Though already in his early thirties when he arrived in Hollywood, this onetime circus acrobat achieved star status after his first performance, and between his thoughtful craftwork, versatility, and the pure masculine power of his presence, he continued to nurture that status over four decades. Born into the family of a New York City postal worker, Burton Stephen Lancaster evidenced his signature athleticism at an early age, obtaining a basketball scholarship to NYU. He abandoned scholastics by age 17, forming a tumbling act with lifelong friend Nick Cravat. After sustaining an injury, Lancaster turned to the Army, where he got his first taste of performing at USO shows.
After WWII, his first acting job on Broadway caught the attention of agent Harold Hecht, who on turn got Lancaster an entrĂ©e with Hal Wallis and Paramount; with his turn as the doomed gang muscle Swede Andreson in "The Killers," Burt's path was set. The imposing physique and toothy smile made him an immediate object of demand, and he'd remain busy through the remainder of the `40s in projects like "Brute Force," "Sorry, Wrong Number," "I Walk Alone" (the first of a half-dozen career-spanning pairings with Kirk Douglas), "Criss Cross" and "Rope of Sand." While his physicality made him a natural for swashbucklers, sagebrushers, war flicks and other testosterone-fueled fare, his naturally empathetic performance skills made him no less effective in straight drama, and he'd juggle his assignments with ease over the course of his `50s heyday.
Notables from the early `50s included "The Flame And The Arrow," "Mr. 880," "Jim Thorpe-All American," "The Crimson Pirate," "Come Back, Little Sheba," and "From Here To Eternity," where his work as the sergeant locked in an adulterous affair with C.O.'s wife Deborah Kerr landed him his first career Best Actor Oscar nomination. Along the way, he joined forces with Hecht to become one of the first stars to form his own production company, ensuring the quality of his own vehicles as well as projects like "Marty." Memorable works from the balance of the decade include "Apache," "Vera Cruz," "The Kentuckian," "The Rose Tattoo," "The Rainmaker," "Sweet Smell Of Success," "Trapeze," "Gunfight At The O.K. Corral," "Run Silent Run Deep" and "Separate Tables."
The `60s began with Burt at the top of his game, landing the Academy Award for his unforgettable work as the huckster turned revival preacher in Richard Brooks' adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' "Elmer Gantry." The dominant run continued over the next several years with his third Oscar nomination in the title role of "Birdman of Alcatraz," as well as "The Young Savages," "Judgment At Nuremberg," "A Child Is Waiting," "Seven Days In May" and "The Train." By the mid-`60s, Lancaster was desirous of taking on chancier assignments, and that, combined with the encroachment of age, served to take him out of the ranks of the elite box-office draws. His charisma continued to mark projects through the balance of the decade like "The Professionals," "The Scalphunters," "The Swimmer," "Castle Keep" and "The Gypsy Moths."
The `70s found him with the occasional lead, but firmly nestled within star-filled ensembles or in showy support; highlights include "Airport," "Executive Action," "Conversation Piece," "1900," "The Cassandra Crossing," "Twilight's Last Gleaming," "The Island Of Dr. Moreau" and "Go Tell The Spartans." The `80s found the now-industry elder statesman remaining busy, opening with his final career Oscar nomination for his work as the aging low-level hoodlum of "Atlantic City." He continued with more flavorful work in "Cattle Annie and Little Britches," "Local Hero," "The Osterman Weekend" and "Rocket Gibraltar," as well as one final sunset vehicle opposite Douglas, the action-comedy "Tough Guys." He'd make a wistful final film bow as "Moonlight" Graham in "Field Of Dreams."Burt accrued a few more made-for-TV credits ("The Phantom Of The Opera," "Voyage Of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair," "Separate But Equal") until 1990, when a severe stroke rendered this once most physically robust of talents partially paralyzed and largely unable to speak; a final heart attack ended his life four years later.
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