No man moved with, and no actor projected, more sheer animal grace than Burt Lancaster, who died late Thursday night in Los Angeles at the age of 80.
His agent, Jack Gilardi, said Lancaster's wife, Suzie, and six of his children, were at his bedside in the couple's luxurious Century Towers condominium when he died of a heart attack.
"He died shortly after having a heart attack. Luckily there was enough time for his children to be summoned to his bedside," Mr. Gilardi said. Lancaster had been in failing health since suffering a stroke four years ago.
Lancaster, who in life was larger than life, almost always played men larger than life on screen in his 70 movies.
With an acrobat's soaring V of a torso that rose to a thick stevedore's neck and thence to a pug-handsome Hell's Kitchen kind of face, he always personified, in the title of one of his best pictures, brute force. He played the man who made it happen: a con man, an acrobat, a pirate, a boss cowboy (despite the New York accent), a top sergeant, a slick general, an evil columnist. He was either the complete authority figure or the complete rebel figure, and rarely something in between. In sum, he was an old-fashioned movie star, whose sheer presence miniaturized those who tried to act with or, God help them, against him.
A predator's motion
In his better films -- and there were many of them -- he moved with a predator's wily economy of motion, body-proud, radiating power, sensuality and violence. When he wanted to, he could unleash a smile that would melt a vault door. When he wanted to -- as in, say, his Academy Award-winning role as "Elmer Gantry" in 1960, he could hurl thunderbolts of charm far enough to lift all the wallets from the pockets of all the angels in heaven. But he could also sink his eyes into steely little ball bearings and make you fear him, as when he played the vicious J.J. Hunsecker, a viperous version of Walter Winchell in the cynical classic "The Sweet Smell of Success."
Lancaster, one of the few stars of his generation to act under his own name, was born Burton Stephen Lancaster on Nov. 2, 1913, in New York City. The son of a postal clerk, he grew up on tough city streets in East Harlem, and -- can this be a surprise? -- initially excelled as an athlete, even winning an athletic scholarship to New York University. Indeed, even in his 70s, an athlete's grace could be seen lurking in his movements.
But in his early years, no hint of a theatrical or dramatic life can be found. He was, rather, drawn to the sawdust circuit, and with his pal Nick Cravat, formed an acrobatic act called "Lang and Cravat," which toured with circuses and in nightclubs. But by late 1941, Lancaster was working as a salesman in a Chicago department store.
In World War II, he served in the Army's Special Services branch, which was a kind of morale-building unit that traveled just behind the front putting on shows for the troops. There, he acquired the rudiments of his training, taking part in shows in Australia, North Africa and Italy as a singer, dancer and acrobat.
The story of his post-war "discovery" by Hollywood is part of American pop cultural lore. Working as an elevator operator, the story goes, he was mistaken by a producer for an actor and asked to read for a part. He read for it, got it, and the show closed in three weeks, but not before Burton Stephen Lancaster had earned a Hollywood contract. True? No counter-account exists to cast doubt upon it, but it can't be by pure chance that the ex-soldier, introduced to theatrical work in the service, was running an elevator in a building that was frequented by producers.
In any event, his first movie made him a star. This was Robert Siodmack's "The Killers" (1946), whose first three minutes were derived from the Hemingway short story, after which it became a complex, almost post-modern film noir that moved laterally through time to explore the roots of a betrayal in the underworld. The nominal star was another banty New Yorker, Edmund
O'Brien, playing an insurance investigator. In fact, star and newcomer never shared the same scene. But despite the discontinuous narrative, Lancaster's brooding power and melancholy showed through.
He was quick to capitalize, and never looked back. He summoned his pal Cravat to Hollywood, where the two of them made a couple of delirious swashbucklers that let them somersault and cavort, their muscles bulging, their smiles beaming in innocent giddy machismo; the films were "The xTC Crimson Pirate" and "The Flame and the Arrow." At the same time, he starred in a number of tough crime melodramas, including "Brute Force," "Kiss the Blood Off My Hands," "I Walk Alone," "Criss Cross," usually playing a small-time gangster and in the process becoming an icon in the vivid flowering of the film noir movement in the late '40s.
