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The Burt Lancaster Centennial

by Legacy Staff

From handsome tough guy to great filmmaker: 10 facts about Hollywood movie star Burt Lancaster.

He started out as a handsome tough guy with a one-note acting career, but transformed himself into one of the greatest film stars of his era. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, Legacy presents 10 facts about Burt Lancaster’s rise to the top.

1. Lancaster was born Nov. 2, 1913, in New York City. As a young man, he was a successful gymnast and high school basketball star.


2. Lancaster received an athletic scholarship to New York University but didn’t stay in college long — he jumped into a career as an acrobat with the Kay Brothers Circus.

3. Lancaster had to give up the circus life after several years due to an injury. He worked as a salesman and a singing waiter, but U.S. involvement in World War II gave him new purpose. He joined the Army and served in a special services division, providing USO entertainment to the troops.

4. Initially uninspired by acting, after returning from military service, Lancaster auditioned for — and won — a role in Broadway’s short-lived “A Sound of Hunting.” He caught the eye of agent Harold Hecht, who got Lancaster his first movie role in 1946’s “The Killers.” Lancaster and Hecht later formed a highly successful production company together.

5. It wasn’t long before Lancaster made a big splash with 1953’s “From Here to Eternity.” And when we say splash, we mean it — the oceanside love scene between Lancaster and Deborah Kerr is one of the most memorable in movie history.

6. “From Here to Eternity” was one of Lancaster’s four Oscar nominations for best actor. He won once — for 1960’s “Elmer Gantry” — in which he played a con man turned fiery revivalist preacher.

7. Lancaster was one of the earliest actors to successfully turn to production work, beginning in 1952 with “The Crimson Pirate,” which he co-produced as well as starred in.

8. Lancaster tried his hand at directing in 1955 with “The Kentuckian,” one of only two films he directed. The other was 1974’s “The Midnight Man,” which Lancaster also co-wrote, produced, and starred in.

9. In addition to his amazing body of acting work — 75 theatrical releases and a generous handful of TV movies and miniseries — Lancaster was politically active. He was a speaker at the 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr.; he spoke out against the Vietnam War and McCarthyism; he campaigned for Democratic candidates; and he supported gay rights. Toward the end of his life, while he was recovering from quadruple bypass surgery, he attended Congressional hearings to protest the colorization of classic movies.

10. After surviving a stroke and two heart attacks, Lancaster died Oct. 20, 1994, from a third heart attack at age 80. He was cremated and his ashes are buried in Los Angeles’s Westwood Memorial Park, with a simple plaque that belies his huge stature: “Burt Lancaster. 1913 – 1994.”

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