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Tributes from Contemporaries of Burt Lancaster
Kirk Douglas: “Burt is not dead; he will never die. Kids who are not born yet will someday watch him swinging from the yardarm of a pirate ship, walking majestically down the streets of Tombstone, rushing into danger to right a wrong... But our time together was so short, like videotape on fast forward. I want to hit the STOP button and start over. Hey Boit! This is Koik... wait for me!” (The day after Burt died — from Climbing the Mountain)
John Frankenheimer, director: “God knows he was a handsome man. No actor ever looked so good. But there were brains behind that brilliant smile and confident physique. He was the most professional actor I have ever known, and there was not a phony bone in his body. Burt Lancaster taught me what the words ‘friendship and loyalty’ meant — he walked the walk, and he talked the talk. He lived a noble life.” (TCM Tribute)
Tony Curtis: “Now there — was a real man.” (To David Fury in 1993, gazing fondly at a photo of Burt from Trapeze)
Tony Curtis: “Burt led a quiet life. He was a wonderful father. He loved his kids so much.” (actor, Trapeze and Sweet Smell of Success)
Shirley Jones: “There are lots of good actors, but there are very few one-of-a-kinds. Like Cagney and Bogart, Burt was one-of-a-kind.” (A&E Tribute, actress, Elmer Gantry)
Chuck Connors: “I owe my career to Burt Lancaster — he got me my first starring role in South Sea Woman in 1952. I talked this over with Doug McClure — we both really love Burt.” (To David Fury, November 1990)(Doug McClure, actor, The Unforgiven)
Virginia Mayo: “There will never be another Burt Lancaster — who will ever forget the way he looked in The Killers, and his magnificent acting in all his films.” (To David Fury in 1993 — actress, The Flame and the Arrow and South Sea Woman)
Rhonda Fleming: “Burt never played the movie star. He never played that game. His brilliance as an actor was an innate gift. He challenged himself with everything he did. A remarkable man, just a brilliant gift from God he had. And he handled it beautifully without going off the deep end or losing it. Burt had such a tremendous variety of roles and he just played the heck out of every one of them. You believed him. Anytime Burt was in a film, you want to go see it — anytime he’s on television, you want to watch it. That’s the magic, that’s the magnetism that he had.” (A&E Tribute – actress, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral)
Earl Holliman: “I think the fact that Burt could hold his own with Anna Magnani, Shirley Booth, Kate Hepburn — was indicative of the man. When we did The Rainmaker with Kate Hepburn, they were both larger-than-life; and they were both willing to step out and take chances. And then that great, gorgeous scene in the tack room when he tells Kate that she’s pretty... such sensitivity.” (A&E Tribute – actor, The Rainmaker and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral)
Terry Moore: “I think the uniqueness of Burt Lancaster was that he could be to everybody whatever they wanted him to be. He could be the poet, he could be with great wisdom and soul, he could be the athlete, the acrobat, the western star riding the plains with Kirk Douglas — he encompassed it all. He was an actor.” (A&E Tribute – actress, Come Back, Little Sheba)
Sydney Pollack, director: “Burt was always the way we remember Burt Lancaster. He was a real force on the screen, and he was like that in his personal life. Like a lot of people, I was sort of in awe of him. He was an extraordinary physical specimen to begin with — he looked like a statue that some great sculptor had made. A little taller than everybody else, a little better looking than everybody else.” (A&E Tribute)
Peter Riegert: “It seemed like he never forgot where he was from, which is rare — he was proud of his background, he was reverential about the people that influenced him in his life, and I think that is why people like him so much. Because I think they see in him, themselves. It still seemed like he was from the audience, he didn’t seem apart from the audience. And that’s not an easy thing for an actor to do, especially an actor who works in such a large way.” (A&E Tribute – actor, Local Hero)
Claudia Cardinale: “He is one of the kindest men I’ve ever worked with. He is always willing to help. He takes his work seriously, but he’s always ready to share in a good laugh.” (actress, The Leopard and The Professionals)
Luchino Visconti, director: “The Prince himself was a very complex character — at times autocratic, rude, strong — at times romantic, good, understanding — and sometimes even stupid, and above all, mysterious. I sometimes think Burt is the most perfectly mysterious man I ever met in my life.” (Visconti, drawing correlations between Lancaster and the Prince, his character in The Leopard ).
