Burt Lancaster

On this date in 1913, Burton Stephen Lancaster was born in New York City into an Irish Protestant family. He was one of five children. Lancaster grew up in a tough New York neighborhood ("just fists and rock fights"). Always intensely physical, he was given an athletic scholarship to attend New York University, where he played on the basketball team and participated in baseball, boxing, track and gymnastics. He dropped out of college after the first two years to form an acrobatic team with his boyhood friend, Nick Cravat. The act of Lang and Cravat traveled and performed with several circuses, including the Ringling and Barnum troupes, from 1932-1939. In 1945, at the age of 32, he was discovered while on furlough. A producer's assistant, upon seeing the tall, muscular Lancaster, asked him to try out for a role in a play called "The Sound of Hunting." Lancaster starred in his first film, "The Killers," based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, which was the beginning of a long career that lasted until 1989. Due to his immense physical prowess, Lancaster performed his own stunt tricks, much to the consternation of his producers, in that it caused him to become a high insurance liability.

Lancaster was not only tough physically, he was also tough in his religious, ethical and political stances, and was willing to risk money and status for what he believed in. In 1947, he was nearly blacklisted after signing a letter deploring the anticommunist witch hunts in Hollywood. The FBI kept a file detailing his activities. Lancaster was a self-described atheist, turning down the role of Ben-Hur, but taking on the role of a corrupt evangelist in "Elmer Gantry" (1960), because he wanted to make an anti-Billy Graham statement. He won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the oily preacher. Lancaster participated in Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963, was an active campaigner for George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, and was one of 575 people named on President Nixon's 1973 "Enemies List." He appeared in the movie "Go Tell the Spartans" (1978), which is widely considered one of the foremost antiwar movies about Vietnam. He publicly associated himself with AIDS research in 1985. In 1988, in response to George H.W. Bush's comment deriding the fact that his presidential-race opponent Michael Dukakis was a "card-carrying member of the ACLU," Lancaster was featured in a television commercial "confessing" that he, too, was a card-carrying member of the ACLU. The concluding line in the commercial sums up Lancaster's unwavering liberal political viewpoint: "No one agrees with every single thing they've done. But no one can disagree with the guiding principle--with liberty and justice for all." D. 1994

“The Ten Commandments, he said, were fine -- but not for him.”

—Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, 2000, p. 277

(Compiled by Jane Esbensen)

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