Hollywood star Burt Lancaster—his life, career, and legacy.

The Enigmatic, Charismatic Burt Lancaster


In a career that spanned 45 years, Burt Lancaster was first known as the good guy with the big heart, and later, for his more artistically challenging roles. From war dramas to Westerns, Film Noir, romances, and more, Burt Lancaster captivated audiences with his distinctive voice and compelling presence.

Early Life

Burton Stephen Lancaster was born on November 3, 1913, in East Harlem, NY. His parents were Elizabeth (Roberts) and James Lancaster. All his grandparents were immigrants from Ireland.

When he was 9 years old, he met Nick Cravat, and the two became lifelong friends. They learned how to act in local theater productions and practiced circus arts together for years.

Burt was an athletic child, and he was a basketball star in high school. Eventually, he became a gifted gymnast. His talent as an athlete earned him a scholarship to New York University. However, he never completed his degree.

From Acrobat to Soldier to Actor and Producer

Burt’s love of gymnastics led him to become an acrobat with Nick Cravat. The duo was called Lang and Cravat, and they joined the Kay Brothers Circus in the 1930s. However, due to an injury, Lancaster had to give up his acrobatic career. For a few years, he worked odd jobs, including gigs as a singing waiter.

In 1943, Lancaster enlisted in the U.S. Army and began performing with the Army’s 21st Special Services Division, which had entertainers following ground troops to put on USO shows to keep up morale. Burt served in Italy from 1943 to 1945 with General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army, until he was discharged.

Following his Army service, Burt returned to New York and wasn’t sure what he would do next. However, he was “discovered” by a producer who saw him in an elevator and talked Burt into going on an audition for a Broadway show.

He landed the job and was cast in A Sound of Hunting in 1945. The show was not a hit and closed after only three weeks, but Burt got a break: he caught the eye of a Hollywood agent named Harold Hecht.

Although other agents were also interested, only Hecht made Lancaster an offer he couldn’t refuse: the chance to become a producer within five years of going to Hollywood.

With that, Burt Lancaster left New York and moved to Los Angeles.

Hollywood Calls and Lancaster Arrives

Shortly after Lancaster arrived in Hollywood, Hecht introduced him to producer Hal B. Wallis. Lancaster had penetrating blue eyes, a winning smile, a deep, distinctive voice, and an athletic body that turned heads wherever he went. Wallis liked what he saw in him and immediately signed Lancaster to a non-exclusive, eight-movie contract.

Before long, he was cast as the lead in 1946’s The Killers, with co-star Ava Gardner. It was a commercial and critical success, and it launched them both to stardom. In 1948, Burt co-starred with Barbara Stanwyck in the commercially and critically acclaimed film Sorry, Wrong Number.

Burt’s stardom was not beginner’s luck. In the years that followed, Burt would star in more than 85 movies across many genres, including dramas, romances, adventures, war films, Westerns, and more.

True to his word, Hecht and Lancaster set up their own production company and named it Norma Productions. Their first movie was a thriller that starred Burt and Joan Fontaine in the critically acclaimed Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.

The 1950s was a great decade for Lancaster. In 1951, Norma Productions became Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, and in its heyday, it was the most successful and innovative company of its kind.

Over the course of the decade, Burt co-starred with Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity, which was a box office smash hit, and he made his debut as a director on The Kentuckian.

In the next five years, his production company won The Academy Award for Best Picture for their film, Marty. Burt also starred in The Rainmaker opposite Katharine Hepburn and earned a nomination for Best Actor from the Golden Globes.

Burt’s sensational, successful run continued with the movies Sweet Smell of Success and Gunfight at the OK Corral with co-star Kirk Douglas. The decade wrapped up with the classic Run Silent, Run Deep, and Separate Tables, a drama that received seven Oscar nominations.

But perhaps his greatest success came in 1960 when Burt Lancaster played Elmer Gantry, the fast-talking, opportunistic traveling salesman and conman in Elmer Gantry. His performance and the movie itself were critically acclaimed and commercially successful. At last, Lancaster won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actor.

The 1960s was the decade that Burt starred in a variety of films, playing complex characters in critically successful movies. He was a Nazi war criminal in Judgement at Nuremberg; a prison convict and bird expert in The Birdman of Alcatraz; an Italian prince in The Leopard; a general trying to overthrow the president (co-starring Kirk Douglas, again) in Seven Days in May; and an explosives expert in The Professionals.

He also made The Swimmer, which was not successful in his day but has become a cult classic. Lancaster was proud of his work in the movie. Though he was an outstanding athlete, he could not swim. In fact, he was terrified of water, but with the help of a UCLA swim coach, he overcame his fear and learned to swim for the film. And it was worth the effort. Roger Ebert called it “his finest performance.”

In 1970, Lancaster starred in Airport, which was a huge box office hit, and received nine Academy Award nominations. When asked what he thought of the film, Burt said it was “the worst piece of junk ever made.” The critics agreed, but moviegoers loved it.

After that, he did a few Westerns, including Lawman, Valdez is Coming, and Ulzana’s Raid (which has also become a cult classic). He was busy for the rest of the decade, starring in dramas, thrillers, science fiction flicks, war films, and TV movies, including Victory at Entebbe, The Cassandra Crossing, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, and The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Later Career

In 1980, the movie, Atlantic City, was released to great critical acclaim. The film earned five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and Best Actor for Burt Lancaster’s performance.

In June of 1983, Burt had a heart attack and emergency quadruple bypass surgery. Because of his health issues, he was forced to walk away from several starring roles in big movies, including Kiss of the Spider Woman, Maria’s Lovers, Gorky Park, and Firestarter.

But the 80s were not a complete wash for Lancaster. He appeared in several movies, including Local Hero, The Osterman Weekend, Little Treasure, and Tough Guys (with Kirk Douglas). He starred in the made-for-TV movie, Barnum, and appeared in the TV miniseries, Phantom of the Opera.

But it was a supporting role, that would once again bring Lancaster praise: His portrayal of the long-dead former baseball player, Dr. “Moonlight” Graham in the popular and highly-acclaimed film, Field of Dreams—starring Kevin Costner. It was Lancaster’s last big screen performance—to the delight of fans and critics.

Lancaster’s final performance was in the TV mini-series, Separate but Equal, with co-star Sydney Poitier, which aired in 1991.

Personal Life

Burt Lancaster was married three times. His first marriage was to June Ernst, an accomplished acrobat. They were married from 1935 until 1946.

Burt’s second marriage was to Norma Anderson. They married in 1946 and had 5 children: Bill, James, Susan, Joanna, and Sigle (pronounced “Sheila”). Norma and Burt separated in 1965 and divorced in 1969.

His third marriage was to Susan Martin. They were married in September 1990 until Burt’s death in 1994.

Burt Lancaster fiercely guarded his privacy. He tried to keep his personal life private and never authorized a biography about himself.

Friends and family have said that Burt was devoted to the people he loved. If Burt was your friend, he was a friend for life.

Life and Legacy

Although Burt was in great shape for most of his life, his smoking habit finally caught up to him. In January 1980, he almost didn’t survive a routine gallbladder operation and spent two days in Intensive Care. In 1983, clogged arteries caused Burt to have two heart attacks.

His health continued to decline, and in late November 1990, he suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak.

Early on the morning of October 20, 1994, Burt suffered his third heart attack, and he drew his final breath.

Although this multi-talented actor, producer, and director is no longer with us, he left behind an incredible body of work that we can continue to enjoy. Watch for yourself and see why this charismatic, gifted, and brilliant actor was named #19 on the list of the American Film Institute’s greatest male stars of classic Hollywood cinema.