Susan Clark: “Burt Lancaster told me, ‘Don’t let the bastards steal your dreams.’ Think of him as a creature in flight, and magnificent.” (A&E Tribute – actress, Valdez is Coming)
David Thomson, film historian: “Brave, vigorous, handsome, and an actor of great range, Lancaster never yielded in his immaculate splendor, proud to be a movie actor. He was one of the great stars. Perhaps the last.”
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, author: “With his incredible presence, magnificent acting talent, and outstanding body of cinematic work, Burt Lancaster was a star of the screen whose light has not diminished with time.”
Richard Corliss, Time Magazine: “In an important way, Lancaster put a brash face on post-studio Hollywood... But he was never a tabloid star; he stayed away from scandal. He will be remembered not for his sins but for his achievements. And that’s a grand legacy for a mysterious, hard-working man.”
Bob Thomas, journalist (1953): "Here is a man to be admired. He has refused to sacrifice his integrity for Hollywood’s gold. He has stuck by his principles, even though he has annoyed some and made enemies of others. He has held onto the independence he learned on the streets of New York’s slums. He's quite a man."
Pauline Kael, journalist: “There's nobody else in the world with a voice like that — the smoothness with a remnant of roughness underneath.” (Local Hero review, 1983)
Norman Mailer, author: “I never looked into eyes as chilling as Burt Lancaster's.”
David Fury: “In a Burt Lancaster performance, you always got your money’s worth. The actor worked long hours to perfect each and every role, executed his own dangerous daredevil stunts, argued passionately with his directors, oft-times captivated his female co-stars, and always thrilled his audiences. With Burt Lancaster, you got the real deal: talent, charisma, intelligence, intensity, brilliance — the whole gamut. And when he smiled his toothy Gantry-smile, he could charm a snake-oil salesman out of his last dollar.”
Susie Lancaster: “Burt was wise, kind, and talented. I was deeply in love with him — he was a wonderful husband.”
Burt Lancaster, in his early Hollywood years: “I believe in gambling, taking the big chance.”
Burt Lancaster, mid-life: “I approach action at an intellectual level. That permits me to act with intelligence, not emotion. I don’t like displaying myself.”
Burt Lancaster, older and wiser, near the end of his career: “I’m a pain in the neck, I try to direct the picture, I try to tell the other actors how to act, people hate me and when it’s all over, they wind up loving me. I don’t know why!”
Biographical Sketch by David Fury
Burt Lancaster never had a desire or an intention to write his own autobiography, as other actors had done. But he loved to tell stories about his personal life and his decades-long career which began in a traveling circus... as a youth of only 19 years.
These tales and anecdotes recalled by Burt were for the most part related to journalists, as well as television and radio hosts. And thus a generous portion of “Brains, Brawn, & Bravado” is told in the actor’s own words — and indeed these stories are fascinating and tinged with the imagery of a master storyteller!
Burt had a marvelous sense of humor and often there was a twinkle in his eyes when recounting tales of his family, close friends such as Nick Cravat, and the numerous celebrities he met along the winding road of his life.
Burt Lancaster was also a strong supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, and participated in several events to raise money for Dr. King’s worthy cause. On August 28, 1963, Mr. Lancaster was one of the Hollywood contingent of actors at the March on Washington that included Charlton Heston, Jim Garner, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and several more. A few luminaries attending were granted an opportunity to make a short speech, including Burt Lancaster, who spoke for 75 seconds to the assembled masses at the Lincoln Memorial.
Mr. Lancaster as an actor starred in screen biographies of Jim Thorpe, the great American Indian athlete; Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz”; and entrepreneur P. T. Barnum. He also was cast as a Pope, a Catholic Cardinal, the brilliant but demented Dr. Moreau, and many historical characters. Although he was Irish-American, Burt convincingly portrayed Italians, Germans, a Frenchman, a Mexican, Native-Americans (twice), and a 19th-century Irish horse soldier, amongst his more than eighty screen characters.
So in this story of one man’s life, we’ll find out that Burton Stephen Lancaster grew up in a tough East Harlem neighborhood during the Roaring Twenties, and that he was the son of a postal worker and a mother who was a strong disciplinarian and a woman of immense principle. His close-knit nuclear family included two brothers and one sister, he and his siblings all tightly grouped in age. During the decade of the Great Depression, the young man toured across America as a circus and vaudeville acrobat, performing with his childhood buddy, Nick Cravat. And during World War II, Lancaster served as an enlisted man in North Africa and Italy, entertaining troops with comedy sketches and no doubt, a few acrobatics thrown into the mix.
