to the early attention of top Hollywood producers. The strapping, blue-eyed, blonde with the legendary grin, later referred to Hollywood as “nothing more than a big circus,” and when fate brought him into the big top, he seized centre ring.

An inherently restless character, his organic growth as an actor was evident throughout the 50’s and 60’s, as he pursued a series of diverse and rewarding roles, in addition to a sole directorial effort and a European masterpiece. If his private life was colourful, the sexual predilections hinted at in the following blog are so essentially ‘par for the course’ where red blooded males are concerned, as to be inconsequential.


Throughout a long screen career, he did it all. He traded effectively on his looks and physique, portrayed deep and introspective types, excelled in the role of Hollywood ‘tough guy’ and established himself as an independent producer. Alternating between large screen epics and low key curios, he intuitively chose roles that mirrored his age, a commendable and intuitive approach to his craft.

As always in life, there was invariably a hint of his true personality in the characters he portrayed. In his treatese on the film Sweet smell of success,” Sam Kashner writes:

Mackendrick (Alexander Mackendrick – the film’s director), would note years later, “There never was a final shooting script for the movie……It was all still being revised, even on the last day of principal photography. It was a shambles of a document.”

But a bigger problem on the set was the power struggle between Mackendrick and Lancaster. They both wanted to be the man in control. Lancaster would go behind Mackendrick’s back, for example, to give Marty Milner direction on how he should play the role of Steve Dallas. The hysteria of that production was the edge of fear……you’re working from moment to moment.”


Elmer Berstein, the film’s composer, also observed the actor at work;

“Burt was really scary. He was a dangerous guy. He had a short fuse. He was very physical. You thought you might get punched out.”

Lancaster would later admit that with a grin that Mackendrick considered him “the epitome of evil.”

(Extracts from “Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood – Rebels, Reds and Graduates and the wild stories behind the making of 13 iconic films” [2008]- edited by Graydon Carter.)

Lancaster was a generous host, whatever his outward persona. On a rare day off from their first US tour, The Beatles paid a visit to Burt Lancaster’s house to watch Peter Sellers’ film “A Shot In The Dark.” In the group’s “Anthology” Tv series, Ringo Starr recalled with considerable affection:

“I loved meeting Burt Lancaster, too. He was great. The first time in LA, we’d rented a huge house and I turned into a cowboy. I had a poncho and two toy guns and was invited over to Burt Lancaster’s, and that was how I went. I was all, ‘Hold it up there now, Burt, this town ain’t big enough for both of us,’ and he said, ‘What have you go there? Kids’ stuff.’ Later he sent me two real guns, and a real holster: he didn’t like me playing with kids’ guns. I just wanted to be a cowboy.”

“He had an amazing house. It had a pool outside, but you could swim into the living room if you went under the glass. LA was a mind-blower. We used to walk up and down Sunset Strip; we’d get out of the limo and people would come up to us, but it was still quite cool. It wasn’t like a crazy feeding frenzy; there would be a lot of ‘hellos’.”

Recommended viewing

The Flame and the arrow (1950)

My boyhood introduction to Lancaster, and the first of the actor\‘s filmic associations with partner Harold Hech.

The ‘big grin’ and there’s plenty of it in this movie, is Dardo, an Italian-styled Robin Hood battling the occupying Hessian troops. When his his former wife Francesca (Lynne Baggett) moves in with the Hessian leader Allenby (Robert Douglas), she demands his followers reclaim her son from Dardo. As matters take a personal turn, Dardo kidnaps Anne (Virginia Mayo), Allenby’s niece.

Allenby retains the upper hand by taking several locals as hostages, compelling Dardo to turn himself in. Faced with a very public hanging, our hero is rescued by his cronies, led by Nick Cravat, Lancaster’s former circus partner and lifelong crony.

Sumptuously shot in technicolour, it’s a rollicking affair, rightfully up there with the very best of the swashbuckling genre, and with the added credibility only Lancaster’s acrobatic background could bring.


