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The Secret Strength Of Burt Lancaster

Burt Lancaster shook his head. He was sitting behind the desk in his Beverly Hills office, half studying a script for The Rainmaker, half musing over the past.

“Sometimes I think it’s because they wouldn’t believe me that I’ve been able to do the things I wanted to do,” Burt said softly. “For years I had the mistaken idea that I was trying to prove my ideas to people. I know now that I was only trying to prove them to myself.”

Burt flipped a page of the script. His thick blond hair was in absolute disarray. He wore a plaid sport shirt, open at the neck.

When he moved his head, thick muscles rose and fell in his neck. There was a pink glow of health in his face. His eyes are blue and penetrating. When Burt looks at you those eyes become inquisitive, as though they are trying to determine what makes you tick.

It was hard to believe that this man has had all Hollywood pop-eyed with wonder. He is considered, by most members of moviedom, the man who stood the picture business on its ear.

Burt leaned back in his chair and took a long look at the ceiling. Then, in a laugh that wrinkled his nose and exposed those famous white teeth, he said:

“I’ll never forget the first time it happened. I was about seven and he was about eight. We were in an argument over something and I said, ‘I’ll murdelize you.’ That meant I was about to clobber him, but good. I said it three or four times, but he wouldn’t believe me. We wound up with a black eye apiece.

“But I had the most wonderful mother in the world. She nursed my eye when I got home and then very carefully explained that it could have been worse. ‘He could have blackened both,’ she said. ‘Then you couldn’t have seen to hit back.’

“But as sore as my eye was I remember enjoying the excitement of the fight. It aroused something inside me. And it wasn’t long before I was yearning for that feeling again, but I wasn’t yearning for another black eye.

“One night my father—he worked in a Manhattan post office—took his guitar, sat on the front steps of the house and sang one song after another. I listened for a while and the next time he sang the words came easy to me.

“I never did fully understand it but when I sang I got the same feeling of excitement I had in the fight. After that I’d sing whenever I felt bored, and it was often.

“I think I suffered from boredom more than most kids. School, in particular, annoyed me with routine. Starting at the same time every morning, leaving the same time every day, the same seat, the same subjects seemed to suffocate me. And the moment the bell rang I’d be out that door and as soon as I hit the open air I’d swell up my lungs and bellow the first note I could think of. The other kids must have thought I was crazy.

“The music, I’m afraid, came from a very savage and unsoothed breast.

“As I got older, sitting on the steps summer evenings with Dad at the guitar, became one ritual that never bored me. The Italians in our neighborhood loved to listen to him sing the songs of Ireland. One night a group of them gathered around him and when he had finished they applauded.

“The sound. of clapping hands was new to me and one of the most pleasant I’d ever heard. liked it. Then I sang. More applause. Here was proof positive that I had done something special. I guess that was the very beginning.

“When I was twelve I had a small reputation as a ‘performer.’ That’s what we called anybody who stood up in front or people and sang, recited poetry or played the violin. There was a Settlement House in the neighborhood and one afternoon was asked by one of the directors if I’d like to take part in a play. It was called Three Pills In A Bottle. I wasn’t interested until I heard one of the kids laugh.

“Now I was interested. Someone, I didn’t care who, didn’t even know who, wouldn’t believe I could be in a play. I insisted on playing the part. And when I first walked on the stage I experienced that mysterious excitement again, a kind of racing inside me, as though life had suddenly speeded up like an old-fashioned movie.

“In a few days I knew every line, every gesture, plus those of the rest-of the cast. After the play, somebody told me that a man, whose business it was to discover juvenile talent, was looking for me.

“But I didn’t want to act anymore. Because after the play I felt like a sissy. No one had told me about make-up! And the idea of putting powder on my face and then appearing in front of the gang was my idea of doom. Acting, I decided, was not the job for the kind of man I wanted to be. At night, before I went to sleep, however, I couldn’t shut the sound of applause from my ears. And though I put up the most convincing pretense of despising acting, inside I wanted to become an actor.

“I just wouldn’t believe myself.”

Love vs. the circus

Burt decided to become an acrobat during high school. In gym classes he quickly became an expert at the most difficult exercises and one day announced proudly he was going to become an acrobat.

“That was my idea of a real man,” Burt said. “Yes, I was laughed at. Being good in gym was one thing, but becoming an acrobat?! Not a chance, they told me.

“Well, as you know I joined a circus after I got out of high school. It took time and it took self-discipline, but I had to prove they made a mistake.

“But one thing happened to me in high school that almost changed my life. I fell in love. She was beautiful and kind and I was unworthy of her, I thought, but I adored her. My interest in gymnastics had made me overlook a lot of very necessary human emotions. I was kind of dedicated to becoming an acrobat and I wanted nothing to interfere. The girl—her name was Hester—was the first person of my age who showed me the meaning of kindness, understanding and gentleness.

“When we graduated I tried to decide whether to stay in New York with Hester or join the circus. I suffered the tortures of the damned making up my mind.

“As I look back I can see a lot more clearly what really made the decision. No one doubted that I was in love with Hester. But no one believed I’d ever become an acrobat. I went with the circus.”

