Oscar Winner Burt Lancaster Dies at 80

From a Times Staff Writer

Burt Lancaster, the performer, producer, gymnast and iconoclast--who from his earliest beginnings was always a star--has died, his wife announced Friday.

The 80-year-old Academy Award winner and onetime top athlete had been in failing health since suffering a stroke nearly four years ago. He died overnight Thursday of a heart attack in their Century City condominium, Susan Lancaster said, adding that there will be no funeral and that burial will be private.

Lancaster had been in relative seclusion since he was hospitalized in Los Alamitos in November, 1990. He suffered the stroke while visiting a friend in Orange County and lately had refused visitors, even such old friends as Kirk Douglas.

The stroke proved the last in a series of physical maladies that had befallen the virile and versatile star of more than 70 films.

In 1983 he underwent multiple coronary artery bypass surgery, and he continued to suffer from a heart condition.

Even though he filmed "Little Treasure" six months after the surgery and continued working steadily in film and television, Lancaster was denied the title role in "Old Gringo" in 1988 because of his health. Columbia Pictures decided that insurance on him would be too expensive, and cast Gregory Peck instead.

But Lancaster bounced back from that setback to give a heralded performance in "Field of Dreams" in 1989, portraying Moonlight Graham, a onetime ballplayer who had a brief brush with athletic glory before becoming a physician.

With that role, as with dozens of others throughout his lengthy acting career, it was as though Lancaster had been born for his chosen work.

Some actors struggle upward through minor roles to second leads to star status; others cite an academic preparation, beginning with collegiate drama courses and progressing through Actors Studio and summer stock to professional acclaim.

Lancaster took no courses and played no second leads, but was a bona fide star from his first screen appearance in 1946 until a few years before his death.

Sometimes his career accomplishments seemed almost too numerous to be real, much less recalled.

The Academy Award he won for "Elmer Gantry" in 1960 and the Venice Film Festival award he received two years later for "The Birdman of Alcatraz" were remembered. But many forgot the earlier Oscar he had shared with Harold Hecht as co-producer of "Marty," which was voted best picture of 1955.

Lancaster's work in such major dramatic productions as "Come Back Little Sheba," "From Here to Eternity," "Judgment at Nuremberg," "The Rainmaker," "Seven Days in May" and "Atlantic City" tended to overshadow his work in such films as "Trapeze," "The Flame and the Arrow" and "The Crimson Pirate," which displayed the lighter side of his nature.

Notified of Lancaster's death, Kirk Douglas said their 50-year relationship had been precious. Douglas said that after he survived a helicopter crash a few years ago, he came to realize "just how important life and friends really were."

"Burt was not just an actor," Douglas added. "He was a curious intellectual with an abiding love of opera who was constantly in search of unique characters to portray. . . . Elmer Gantry . . . the Birdman of Alcatraz."

Recalling the films he and Lancaster had made together and the dozens of other pictures that featured the outspoken onetime floorwalker and salesman, Douglas said:

"You know, Burt isn't really dead. . . . People years from now will still be seeing us shooting at each other . . . still watching him in his many other great films. At least he's at peace now."

Burton Stephen Lancaster was born Nov. 2, 1913, in the East Harlem section of New York City, attended Public School 83 and DeWitt Clinton High School, and often said he might have "grown up to be either a cop or a criminal (his brother became a policeman; several of his childhood playmates would end up in Sing Sing) if it had not been for athletics and the public library."

He was 6 feet, 2 inches tall by the time he was 14, with a husky physique and quick reflexes that won him an athletic scholarship to New York University. An alert and retentive mind gave him a lifelong fondness for books. But formal education began to bore him by the middle of his sophomore year and he quit college to join the circus.

He teamed up with boyhood friend and gymnastic partner Nick Cravat--who later joined him for on-camera stunts in "The Crimson Pirate" and "The Flame and the Arrow"--and formed the acrobatic team of Lang and Cravat, getting a job with the Kay Bros. show at a salary of $3 per week and three meals a day.

"I knew," he said in later years, "that I'd found the kind of thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life--the only question was what part of the business would be best."

From 1932 to 1937, the team of Lang and Cravat worked steadily: the Kay Bros. engagement gave way to a similar (but better-paid) one with Gorman Bros. Circus. This was followed by a switch to the Barnett Bros. traveling show, and finally to a tour with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey--then, as now, the very top of the circus world in North America.

"But it didn't feel quite right," he said. "I felt something was lacking. Hell, I wanted to talk. . . ."

So he quit the act for a while to appear with the Depression-era Works Progress Administration Theater Project.

"But it didn't really work out for me," he told interviewers over the years. "I had formed the habit of eating three meals a day, and that was hard to do on what the Theater Project could afford. So back I went to Lang and Cravat."

But not for long.

A few weeks after his return to the circus, one of his fingers became infected and a doctor gave him a choice: give up professional acrobatics, or face amputation.

"I decided to keep my finger," he said, "and went looking for a different kind of job--outside the circus, even outside the field of entertainment."