Cravat’s daughter, Tina Cuccia, is a fine art and surface design artist. This website contains a section about her late father in addition to samples of her work.

Trapeze (1956)

Directed by Carol Reed in the 1950s, Trapeze stars Tony Curtis as Tino, a young acrobat who travels to Paris to learn how to perform the triple-somersault. The one man who can teach him is Burt Lancaster’s Mike Ribble, a drunk and half-crippled former trapeze star who nearly killed himself performing the same death-defying stunt. Reluctantly, Ribble agrees to train the young flyer and returns to the ring to become his catcher.

Much bodes well until an ambitious and unscrupulous femme fatale Lola (Gina Lollobrigida) joins their act, whereupon relationships in the roof of the Parisian circus building become strained to breaking point.

‘La Lollo’ is a pure vision and equally as deadly, her looks alone enough to make any viewer unsteady on their feet even without the thrillingly shot vertiginous aerial scenes. The queasy swing of the lofty trapeze bar; the heart-stopping flights through mid-air; the jarring thud of the catches, the stomach-churning plunges into the net – it\‘s all there. Run the movie again and you\‘d swear you could smell the sawdust.

Lancaster had begun his career as an aerialist, being employed through the Federal Government’s “Federal Theatre Project” in the 1930s. The performers included clowns, jugglers, tightrope walkers, cyclists, and aerialists. He would put this experience to good use in several films including ‘The Flame and the arrow’ (1950).

Separate Tables (1958)

Lancaster simmers and then boils over as John Malcolm, a journalist seeking refuge from a failed marriage, during the off-season at the lonely Beauregard Hotel in Bournemouth, where only the long-term tenants are still in residence. When Ann Shankland (Rita Hayworth), arrives on the scene in an effort to see her ex-husband, who is secretly engaged to Pat Cooper, the woman who runs the hotel, tempers inevitably flare.

John remains resentful of his former wife’s previous interest in his lower economic class as a means to manipulate and degrade him fully, whilst acknowledging their mutual ongoing physical attraction. She asks him to come to her room.

Informed by Miss Cooper that Anne is talking on the phone to his publisher, the only person who knows they are engaged, John now confronts Anne.

‘Are you afraid of the light?’ he nochalantly enquires. ‘Why should I be afraid of the light?\’ she responds before he elaborates further. ‘People who hate the light usually hate the truth’.

‘The truth? John forgive me, but I don’t know what you are talking about’ she responds, seemingly nonplussed. ‘We’re talking about liars Anne. Liars and expensive tramps’. Alluding to her female charms and persuasive manner, he chastises her for meeting with his literary agent in order to dsave his ex from the hands of a grubby little hotel keeper. ‘Ten minutes flat – that’s all you needed – why – his hands were shaking so much he couldn’t even light your cigarette.’

‘Please Don’t be angry with me – I had to see you. I was desparate to see you\’

‘Why Why!To help me?: You wouldn’t think to tell me the truth. No – You had to have your conquest – your unconditional surrender and if you could do it by lying and cheating…..’

‘All right, I knew you would get married and I should have said so from the beginning\’. I still have some pride left!’

‘Pride!’ he retorts before grabbing her head in both hands.

‘Yes – I can see the make up now all right – the lines that weren’t there before – the beginning – soon there’ll be more and more and then one day this face will begin to decay and there’ll be nothing left to make a man grovel, to make him want to …’ He begins exerting pressure on her neck. ‘John’ she pleads before he abruptly turns and exits the room.

A former Mayfair fashion model, well dressed and elegant, Anne is now afraid of impending old age and solitude. Overdosing daily on sleeping tablets, she remains genuinely fond of John, a reserved emotion hitherto absent from her other relationships. Vain and spoilt, incapable of showing real love, she nonetheless craves a reconciliation despite the volatile nature of their historic union.

Still in love with the ex wife he once tried to kill, and hiding out at a hotel where his time in jail can remain a closely guarded secret, the man with a once promising career as a young government minister, now drinks to forget.

