Bittersweet Smell of Success

Susan King is a Times staff writer

While researching “Burt Lancaster: An American Life,” biographer Kate Buford discovered a haunting photo at the Museum of Modern Art that now graces the back cover of the book. The still from the 1968 drama “The Swimmer” features a nude shot--taken from the back--of the perfectly chiseled Lancaster, then 54, walking toward a swimming pool.

“I thought the picture was so amazing because it picks up so many themes in the book,” Buford says. “The physical discipline and the rigor he brought to his profession is really manifested in this picture. His proportions are really quite perfect; he is like a Greek statue. Hollywood stars of that era were supposed to be gods and goddesses. That is why the picture is so powerful.”

Buford did have to get permission from Lancaster’s family to use the photo. “At first they were a little reluctant,” Buford says. “Then they said, ‘Look, this is such a beautiful shot. We’re not going to stand in the way.’ ”

“The Swimmer,” based on a John Cheever story, features one of Lancaster’s most gripping performances as a middle-aged man who decides to swim home pool by pool in his suburban neighborhood, but the film flopped upon release. It came out at the wrong time. The country was reeling from the Vietnam War, the rising counterculture and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.


“It was too much of its own time,” Buford says. “ ‘The Swimmer’ came out while everything was going to pieces.”

Audiences also had a hard time watching the macho Lancaster playing a man losing his grip on reality. “It was like, ‘If Burt is breaking down, what is the world coming to?’ ”

But as Buford explains in her book (Knopf, $27.50), Lancaster consistently tried to challenge his own star image. “He confused his audience often,” Buford says. “He didn’t stay in one persona.”

Not many superstars would have played J.J. Hunsecker, the vicious Walter Winchell-type Broadway columnist in the 1957 classic “Sweet Smell of Success,” which his independent film company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, produced. And not many box-office draws would have gone off to Italy at the height of his career to do “The Leopard,” a three-hour Italian-language historical drama directed by Luchino Visconti.

Lancaster started to shake things up as early as 1952 when at 38, he shed his hunk image to play a drunken middle-aged doctor in “Come Back, Little Sheba.”

“That was one of his earliest so-called stretch parts,” Buford says. “He was going into character parts before he had to. He was a very restless and curious person. It was utterly uninteresting for him to walk in and show up and do what he had done before.”

He continued to take chances in the ‘70s and ‘80s, even if audiences stayed away. Buford says that two of the best films he made in the ‘70s, the western “Ulzana’s Raid” and the Vietnam drama “Go Tell the Spartans,” received only limited theatrical release.

Lancaster continued working through the ‘80s in film and television, receiving his final Oscar nomination for his touching turn as an aging small-time gangster in 1981’s “Atlantic City.” Lancaster made his last movie appearance as a doctor in the 1989 baseball fantasy “Field of Dreams.” After appearing in three miniseries in 1990, he suffered a crippling stroke and died in 1994 of a heart attack.


During Hollywood’s golden era, actors such as Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart appealed both to men and women, as did Lancaster. With thick unruly hair, piercing blue eyes and an athletic build, Lancaster was a sex symbol to women as well as a man’s man. But unlike most of the other male movie stars of the day, there was a danger inherit in Lancaster’s personality. With his boisterous “ha ha ha” laugh and an expansive smile he could flash with too much regularity, Lancaster could be charming one minute and malevolent the next.

One of the top stars of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, he turned in dazzling performances in “From Here to Eternity,” “Elmer Gantry” (for which he won an Oscar), “Birdman of Alcatraz,” “Seven Days in May” and “The Train.” Good and evil combined in some of his most vivid characters in ways that made them compelling and frightening at the same time.

Born in 1913, Lancaster grew up poor in East Harlem, N.Y. Though he had a basketball scholarship to New York University, he ditched school and joined the circus as an acrobat with his good friend Nick Cravat, who would later appear with Lancaster in swashbuckling romps such as “The Crimson Pirate” (1952).

After doing just one Broadway play in 1945, Hollywood beckoned. Lancaster’s screen debut was memorable: He played a doomed ex-boxer in the classic 1946 film noir “The Killers.”