Over the next three years he was, by turns, a floorwalker in the lingerie department of the Marshall Field store in Chicago, a salesman in the same store's haberdashery department, a firefighter, a truck driver and an engineer for a meatpacking plant.

Returning to New York, he found a job with the Columbia Concerts Bureau (a CBS network subsidiary supplying music to small towns across the nation). But before he was able to assume his new duties as a booking agent, he received his draft notice.

"I had a wonderful time," he said, "touring North Africa, Italy and Austria as page-turner for a soldier pianist!"

The World War II years did lead to one important contact, however.

That was with a USO entertainer named Norma Anderson. They kept in touch throughout the rest of the war, and as soon as it was over, he used his 45-day discharge furlough and travel voucher to look her up in New York, where she was working for a radio producer.

He was in the elevator, on the way to her office, when he became aware of a fellow passenger staring at him.

"When I got off at Norma's floor," he said, "the guy followed, and I have to admit he was really beginning to worry me when he pulled out a business card."

The man identified himself as an associate of stage producer Irving Jacobs and he invited Lancaster to read for the part of a tough sergeant in a new play called "A Sound of Hunting."

Lancaster got the part and although the play only survived for five weeks, reviewers were unanimous in their praise. They brought film scouts to the play and seven screen contract offers resulted.

But he accepted none of them. Instead, he signed with Hecht, who came backstage to make an offer no one else had, telling Lancaster, "In five years we'll be making our own pictures."

They shook hands on that, and began a business association that yielded an almost unbroken supply of movies, millions and Oscars for the next quarter-century.

Hecht's first move was to sign Lancaster to a contract with Hal Wallis calling for two pictures a year; the fledgling actor boarded a train for Hollywood, ready to begin work at once on a film titled "Desert Fury." But on arrival he discovered that the script was not ready.

Producer Mark Hellinger, however, had seen a Lancaster screen test, and wanted him for the doomed hero role of Swede in "The Killers," based on Ernest Hemingway's short story.

The picture was released in 1946, and Lancaster became an instant star.

He followed with the "Desert Fury" role, and then returned to the Hellinger fold for "Brute Force," a prison epic that firmly established his stellar qualities and gave him, in the words of Daily Variety, "added marquee stature."

His next role, a true departure from the hard-guy characters he had played in the past, was as the upright son of a war profiteer in "All My Sons," adapted from the Arthur Miller play.

The year 1948 was a watershed; in its final months, future Variety editor Thomas Pryor observed that Lancaster was "at the top of the Hollywood heap. His name on a theater marquee is said to be worth at least $1 million."

Hecht had promised that they would make their own films, and both men still wanted to do so, but their path seemed to be blocked by the studio system that still ruled the film world.

So they decided to buck the system.

Norma Productions (named for the former Norma Anderson, who became Lancaster's wife in 1946) began production with a moody melodrama, "Kiss the Blood Off My Hands." That was followed by a return to studio work with "Sorry, Wrong Number," a screen version of the classic radio monologue.

"Rope of Sand" and "Criss Cross" followed, and the next year the production company made a deal with Warner Bros. that allowed it to make three independent films for Warner release, while Lancaster made three others for the studio.

That same year, Lancaster returned briefly to his original profession, joining Cole Bros. Circus for four weeks as an acrobat (with what one magazine called a "careful salary adjustment" from the $3 plus meals he had been paid for his first big-top job.)

The acrobatics set the tone for Lancaster's first independent production at Warner: "The Flame and the Arrow" paired him once again with his old partner Cravat for slightly tongue-in-cheek medieval derring-do. The critics were ecstatic.

"Not since Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.) was leaping from castle walls and vaulting over rooftops of ancient storybook towns," wrote New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, "has the screen had such a reckless and acrobatic young man to display these same inclinations."

Exploitation of his athletic prowess opened a whole new facet of Lancaster's career; he pursued it through "Jim Thorpe--All American," "Ten Tall Men" and "The Crimson Pirate."

Then it was back to the studio and to deep drama with a strong portrayal of the alcoholic Doc opposite Shirley Booth in "Come Back Little Sheba," followed by "His Majesty O'Keefe" for his own company.

Outdoor epics such as "Apache," "Vera Cruz" and "The Kentuckian" (Lancaster's first directing effort) were balanced by dramatic performances in "The Rose Tattoo" and "Separate Tables" and the co-production role in "Marty."

"Trapeze," a foreign circus romp with Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida, was followed by "The Sweet Smell of Success," again opposite Curtis, in which Lancaster played an evil, power-mad, syndicated columnist--thereby gaining the enduring enmity of Walter Winchell, who complained that it was a biting satire of him.

Lancaster and his partners (Norma Productions had been renamed Hecht-Hill-Lancaster when James Hill joined the company) found themselves at the center of a storm of abuse from members of the news media responding to Winchell's invocation of the mid-1950s mood of anti-liberalism.

Lancaster's reaction was a sharp increase in the amount of free time he devoted to liberal causes of all kinds. Gradually the attacks ended.

The 1969 breakup of his marriage (after 23 years and five children) left him depressed for a time, but work was an anodyne, as always.

"The Midnight Man" (which he co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed) gave him a chance to stretch his professional muscles. "The Cassandra Crossing," "Twilight's Last Gleaming" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau" were more standard offerings. But "Go Tell the Spartans," with its anti-Vietnam War message, was Lancaster at his full-throttle best.

He also made two excursions back to the stage. One (the 1972 role as one-legged Peter Stuyvesant in the musical "Knickerbocker Holiday") was a success; the other (as an aging Huck Finn opposite Kirk Douglas' Tom Sawyer for "The Boys in Autumn" in 1981) was less so.

The 1983 film "Local Hero" saw him reinterpreting the role of unprincipled tycoon that he had played in various forms before--and playing it well.

"I have to play character roles now," he said in a 1977 interview. "In fact, I mustn't play romantic ones unless it logically suits my real age."

Yet it was a romantic role--as the elderly chronic loser dreaming of a happy life with Susan Sarandon in "Atlantic City"--that won him the Los Angeles and New York film critics' awards in 1981 and nearly brought his second performance Oscar.

In recent years, Lancaster was lauded for work on behalf of social causes. In 1984, he received the Mental Health Award from the UC Irvine Department of Psychiatry for his work on a series of videotapes about the problems of the long-term mentally ill.

In 1987, he was honored as Man of the Year by Aid for AIDS after he posed for a poster captioned "Think before you act . . . don't get AIDS." The poster was used as an educational tool in Los Angeles Unified School District classrooms.

And he continued to work as often as possible. In 1988 he had lent his own life experience to "Rocket Gibraltar" as a grandfather who insists that his grandchildren give him a Viking funeral on a burning boat drifting to sea. The same year he traveled to Italy and Yugoslavia to portray a cardinal in an Italian miniseries based on Alessandro Manzoni's novel "I Promessi Sposi" ("The Promised Bride.")

In September, 1990, he married television production coordinator Susan Scherer, who was 48.

But the good roles by then were fewer and further between.

"Meanwhile, you're marking time," he told The Times' Charles Champlin. "You're like a fighter. No fights but you keep in great shape. It was three years before 'Atlantic City' came along, and 'Rocket Gibraltar' was the best part since. Just so they keep coming along."

Times staff writer Burt A. Folkart contributed to this story.

* AN APPRECIATION: A fine actor, a fine man, and a link to a vanished era. F1

Lancaster's Career

Here are the film and television roles of Burt Lancaster, who died late Thursday.

* The Killers, 1946

* Desert Fury, 1947

* Variety Girl, 1947

* Brute Force, 1947

* I Walk Alone, 1947

* Sorry, Wrong Number, 1948

* Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, 1948

* All My Sons, 1948

* Criss Cross, 1949

* Rope of Sand, 1949

* Mister 880, 1950

* The Flame and the Arrow, 1950

* Vengeance Valley, 1951

* Ten Tall Men, 1951

* Jim Thorpe--All American, 1951

* The Crimson Pirate, 1952

* Come Back Little Sheba, 1952

* South Sea Woman, 1953

* From Here to Eternity, 1953

* His Majesty O'Keefe, 1953

* Apache, 1954

* Vera Cruz, 1954

* The Kentuckian, 1955

* The Rose Tattoo, 1955

* Trapeze, 1956

* The Rainmaker, 1956

* Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 1957

* Sweet Smell of Success, 1957

* Separate Tables, 1958

* Run Silent, Run Deep, 1958

* The Devil's Disciple, 1959

* The Unforgiven, 1960

* Elmer Gantry, 1960

* The Young Savages, 1961

* Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961

* Birdman of Alcatraz, 1962

* A Child Is Waiting, 1963

* The Leopard, 1963

* The List of Adrian Messenger, 1963

* Seven Days in May, 1964

* The Train, 1964

* The Hallelujah Trail, 1965

* The Professionals, 1966

* The Swimmer, 1968

* The Scalphunters, 1968

* Castle Keep, 1969

* The Gypsy Moths, 1969

* Airport, 1970

* Lawman, 1971

* Valdez Is Coming, 1971

* Ulzana's Raid, 1972

* Scorpio, 1973

* Executive Action, 1973

* The Midnight Man, 1974

* Conversation Piece, 1975

* Moses--The Lawgiver, TV, 1975

* Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 1976

* 1900, 1976

* Victory at Entebbe, TV, 1976

* Twilight's Last Gleaming, 1977

* The Cassandra Crossing, 1977

* The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1977

* Go Tell the Spartans, 1978

* Zulu Dawn, 1979

* Arthur Miller on Home Ground, 1979

* Atlantic City, 1980

* Cattle Annie and Little Britches, 1980

* Marco Polo, TV, 1982

* Local Hero, 1983

* The Osterman Weekend, 1983

* Little Treasure, 1985

* Scandal Sheet, TV, 1985

* Tough Guys, 1986

* Barnum, TV, 1986

* On Wings of Eagles, TV, 1986

* Suspect, 1987

* Rocket Gibraltar, 1988

* Field of Dreams, 1989

* Voyage of Terror, TV, 1990

* The Jeweler's Shop, 1990

Source: Associated Press

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