In 70 films, big or small, he was larger than life A LEGEND IS LOST BURT LANCASTER, 1913-1994

October 22, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

No man moved with, and no actor projected, more sheer animal grace than Burt Lancaster, who died late Thursday night in Los Angeles at the age of 80.

His agent, Jack Gilardi, said Lancaster's wife, Suzie, and six of his children, were at his bedside in the couple's luxurious Century Towers condominium when he died of a heart attack.

"He died shortly after having a heart attack. Luckily there was enough time for his children to be summoned to his bedside," Mr. Gilardi said. Lancaster had been in failing health since suffering a stroke four years ago.

Lancaster, who in life was larger than life, almost always played men larger than life on screen in his 70 movies.

With an acrobat's soaring V of a torso that rose to a thick stevedore's neck and thence to a pug-handsome Hell's Kitchen kind of face, he always personified, in the title of one of his best pictures, brute force. He played the man who made it happen: a con man, an acrobat, a pirate, a boss cowboy (despite the New York accent), a top sergeant, a slick general, an evil columnist. He was either the complete authority figure or the complete rebel figure, and rarely something in between. In sum, he was an old-fashioned movie star, whose sheer presence miniaturized those who tried to act with or, God help them, against him.

A predator's motion

In his better films -- and there were many of them -- he moved with a predator's wily economy of motion, body-proud, radiating power, sensuality and violence. When he wanted to, he could unleash a smile that would melt a vault door. When he wanted to -- as in, say, his Academy Award-winning role as "Elmer Gantry" in 1960, he could hurl thunderbolts of charm far enough to lift all the wallets from the pockets of all the angels in heaven. But he could also sink his eyes into steely little ball bearings and make you fear him, as when he played the vicious J.J. Hunsecker, a viperous version of Walter Winchell in the cynical classic "The Sweet Smell of Success."

Lancaster, one of the few stars of his generation to act under his own name, was born Burton Stephen Lancaster on Nov. 2, 1913, in New York City. The son of a postal clerk, he grew up on tough city streets in East Harlem, and -- can this be a surprise? -- initially excelled as an athlete, even winning an athletic scholarship to New York University. Indeed, even in his 70s, an athlete's grace could be seen lurking in his movements.

But in his early years, no hint of a theatrical or dramatic life can be found. He was, rather, drawn to the sawdust circuit, and with his pal Nick Cravat, formed an acrobatic act called "Lang and Cravat," which toured with circuses and in nightclubs. But by late 1941, Lancaster was working as a salesman in a Chicago department store.

In World War II, he served in the Army's Special Services branch, which was a kind of morale-building unit that traveled just behind the front putting on shows for the troops. There, he acquired the rudiments of his training, taking part in shows in Australia, North Africa and Italy as a singer, dancer and acrobat.

The story of his post-war "discovery" by Hollywood is part of American pop cultural lore. Working as an elevator operator, the story goes, he was mistaken by a producer for an actor and asked to read for a part. He read for it, got it, and the show closed in three weeks, but not before Burton Stephen Lancaster had earned a Hollywood contract. True? No counter-account exists to cast doubt upon it, but it can't be by pure chance that the ex-soldier, introduced to theatrical work in the service, was running an elevator in a building that was frequented by producers.

In any event, his first movie made him a star. This was Robert Siodmack's "The Killers" (1946), whose first three minutes were derived from the Hemingway short story, after which it became a complex, almost post-modern film noir that moved laterally through time to explore the roots of a betrayal in the underworld. The nominal star was another banty New Yorker, Edmund

O'Brien, playing an insurance investigator. In fact, star and newcomer never shared the same scene. But despite the discontinuous narrative, Lancaster's brooding power and melancholy showed through.

He was quick to capitalize, and never looked back. He summoned his pal Cravat to Hollywood, where the two of them made a couple of delirious swashbucklers that let them somersault and cavort, their muscles bulging, their smiles beaming in innocent giddy machismo; the films were "The xTC Crimson Pirate" and "The Flame and the Arrow." At the same time, he starred in a number of tough crime melodramas, including "Brute Force," "Kiss the Blood Off My Hands," "I Walk Alone," "Criss Cross," usually playing a small-time gangster and in the process becoming an icon in the vivid flowering of the film noir movement in the late '40s.

Tha A-list star

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