‘He really hit the audience hard, I think,” Buford says, noting that moviegoers identified Lancaster with their sons returning from World War II. “The confusion, seeing too much too soon; he seemed to personify that to them and for a generation he retained that. I think that the affection he does have goes back to that first role, and then it was reinforced in ‘From Here to Eternity,’ where he played Sgt. Warden. He became emblematic of a generation.”

An intensely private man, Lancaster was a walking contradiction. Witty, bright, loyal and charming, he also had a hair-trigger temper and was not afraid to throw his considerable weight around. He was a well-publicized womanizer, and rumors have always circulated that he was bisexual.

Buford says she was unable to confirm or deny the rumors. “In the end, what interested me and what was key to me was, what was his attitude toward it?” she says. “What did he think about his own sexuality? In the end I realized a couple of things. He had so many gay friends . . . that he was never going to stand up and say, ‘I’m not gay,’ because that implied that being gay was being somehow lesser.”

In addition, personal, artistic and political freedoms were key to him. “If you stick a label on somebody sexually or any other way, you are limiting them. He refused to be limited. He probably, as [film historian] Molly Haskell said, walked on the wild side, but it didn’t define him one way or another.”

Buford goes into detail about the impact of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, which became the biggest independent production company of the 1950s, responsible for several acclaimed films, including “Sweet Smell of Success” and the 1955 best picture Oscar winner, “Marty.”

“A lot of stars formed independent production companies like James Cagney and John Garfield,” she says. “But H-H-L was the one that lasted and was incredibly successful. That was unusual to make so many hits.”

But then it was hard to say no to Lancaster. Says Buford: “Norman Mailer said that when Lancaster walked into a room he owned the room.”

Lancaster was in many ways a typical New Yorker, Buford says, even though in his film roles he played everything from Native Americans and Italians to Western heroes. “New Yorkers thrive on difficulty. He accepted it in himself and was proud of that. It gave him that edge and that haunted kind of quality. He never lost that look in his eyes--hungry, caged and wondering how to get out.”

His story, though, is a very human one. “All of us have contradictions,” she says. “All of us have the worst of the worst and the best of the best, and he had more of them and more extremes of them. Yet he played his life fully to the end. He changed. He evolved. That’s why I called it ‘An American Life.’ ”

Lancaster’s notorious womanizing, she believes, was mostly Hollywood lore. “Lancaster worked so hard that in that ‘50s Hollywood, if you look at the number of movies he was turning out, he had very little time for all of the exploits he was supposedly up to at that time. He had an affair with Deborah Kerr and a lot of other people, but the only one that really persisted was with Shelley Winters.”


His personal life was far from sunny. Norma Lancaster, his second wife and the mother of his five children, was an alcoholic. One son, Bill, was afflicted with polio at a young age; another had mental problems.

“He had incredible burdens to bear,” Buford says. “Yes, he had huge flaws, and yes, he would have been a very scary person to deal with at that time, but then again there is a human element. Faced with a son with polio, a son who had severe mental difficulties and an alcoholic wife, as director Ted Post said, it would have broken the back of an ordinary guy.”

As Lancaster got older, he became closer to his children. He also found happiness with his third wife, Susie, whom he met in 1984 and married in 1990.

“He was ready for that relationship,” Buford says. “As a writer, it is hard to write somebody’s third act. That was difficult, and yet that is the part of the book that I really like the best--taking him all the way to the end and seeing how he did that. He found that peace, as far as he was going to find it, at the end.”

Lancaster’s children didn’t cooperate with Buford, but, she adds, they weren’t hostile. “They respected his desire for privacy,” Buford says. “I respected that as well.”

After researching the book for a year, Buford began conducting interviews with Lancaster friends and co-workers such as Sydney Pollack and Tony Curtis. Around this time, Susie Lancaster started talking with Buford. “Susie has been extremely helpful,” Buford says. Buford hopes her biography will spur readers to check out Lancaster’s movies. “When you put [his movies] all together, they make a story,” she says. “It was if he told us our own story to ourselves. . . . What kind of intelligence and control must this person have had.”

Throughout his four-decade career, Buford says, Lancaster never lost his love for performing. “He was always acting for an audience,” she says. “That came out of the circus. He never forgot the audience.” *