Saturday, November 2, 2013

Remembering Burt Lancaster, at 100

Today would have been the 100th birthday of actor Burt Lancaster, one of the greats of Hollywood and a particular favorite of mine.  As a boy I especially liked adventure stories, and Lancaster’s The Crimson Pirate is one of the first I can remember seeing; I was particularly enthralled by the daring and ingenious escape in which he and two others, while chained together in a small dinghy, capsize their boat to trap air in its hull, sink to the bottom, and walk the whole way back to shore on the sea floor breathing the trapped air.  That movie was in the repertory of the weekly Family Classics movie series on WGN TV in Chicago along with another film of his – Jim Thorpe – All-American.  

Although born and raised in East Harlem in New York City, Lancaster started out as a circus performer, and his gracefulness of motion is evident in his work.  He had a warm, confident persona accompanied by an easy, almost trademarked, wide, toothy smile and an expressive physicality.  In his long career drama was his strength.  He won an Academy Award for his role in Elmer Gantry, a film which showcases his charm and talent as well as any other and which won an Oscar for co-star Shirley Jones as well.  Some of his other well-known performances were in The Bird Man of Alcatraz and Atlantic City.  He starred alongside some remarkable leading ladies, such as Katherine Hepburn in The Rainmaker, Audrey Hepburn in The Unforgiven, and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity.  He also started a production company that, among other things, produced the award-winning movie Marty as well as Sweet Smell of Success, in which he starred as the heavy.

Particular favorites of mine include war pictures The Train, Go Tell the Spartans, Castle Keep, and Run Silent, Run Deep, and Westerns Ulzana’s Raid, The Professionals, and Lawman.  He had notable performances all the way to the end of his career, and his late roles in Rocket Gibraltar and Field of Dreams constitute a memorable finish to a remarkable body of work.  Lancaster died in 1994 at the age of 80.

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