Actor Burt Lancaster leaves a legacy of big-screen strength

By EW Staff
Updated November 04, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Imagine a Stallone who could do George Bernard Shaw and do it well. That might begin to convey the versatility of Burt Lancaster, who died of a heart attack on Oct. 20 at age 80. ”I approach action at an intellectual level,” he once said. ”That permits me to act with intelligence, not emotion. I don’t like displaying myself.” But display himself he did in a career that spanned more than four decades.

Raised in New York City’s East Harlem, Lancaster turned a robust athleticism into a lifelong commodity — first as a circus acrobat. His debut film, 1946’s The Killers, made him an instant star. Further success gave Lancaster enough clout to become one of the first postwar actors to have his own production company, allowing him to mix action roles with risk-taking ones, as well as produce movies he didn’t act in, such as 1955’s Oscar-winning Marty and 1957’s The Bachelor Party. Though Lancaster once announced he might give up acting for directing, he called his one solo effort, 1955’s The Kentuckian, ”the hardest job of my life.”

A longtime liberal (he once served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union), the actor gravitated to films with such subjects as racism (Ulzana’s Raid, The Unforgiven) and the plight of the mentally handicapped (A Child Is Waiting). It was an interest in the penal system that drew him to play convict Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz, a role Lancaster researched with typical zeal.

Off screen, Lancaster was evidently more like the charismatic charmer in Elmer Gantry (he called that part the ”easiest … because I was, in essence, playing myself”) than like the terse sergeant in From Here to Eternity. Divorced from his second wife of 23 years, Norma, Lancaster married Susan Scherer in 1990, two months before suffering a debilitating stroke.

From his early peak in Fred Zinnemann’s Eternity to his late-career resurgence in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, Lancaster’s legacy is as broad as his inimitable grin.

*From Here To Eternity (1953, Columbia TriStar) As Sgt. Milton Warden, Lancaster is the troubled, helpless conscience of a compromised movie — and his brawny roll in the surf with Deborah Kerr (as his commanding officer’s wife) became an icon of passion.

*Sweet Smell of Success (1957, MGM/UA) In a depiction of a gossip columnist à la Walter Winchell, Lancaster stars as a hush-voiced, sister-loving monster named J.J. Hunsecker. It’s the most chilling depiction of absolute, corrupt power in American movies.

*Elmer Gantry (1960, MGM/UA) He won an Oscar as the bogus minister of Sinclair Lewis’ novel, and it may be the ultimate Lancaster role: equal parts eloquence and lust, philosophy and action, gusto and regret.

*Atlantic City (1981, Paramount) A graying low-level hood — the kind of guy who carries the bag for The Guy — finds himself in the path of younger criminals. As he falls in with a luscious aspiring croupier (Susan Sarandon), as his old Atlantic City falls to the Trumpified new, Lancaster’s Lou embodies both life lived as a game of chance and the serious pleasure of finally rolling boxcars.