David Niven scooped the Oscar for best supporting actor, but Lancaster applies the emotional intensity, if a trifle early into the proceedings. As a key player in the film’s tripartite production team, he took over the editing process, much to the chagrin of director Delbert Mann. Key early scenes between Deborah Kerr and David Niven were excised in the interest of introducing Lancaster’s character earlier into the film. Mann reportedly felt this decision weakened the dramatic intensity of the Kerr / Niven storyline and ultimately cost Kerr a Best Actress Oscar. There you have it; artistic differences – the lifeblood of a pernicious industry and its key players.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

Overlook the factual distortions if you will, for Lancaster\‘s best Actor Oscar Nomination was fully merited in a movie that nonetheless captured the essence of a violent man blessed with superior intellect, who would ultimately write the definite treatise on avian diseases.

The film is a sentimentalized look at Stroud (played by Burt Lancaster), who became a self-taught ornithologist during his 54 years in prison. In addition to his work with birds, the film also focused on Stroud’s relationship with a short-sighted warden (Karl Malden) and with his doting mother (Thelma Ritter).

Based on the biography by Thomas E. Gaddis, ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ took liberties with the facts. In reality, Stroud was an unrepentant killer who used the media to cast himself as a heroic figure, whilst much of his work was actually done in Leavenworth Prison, Kansas, and not Alcatraz. Despite such inaccuracies, the film is one of the most engrossing prison dramas ever made, largely because of Lancaster’s portrayal and an excellent supporting cast including Karl Malden, Telly Savalas, and Thelma Ritter.

The Train (1964)

When Mademoiselle Villard, a middle aged spinster from the Jen De Paume museum, presents her case for the appropriation of rare oil paintings in order to halt their seizure by the Nazis, Lebiche (Lancaster), a railroad official, is initially unwilling to sacrifice lives for inanimate objects.

Amongst the collection are Renoirs, Cezannes, 64 Picasso’s, Degas, and Matisse. Referring to Colonel von Waldheim’s innate good taste, the curator adds ‘He chose very carefully. Only the best – the National Heritage.’ Lebiche has organised the train that will transport these priceless artifacts back to Germany. As well, as his transportation duties, he heads up a team of resistance agitators and his cohorts – Didont (Albert Rémy) and Pesquet (Charles Millon)- respond to her overtures with a combination of courtesy and amused incredulity. ‘Stopping a train is not simple Mademoiselle’. You can get killed stopping a train especially if you are French and the train is German.’

A full synopsis of the film is available via:

Lebiche is an anti-hero, unimpeded by any wayward french accent – Lancaster delivering his lines normally – whose objectivity wavers under provocation, whilst Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield), a self professed connoisseur, remains singularly focused on his artistic odyssey, even at the expense of lying to his superiors – ‘All Van Rundstedt can lose is men, this train is more valuable’

The film’s meticulous authenticity is enhanced by its exclusive use of French locations and real trains, rather than miniatures or models. Fully committed to his production duties, Lancaster had the original director removed from the project after only a week, and Arthur Penn would always remain philosophical about this: “From that point they took this $2m film and proceeded to turn it into a $7m fiasco.” Unsurprisingly, this opinion was not shared by John Frankenheimer, who, at Lancaster’s behest, stepped into Penn’s directorial shoes.

It’s a criminally overlooked war movie and more than worthy of a 50th anniversary DVD reissue with bonus features.


Recommended reading

Burt Lancaster: An American Life Paperback (Kate Buford) 2008

Placing Lancaster within the context of his times, Buford presents a highly detailed, yet completely accessible portrait of one of Hollywood’s most venerable stars. If the suspicion persisits that the actor was an essentially unpleasant character, this biographical work – with a concise plot synopsis of all his films and his own considerable contribution to each of them – ensures we remain focused on those qualities that made him such an iconic figure in Hollywood.

Transcending changing cinematic trends – the Noir era, the heyday of the Western, cold war thrillers – and undisputed classics such as “The Sweet Smell of Success” right through to his heart wrenching performance in “Field of Dreams,” Burt Lancaster had a timeless quality about him; an actor never afraid to play his age.