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 and grew up in a tough neighborhood. Always intensely physical, he was given an athletic scholarship to attend New York University, where he played basketball and baseball and participated in boxing, track and gymnastics.

He dropped out of college after 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 1932-39. In 1945, at age 32, he was “discovered” while on furlough. A theatrical 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 with Ava Gardner in his first film, “The Killers” (1946), based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, which was the beginning of a long career that lasted until 1989. He appeared in nearly 80 films. Due to his physical prowess, he performed his own stunts, much to the chagrin of his producers, in that it caused him to become a high insurance risk. He was tough physically and in his religious, ethical and political stances and was willing to risk money and status to stand up for his beliefs.

In 1947 he was nearly blacklisted after signing a letter deploring the Red-baiting witch hunts in Hollywood. The FBI kept a file detailing his activities. An avowed atheist, he turned down the role of Ben-Hur but took 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, actively campaigned for George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election and was one of 575 people named on President Nixon’s 1973 “Enemies List.” He publicly associated himself with AIDS research in 1985. In 1988, in response to George H.W. Bush’s comment deriding presidential opponent Michael Dukakis as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” Lancaster was featured in a TV ad “confessing” that he, too, carried an ACLU card.

He was married three times. His first two marriages, to June Ernst from 1935-46 and Norma Anderson from 1946-69, ended in divorce. His third, to Susan Martin, was from September 1990 until his death in 1994 of a heart attack at age 80. All five of his children were with Anderson.

Freedom From Religion Foundation