Tha A-list star
But by the early '50s, Burt Lancaster was a bona fide A-list star, a rank he'd hold through the '70s. He moved easily to the center of impressive pictures such as "From Here to Eternity," "Trapeze," "Vera Cruz," "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" and "The Rose Tattoo."
It's probably "From Here to Eternity" that yielded him his most famous moment. That came when, as tough First Sergeant Milt Warden, he lay in the sand with a demurely bathing-suited Deborah Kerr, who portrayed his weak commanding officer's wife, Karen Holmes. They grappled, they snuggled, they smooched until, fortuitously, a wave crescendoed over them, symbolically representing sexual congress in the only permissible language of the era. It became one of the few movie images that would never die.
But Lancaster was more than just a powerful screen actor. Like few in his generation -- Jimmy Stewart is another example -- he understood that owning production was the key to career longevity and aesthetic satisfaction. Thus, early in his career -- 1948, in fact -- he incorporated with his agent Harold Hecht and began not only starring in but producing his own and other films. They were later joined by James Hill and the company -- "Hecht-Hill-Lancaster" -- produced the Academy-Award winning "Marty," among other films.
Oddly enough, as a producer he seemed not to understand his own appeal. In "Run Silent, Run Deep," one of his few unimpressive outings, he made a bland executive officer on a sub skippered by the more commanding Clark Gable. On the other hand, he cast himself against type in "Sweet Smell of Success," derived from the Clifford Odets play and directed by an exile Scot, Alexander Mackendrick. It was a role that demanded not external but internal power. His infinitely corrupted columnist controlled his minions and destroyed his enemies with a repressed, self-contained soft-spokenness, a piercing look, a veiled hint. Yet freed of a need for physicality, Lancaster's sheer intensity blazed out of the screen in a film that's become a cult favorite.
The choice of the role is indicative of his independence. He alternated between his large-scale movie star turns and a more intense, personal drama. He would go from the hot-shot gunman Joe Aron in "Vera Cruz" -- slobbering champagne across his grizzled beard and shirtfront and proclaiming happily to the camera, "I'm a pig!" -- to the guilt-racked Doc Delaney in "Come Back, Little Sheba."
The apotheosis of his big movie star persona was certainly his Oscar-winning role in "Elmer Gantry," for Richard Brooks in 1960. Rarely have star and role merged so completely: Lancaster's Elmer was a bodacious con man, loud and crude and glib, a lecherous hypocrite with an eye on God, one hand on someone else's wallet and the other on someone else's comely knee, yet so full of himself he could not be disliked or denied, and not quite beyond redemption. With his rippling broad shoulders and that atomic detonation of a smile, his rogue minister bestrode the world of 1960 cinema like a colossus and claimed the Oscar, his only win in four nominations, in a walk.
But Lancaster was also changing. In fact one theme of his career was an increasing thoughtfulness: He made late choices on political grounds that were quite amazing for an American star, as in appearing in a pre-"JFK" examination of the Kennedy assassination, a film called "Executive Action." He opened up a European phase of his career, appearing in Bernardo Bertolucci's "1900" (1976) and "The Leopard" for Luchino Visconti (1963). In America, he'd alternate between something big, loud and stupid like "The Scalphunters" and something quiet, refined and interior like "The Swimmer" (both in 1968). He even survived the tacky excesses of "Airport" with a weary professional's grace.
Even late in his career, when he took to playing off-lead or character parts, he was capable of making a major impact. His melancholy small-time hood in "Atlantic City" (1980) gave that quirky little film astonishing impact and his pairing with the decades-younger Susan Sarandon still conjured up a spark or two. As late as 1986, he was once again carrying a gat, wearing a fedora and a pinstripe as a gangster in the not terribly good "Tough Guys." His last memorable appearance was in 1989's "Field of Dreams."
They don't make them like Burt Lancaster anymore, but if you look at his contemporaries and his predecessors, you'd probably conclude they didn't make them like Burt Lancaster then either. There was only one, and he will be missed.