By the end of the Big War, September 1945, Lancaster was mustered out of the Army. At age thirty-one, he had a few dollars in his pocket and a fiancée, Norma Mari Anderson, a U.S.O. entertainer the young soldier had met while serving in Italy. Eventually, over the twenty years of their marriage, the couple would have five children: two sons and three daughters.
Perhaps it was the “luck of the Irish,” but Dame Fortune smiled upon Burt and a chance meeting in a New York City skyscraper set him on the path to an acting career. Riding the elevator in the Royalton Hotel to meet Norma for lunch, the uniformed Lancaster was being “eyeballed” by a man in a suit who exhibited more than idle curiosity. It turned out that the fellow was a Broadway talent scout, who subsequently offered him an audition for an upcoming play, The Sound of Hunting. Burt landed the role of an army sergeant, a member of a battle-weary platoon in war-torn Cassino, Italy; although the play lasted less than a month on Broadway, his career was launched. The various talent hounds who buzzed the Broadway beat searching for new Hollywood players were impressed, and Burt ultimately landed a movie deal with producer Hal Wallis. And before he ever worked for Wallis, Lancaster took advantage of a clause in his contract to make a film for independent producer Mark Hellinger, a former New York City columnist who went west to California to make motion pictures.
That film turned out to be one of the classic crime dramas of all-time, The Killers, and in fact two new stars were born: Lancaster and Ava Gardner. Over the next forty-five years as an actor Burt would always be a top-billed star of the highest magnitude. He also became the most important and powerful of the independent actor-producers of the 1950s, and along with his partner Harold Hecht, produced a dozen of the finest dramas and adventure films of any era. One of their films, Marty (1955), won the most significant Oscars of the year: Best Picture; Best Director, Delbert Mann; Best Screenplay, Paddy Chayefsky; and Best Actor, Ernest Borgnine.
One measure of an actor’s ability would be how many times he was honored by his peers with the highest awards of the industry. It is well-known that Mr. Lancaster was nominated for Best Actor four times, winning the coveted Oscar for Elmer Gantry (1960). In addition, Burt was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle prize for Best Actor three times: From Here to Eternity (1953), Elmer Gantry (1962), and Atlantic City (1981). And also notably, he claimed the Best Actor trophy from the Venice Film Festival for his role of Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).
Just as importantly, if not more so, was Burt Lancaster’s innate ability to make his leading ladies look good upon the silver screen; he acted to them, never intending to “steal” a scene, and giving his co-star an opportunity to deliver a heartfelt portrayal. Two particular women gave the performance of a lifetime, and each won the Oscar for Best Actress: Shirley Booth as Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), and Anna Magnani as Serafina in The Rose Tattoo (1955).
Meanwhile, Barbara Stanwyck, Deborah Kerr, Katherine Hepburn, and Susan Sarandon all were nominated for Best Actress with unforgettable performances while co-starring with Burt in classic films. In addition, two women won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress: Shirley Jones in her role of the sexy prostitute Lulu Bains in Elmer Gantry, and Wendy Hiller as the down-to-earth proprietress of the Beauregard Hotel in Separate Tables. In all of these cases, each performer had a majority of their scenes opposite Mr. Lancaster.
Upon that big silver screen, well, Burt Lancaster was really something. Sometimes, it was his humanity and fallibility that we, as the audience, identified with in our own lives. Other times it was his marvelous athleticism and willingness to risk his own valuable neck, as he ran, jumped, leaped, fought with swords, guns, fists, anything and everything that he could throw at a screen adversary in performing stunts that we could only marvel at and call simply amazing.
And often it was just that big, beautiful Lancaster smile that he broke out in many of his hero, villain, and even anti-hero roles. The actor's screen persona was invariably charming and sometimes menacing, but it was always a force; your ears absorbing the voice, alternating velvet and gravelly texture, while your eyes tracked his movements to discover what surprising things were in the Lancaster bag of tricks.
At times this multi-talented actor was misunderstood, but he realized that it came with the territory of being a motion picture celebrity. And through it all, he maintained a sense of humor and never took himself too seriously — he never played the movie star “game.”
This is Burt Lancaster’s true story, with his triumphs and failures, his flaws and his faults, his analytical thinking, his bravado on screen, and his warmth and sincere caring for his fellow man.