On this day in 1994, Burt Lancaster, a former circus performer who rose to fame as a Hollywood leading man with some 70 movies to his credit, including From Here to Eternity and Atlantic City, in a career that spanned more than four decades, dies of a heart attack at the age of 80 in Century City, California.
Lancaster was born on November 2, 1913, in New York City and raised in East Harlem. After a stint at New York University, which he attended on an athletic scholarship, he quit to join the circus, where he worked as an acrobat. An injury forced Lancaster to give up the circus in 1939, and he worked a series of jobs until he was drafted into the Army in 1942. Three years later, while on leave, Lancaster’s acting career was launched after he went to visit the woman who would become his second wife at the theatrical office where she was employed and was asked by a producer’s assistant to audition for a Broadway play. He got the part, as an Army sergeant, and soon got noticed by Hollywood. In 1946, Lancaster made his silver-screen debut opposite Ava Gardner in The Killers, based on an Ernest Hemingway short story. Lancaster stars as The Swede, a former boxer who’s tangled up with the mob and waiting to be murdered by hit men.
He went on to star in the 1951 biopic Jim Thorpe: All-American, about the Native American Olympian, and 1952’s The Crimson Pirate, in which he put his acrobatic skills to use as the swashbuckling title character. In 1953, he co-starred with Deborah Kerr and Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity, a World War II film set in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film, which contained the now-iconic scene in which Lancaster and Kerr are locked in a beachside embrace as waves roll over them, earned Lancaster his first Best Actor Oscar nomination. Among Lancaster’s other movie credits during the 1950s were Apache (1954), in which he plays a Native American warrior; Sweet Smell of Success (1957), in which he plays a ruthless gossip columnist; and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), in which he portrays Wyatt Earp to Kirk Douglas’s Doc Holliday.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Lancaster appeared in movies such as 1960’s Elmer Gantry, which earned him a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as a con man turned preacher; 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg, about the World War II Nazi war-crime trials; 1962’s Birdman of Alcatraz, which was based on the true story of a convicted murderer who becomes a bird expert while behind bars and garnered Lancaster another Best Actor Oscar nomination; Italian director Luchino Visconti’s 1963 historical drama The Leopard, in which Lancaster plays an aging aristocrat; 1968’s The Swimmer, based on a John Cheever story; the 1970 disaster movie Airport; and 1979’s Zulu Dawn, with Peter O’Toole and Bob Hoskins.
In 1980, Lancaster co-starred in director Louis Malle’s Atlantic City and his performance as an aging gangster earned him his fourth Best Actor Academy Award nomination. He was also featured in Local Hero (1983), in which he plays an eccentric oil company owner; and 1989’s Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner.
Lancaster formed a production company with his agent, Harold Hecht, in the 1950s, becoming one of the first actors in Hollywood to do so. Among his producing credits were 1955’s Marty, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor (Ernest Borgnine).