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Burt Lancaster was an American original. Born in 1913 in the melting pot of East Harlem, he first acted on the stage of the Union Settlement House before his natural athleticism drew him to a successful career as a circus aerialist. The strapping, blue-eyed, blonde with the legendary grin later referred to Hollywood as “nothing more than a big circus” and when fate brought him into the big top, he seized center ring. A chance meeting with a theatrical agent in 1945 (while picking up his future wife, Norma, for lunch) led to an appearance on Broadway and a contract with producer Hal Wallis who planned to introduce him in a bit part in Desert Fury (1947). Lancaster instead exercised his option to play the lead in producer Mark Hellinger’s The Killers (1946). His riveting turn as the rugged but enigmatic Ole Anderson made him a star overnight, a sudden success that he transformed into one of the most enduring, influential careers of the post-war era. While he could have easily settled into the mold of the dashing screen hero, the savvy, intellectually ambitious Lancaster emerged as one of the new breed of actor-producers to chart a course between bravura entertainment (The Flame and the Arrow, The Crimson Pirate) and edgier, personal projects (The Birdman of Alcatraz, Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Gantry). “I’m interested in being in pictures that I would like to see,” he once said, “with parts I would like to play—human, believable people.” Willing to take risks as producer and performer, he sought to work with like-minded directors, including Robert Aldrich, John Frankenheimer, Sydney Pollack, Richard Brooks and Luchino Visconti. Over a career spanning five decades that included four Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, with one win (for Gantry), Lancaster evolved with the times, delivering powerful performances in such later films as Atlantic City (1980) and Field of Dreams (1989) that resonated with old and new audiences alike. As David Thompson wrote, “He is one of the great stars. Perhaps the last.” The Archive is pleased to celebrate Lancaster’s enduring legacy on his centennial with this retrospective featuring classic and rare titles from throughout his career.
Special thanks: Joanna Lancaster; Greg Kachel; David Pendleton—Harvard Film Archive.