Burt worked thirteen years flip-flopping. Few were impressed.

“It’s understandable,” Burt admitted: “To really appreciate the skill of an acrobat you have to be one. The average person doesn’t realize the weeks of work that can be invested in a stunt that takes only seconds to perform. In Trapeze we tried to show that.

“In a way the circus was a refuge to me, a form of escape. I was happy, I guess, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing out of my life. The crowd seemed right, the temporary cheers, the lights, the excitement, all that was right. But something was wrong.

I look like a floor walker? 

Between seasons I tried to find what I was missing. I took a variety of jobs.

“One of the first was a spot as a singing waiter in a beer joint.

“The following year I walked into Marshall Field’s department store and applied for a job as a truck-driver. The personnel man looked me over and said, ‘You just don’t look like a truck driver.’

They put me on as floor-walker in the ladies’ lingerie department.

“But a small matter with the U.S. government arose at the time and all of a sudden I was filling out papers. The Army had a spot for me. Private, Infantry.

“But when I checked my papers I noticed the form had a space for ‘civilian occupation.’ I started to write ‘acrobat’ but it came out ‘actor.’ It looked wrong at first, but the more I stared at the word the more I knew it was right. I’d finally found out what I was missing, as I was the Army.

“Now, I’ve heard all kinds of roles about the Army making dish-washers out of truck-drivers, cooks out of watch-makers and auto-mechanics out of school-teachers.

“I was shocked by what they made out of me. I was put in Special Services as—an actor. The Army believed me! And as a soldier I never worked so hard in my life—at being an actor. I read plays, rehearsed for hours, studied drama, saw some movies five and six times just to catch a scene that struck my fancy.

“I played second, third, fourth leads in the plays, but starring in any of the plays didn’t interest me then. I luckily had the good sense to admit to myself that I had to learn a lot about acting.

“During my tour of duty I met Norma. She was a USO stenographer. One look and I really knew what excitement was.” 

After the war, they were married.

A chance on Broadway

Just before he got out of the Army, Burt learned that there was a part open in a Broadway play. An agent assured him that he fit the role like a glove. “But,” he said, “you’re still in the Army. Uncle Sam won’t let you work for anyone else while he’s paying for your service.”

The agent gave Burt two days to get discharged. When he asked one of his officers what the chances were the Lieutenant thought he was crazy.

“Two months, at least,” he told Burt. Lancaster asked permission to make a few calls to speed things up. 

I pulled every trick in the book that was legal,” says Burt. “Here was another guy who wouldn’t believe me. But a couple of high-ranking officers sympathized with my cause and to the surprise of everyone including myself I was out of the Army in two days.”

Burt got the part in Sound Of Hunting. The show was a flop, but Burt wasn’t.

A Hollywood talent scout cornered him after the final performance and Burt came to Hollywood.

And Burt suffers from no illusions on how he happened to get the starring role in his first picture, The Killers.

“I had no money. Norma was expecting her first baby. I had one suit, herringbone, I think. And no one believed I could act. I was beginning to doubt it myself.

“Hal Wallis was looking for someone to play the role of the Swede in the Ernest Hemingway story. I was available. And I was available at a very low price. That’s how I got the part. I don’t kid myself about it now, nor did I then.”

Hollywood finds him “hot news”

He wasn’t more than a few weeks making the picture when Hollywood reporters found the newcomer a source of hot news.

Burt was dangerously frank. Honest and coldly blunt. He told the writers that Hollywood movie-makers wasted time, money and talent. He criticized directors, verbally mauled producers and spoke openly on the faults of other actors.

“I told them that as soon as I had enough money I’d produce pictures and show them. As usual, no one paid any attention to me,” Burt recalled.

Then Burt announced that no one was going to pry into his private life.”

“The day that word got into the papers,” Burt said, “my phone wouldn’t stop ringing with requests to take pictures of my home, my wife, my children. They wouldn’t believe I’d keep my word.”

Lancaster does to this day. 

But Lancaster had never intended his children to become “private.” To the contrary, he’s sent them to public schools in this country and in Mexico when they accompanied him on location trips. He brought them to Paris for Trapeze and intends to take them on all long journeys.

The Lancaster children number five, ranging from nine to one-and-a-half.

The Hecht-Lancaster team

Two years ago Burt joined up with a the boyhood chum, Harold Hecht, to form the now famous production team responsible for Marty.

“The company made Marty, not Burt Lancaster,” Burt points out. “I did throw a little weight to get Ernest Borgnine for the part, though. And you know, when I first tried to convince Ernie he’d be perfect in the role, he wouldn’t believe me.”

It was just about the last time that any sane person in Hollywood refused to believe a guy named Burt Lancaster.

Burt has finally convinced everyone that he can act and produce, even direct. Well, almost everyone.

What did his children think about having a movie star for a father?

“I’m just their father, and I have a good reason for not telling them that I’m any kind of big wheel in the movie business.”

What was the reason?

Burt’s mouth broke into a big smile, but his eyes stayed a little sad. “They wouldn’t believe me,” he said.





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