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Burt Lancaster a presence to be reckoned with

Burt Lancaster was the first movie star I ever met. I’ve encountered others since, but the circumstances have never been so dramatic.

The year was 1971 and I was a young reporter for the Washington Post covering the Cannes Film Festival on my own dime. Few Americans made the trek in those days, which is why Lancaster’s publicist contacted me and asked if I wanted to be part of a small lunch the actor was giving for journalists at the glamorous Hotel du Cap, a legendary spot perched just above imposing rocks that jut boldly into the Mediterranean.

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Though Lancaster — the subject of a UCLA Film & Television Archive centennial retrospective that starts Friday night at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater — did not have a film in the festival, he was there nevertheless, simply being a movie star.

PHOTOS: Burt Lancaster - Career in Pictures

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I discovered just what that meant when I arrived at the hotel’s ocean-view dining room only to be told by the publicist that Mr. Lancaster would be late. By way of explanation, he simply pointed out the room’s enormous glass windows, where I turned my head just in time to see, as if on cue, the spectacularly fit 58-year-old actor elegantly dive off those rocks and into the Mediterranean for a final pre-luncheon swim. Talk about making a Hollywood entrance.

Just minutes later, Lancaster appeared at the table wearing an enormous bathrobe over his swim trunks. His hair was still wet and a towel was snuggly wrapped around his neck like a boxer after a tough fight. Clearly, there was no need to dress just to meet journalists.

As adept at storytelling as he was at diving, Lancaster talked mostly about working with Italian director Luchino Visconti, whose “Death in Venice” was in the festival that year. In a highly unusual move, the actor had been cast as the 19th century Sicilian aristocrat Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, in Visconti’s 1963 version of the splendid Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa novel “The Leopard,” and the director had gone to great pains to help him understand what that long-gone world had been like.

“When I got to the set, he took me up to the prince’s bedroom and opened a drawer in the bureau,” Lancaster related. “It was filled with beautiful silk shirts, each one handmade exactly in my size. He opened another drawer, and another, all the same, none of which would be seen by the camera.

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“‘Burt,’ he said dramatically, ‘These are all your shirts. All your shirts.’” Lancaster shook his head, still stunned at the memory.

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Stunning is also the word for the richness and variety of the actor’s work displayed in the UCLA series, which will present 25 of Lancaster’s films over a three-month span, a third of his total output. Most of Lancaster’s best and most popular roles are represented (“The Leopard” will screen June 9).

They are reminders, as was my Cannes encounter, of why Lancaster, who died in 1994, looms so large in our collective memory. He was in person as he was on the screen, a redoubtable individual who left you no doubt that you had met a Hollywood star of the kind, even then, they weren’t making anymore.

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To watch Lancaster over the 35 years this retrospective covers is to be impressed most of all by the actor’s formidable physicality. You can feel the weight of his presence in every character he played, a quality that enhanced his effectiveness even as late as 1980’s “Atlantic City” (showing June 30), the last of his four best actor Oscar nominations. (He won for 1960’s scalding “Elmer Gantry,” showing May 19.)

Lancaster’s earliest films leaned heavily on this physical presence, on the way he had, to quote Gertrude Stein in another context, a great deal of “there there.” These include his debut, co-starring with Ava Gardner as a character fatalistically accepting his own murder in 1946’s “The Killers” (doubled-billed with the superb noir “Criss Cross” on May 4), and his follow-up, 1947’s “Brute Force” (June 2), where he plays a convict so fierce that the entire penitentiary fears him.

Two perennial audience favorites emphasized physicality of a different, more focused sort that traded on Lancaster’s years of pre-acting background as a circus aerialist. Double-billed Saturday are “The Crimson Pirate,” a genial spoof of all things swashbuckling, and “Trapeze,” a tale of the big top for which the actor did almost all his own stunts.

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But to think of Lancaster exclusively this way is to run the risk of underestimating the psychological aspect of his presence. Lancaster’s people could intimidate you with their minds or their bodies. In my favorite Lancaster films, his characters do it with both.

In “Birdman of Alcatraz” (April 24), the same man could kill a guard or nurture a sparrow. In “From Here to Eternity” (April 29), Lancaster’s 1st Sgt. Milton Warden, a.k.a “Top,” is a model of take-charge virility who is as fair as he is hard. And in the film that opens the series Friday night, the classic “Sweet Smell of Success,” the actor’s newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker is a profoundly menacing monolith, a tower of restrained ferocity who wants to tear the world limb from limb.

I have a final Lancaster memory, one that wasn’t in the flesh but somehow felt like it was. In 1990, working with the late Ava Gardner’s estate on a rewrite of the actress’ autobiography, I flew to London to look through the collection of personal photographs still housed in her Ennismore Gardens apartment.

There, amid the expected celebrity shots, I found a series of original photographs no one remembered seeing before. Knowing of Lancaster’s circus background, a Universal Pictures studio photographer had taken the actor and his “Killers” co-star Gardner out to the beach at Santa Monica in 1946 and photographed them doing some carefree balancing routines for publicity shots. Gardner was in her 20s, Lancaster a supremely fit decade older; neither one of them would ever look so youthful or joyous again.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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Burt Lancaster: A Centennial Celebration

Where: Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

When: April 5 -June 30; screenings at 7:30 p.m. unless noted

Tickets: $10

Info: (310) 206-8013 or https://www.cinema.ucla.edu

The schedule:

April 5 — “Sweet Smell of Success”

April 6 — “The Crimson Pirate,” “Trapeze”

April 8 — “A Child Is Waiting,” “Come Back, Little Sheba”

April 12 — “Vera Cruz,” “The Professionals”

April 24 — “Birdman of Alcatraz”

April 29 — “Run Silent Run Deep,” “From Here to Eternity”

May 4 — “The Killers,” “Criss Cross”

May 19 at 7 p.m. — “Elmer Gantry”

June 2 at 7 p.m. — “Brute Force,” “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands”

June 7 — “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” “I Walk Alone”

June 9 at 7 p.m. — “The Leopard”

June 15 — “The Scalphunters,” “Castle Keep”

June 23 at 7 p.m. — “Ulzana’s Raid”

June 24 – “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”

June 28 — “Cattle Annie and Little Britches”

June 30 at 7 p.m. — “Conversation Piece,” “Atlantic City”

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