Burt Lancaster was at least 6'1" tall; he was a real man's man (and never a whiny punk). The characters he played were usually intense, but Lancaster's onscreen personas still varied greatly. Even though he started acting relatively late, his portfolio of films numbered 75 before he died (just shy of his 81st birthday) in 1994. He grew up in East Harlem, New York, a tough street kid with an interest in gymnastics that led him to a job as an acrobat in the circus until an injury ended that vocation. He joined the army and performed with the USO during World War II. After serving his country, he tried acting and, though not formerly trained in the profession, earned the top-billed role (as 'Swede' Andersen) opposite Ava Gardner in screenwriter Anthony Veiller's version of Ernest Hemingway's story The Killers (1946), directed by Robert Siodmak. Lancaster turned 33 years old later that same year. Next, he starred as an inmate in director Jules Dassin's prison drama Brute Force (1947), in which he battles Hume Cronyn’s sadistic chief guard. The following year, he played Barbara Stanwyck's husband in Anatole Litvak's thriller Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), which had been a radio play by Lucille Fletcher. His powerful presence and physique could have typecast him in these ex-boxer and more brutish roles but he later proved that he could play sensitive parts in dramas like Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), based on the William Inge play; he plays an alcoholic (husband to Shirley Booth) who struggles with his attraction to the comely college co-ed (Terry Moore) that his lonely and now dog-less wife has taken in as a boarder.
Lancaster earned his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination in director Fred Zinnemann's Best Picture winner (the pre-World War II drama) From Here to Eternity (1953) as a 1st Sergeant who takes liberties with his Captain's wife (Deborah Kerr). The scene with Lancaster and Kerr rolling in the sand together as the waves crash in on the beach is iconic. The actor's big white teethed smile got notice in the movie he made with Gary Cooper, Vera Cruz (1954) directed by Robert Aldrich, and the strength of his outgoing personality was in full bloom when he played opposite Anna Magnani’s Best Actress performance in Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo (1955) a year later. He continued to play over-the-top type characters in films like: The Rainmaker (1956), his one role opposite Katharine Hepburn (as a near spinster) was the many named charlatan (and title character) Bill Starbuck; as a fighting Reverend in the Revolutionary War comedy based on George Bernard Shaw's play The Devil's Disciple (1959), with Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier; and then his Oscar winning role as the fallen evangelist Elmer Gantry (1960), opposite Jean Simmons and Shirley Jones’s Best Supporting Actress performance. Other parts he played during this time included: his Walter Winchell-like character in writer Ernest Lehman's scathing Sweet Smell of Success (1957), with Tony Curtis; as Commander Clark Gable's steady Lieutenant in director Robert Wise's WW II submarine thriller Run Silent Run Deep (1958); and as Rita Hayworth’s alcoholic ex-husband who's been keeping company with Wendy Hiller's character in a seaside hotel in Separate Tables (1958).
In 1961, Lancaster was second billed behind Spencer Tracy in Stanley Kramer's star-studded blockbuster Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Burt plays one of the German defendants in the famous post-World War II Nazi war criminal trials; Tracy plays the chief judge, an American. Lancaster's next Oscar nominated performance was his sympathetic portrayal of prisoner Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), one of five films he made with director John Frankenheimer including as an overly ambitious General in the Cold War thriller Seven Days in May (1964), again with Douglas (with whom he made several movies), and as a French railway official who leads the resistance in the WW II action drama The Train (1964). Other memorable roles Lancaster played were: as the titled Sicilian prince in Italian director Luchino Visconti's foreign language (historically-based, yet fictional) drama The Leopard (1963); as a mercenary who teams with other tough guys (Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode) to bring Ralph Bellamy's "wife" Claudia Cardinale back from a Mexican Jack Palance in Richard Brooks's The Professionals (1966); and top-billed as the airport manager in director George Seaton’s adaptation of the Arthur Hailey novel Airport (1970), the first of the 70's star-studded disaster movies. A quirky yet terrific drama you may have seen on the channel in the past, which I hope to see again, is The Swimmer (1968); Lancaster plays a corporate executive who decides to "swim home", across a valley, via the backyard pools of his friends and others he encounters along the way. During the journey, he learns some startling revelations about his life.
The actor's best later roles included his last Academy Award nominated performance as a former mobster who's become rather pathetic in director Louis Malle's drama Atlantic City (1980), opposite Susan Sarandon, and as the baseball player come Doc "Moonlight" Graham in the fantasy Field of Dreams (1989).
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog