The Things That Count—Burt Lancaster
A little after dawn in Los Angeles a new Ford Thunderbird raced through the grey mist, along Sunset Boulevard toward the UCLA campus in Westwood. There was no one else about as the black, sleek car turned off the boulevard, came to a stop alongside the college’s athletic field, and a very un-sleek looking man got out.
He had a fine enough face for a fellow who drives a sports car—but not the clothes for it. He wore an old and shapeless sweatshirt, a pair of slacks to match, and gym sneakers which were clearly overage. Gazing around at the deserted field, he shivered. “Only a nut, Burt Lancaster,” he said to himself, “only a muscle maniac would get up at this lonely hour three times a week to do mile runs!”
Yet he headed for the cinder-surfaced track and when he reached it started jogging. With the first sluggish steps he became conscious of vague aches and knew that they echoed back to old circus day falls. Each fleeting pain told its own story, it seemed to him, but together they also seemed to be asking a question—why did he do it?
When he had been in the Army he had had to beat the sun out of bed and chase his sergeant around the country side. That’s what they were paying you the $30 a month for, they kept telling you. But now—why? Wasn’t he what is called a Hollywood success? Aren’t you a partner in your own company? he asked himself. Don’t you star in your own pictures, even direct yourself in them? Then, why? Come on, Burt, if you don’t know, let’s get back home where all the rest of the Lancasters are sleeping warmly, and let’s crawl back into the warm bed.
But he kept up the jog, and he knew that his reward was due soon, and when it came it would change his whole attitude.
After all, running was important to him, he ran so much in so many of his pictures. When he made Apachesome statistics-minded member of the crew figured that he had run a total of forty-eight miles, counting rehearsals and actual shooting. In Sorry, Wrong Number he was always on the run from both the police and a dope gang. In fact, in his very first picture, The Killers, he was a man who had run from his past.
Right now, he had run about half way around the quarter-mile oval when his blood began coursing a little faster—and a little warmer. Muscles which up to now had been tightly bunched began to loosen and joints which had creaked began to operate more smoothly. He began to breathe more deeply, his stride lengthened and a mellow Lancaster began taking charge, replacing the congealed one. Now he looked forward to the real purpose behind his early morning runs.
It was true that he came out to the UCLA track because he was the kind of man who had always kept himself in an athletically fit condition. “And,” as he told himself, “the way you like to eat and the way the girl you married knows her way around the kitchen, you’d better keep running, Burt! An actor with weight is an actor headed for the gate!”
But more important to him, during these early morning jaunts, was the flow of fresh thoughts which came to him, bringing a consciousness of himself as an individual rather than a professional personality. Working under studio pressure, meeting other Hollywood people in atmospheres charged with the aggressive spirit and influences of the industry—it was too easy for a fellow to forget what he really was. This was why it was really worthwhile to go off by himself. And as he had said one morning on the track, “Burt, meet Burt!”
Toward the end of the first lap he saw a few high hurdles which someone had left standing out on the track. Automatically, he headed for the first one, but at the last split-second he ducked around it instead of jumping—and had to laugh at himself. Something had told him just before the take-off he was still a little too stiff for leaping. Next time around I’ll get you, he mentally addressed the hurdles. He’d have to get them, he thought. He wanted to be able to give his oldest son, Jimmy, a new answer this morning when he asked, “What’ya do, Pop?” Instead of replying, “Oh, I just ran around the track,” he could say, “Oh, I jumped some hurdles.” And he could hear Jimmy comment: “You did? Gee, Pop!”
For a reason that was to come to him a few moments later, this thinking reminded him of his picture, Vera Cruz, and Vera Cruz reminded him of the man with whom he had co-starred in the picture, Gary Cooper. And then the connection became clear. Jimmy, he knew, was greatly impressed by Gary, much more so, apparently, than he was by his own father. Burt thought about this and wondered if he shouldn’t make another western with Gary Cooper in which he clearly outrode, outshot and outfought him. That would show Jimmy!
Then he decided that before he did this he would take Jimmy to see The Kentuckian, which he had just finished. He was proud of The Kentuckian. He had enjoyed every moment of his location stay in Kentucky, where the picture had been made, and particularly several weeks spent in the historic Levi Jackson State Park, near London, Kentucky. And at this point he recalled with a chuckle the old gnarled resident of London who had stopped him on the street to shake hands.
“Put it there, son,” the old-timer had said. “I told everyone you was going to make it!”
“Make it?” Burt had repeated, and the old-timer had explained. He had seen Burt years before, watching him when he toured the state with his partner, Nick Cravat. They were acrobats in the Kay Circus.
“You was climbing a long pole held by a little feller,” said the old man, “and the crowd was holding their breath for fear you wouldn’t get to the top. I kept a-hollering, ‘He’ll make it! He’ll make it!’ And looking at you today, young fellow, what with you owning this picture company and being the star of this picture they’re making here, I guess you sure done well.”
“Yeah, but what happened on the pole that day?” Burt had asked, bothered by some wispy and not-too-happy recollection.
The old-timer had shaken his head sadly. “You slipped, son, you slipped.”
Coming around the turn to begin a second lap, Burt caught sight of a masculine figure at a far corner of the campus meadows. The fellow was driving practice shots and Burt remembered he had seen him here before, and had even deduced from his observations that the purpose of the visits was to cure a bad hook. He kept watching out of the corner of his eye as the golfer teed up again and swung. And then Burt had to chuckle sympathetically. The hook was still there, as hooked as ever. When he felt it was about time for another shot to be taken he looked back again just in time to see the downswing. But this f time the small, white pellet leaped out straight and true, and the pleased golfer couldn’t help standing there as if transfixed, as he watched the flight of the ball. On sudden impulse, Burt waved a congratulatory hand high in the air at the golfer, who caught the gesture and immediately pantomimed his response with a low bow of thanks.
What do you know? An actor! thought Burt. Maybe not a professional one, but an actor just the same.
The hurdles were coming up now—three of them strung ahead in an irregular line. Burt speeded up a little and sailed over them in turn without any trouble. He turned around to see if maybe the golfer had been watching, but the guy was busy keeping his head down as he again swung at his ball. Unfortunately the shot wasn’t much good. The hook was back.
Burt turned back quickly so as not to be caught looking and thus perhaps embarrass the unhappy golfer. And the word “embarrass” recalled to him how he had been embarrassed only a few weeks before by being roundly denounced in a hotel lobby crowded with people, and how he had meekly accepted it. He had accepted because he had deserved it. Yet he still winced at some of the accusations hurled at him by his accuser, a small, peppery individual by the name of Thomas Hart Benton, who happens to be one of the foremost living American painters.
Burt and his partner, Harold Hecht, had arranged with Benton to have him do a portrait of Burt in the title role of The Kentuckian, and had brought Benton to Owensboro, Kentucky, where he was to do the painting which would be used as the key piece of art in the advertising campaign. That morning Burt had agreed to be at the Owensboro Hotel at seven o’clock that evening, after the day’s shooting, to sit for Benton. But it wasn’t until after nine o’clock that he arrived, to find the artist in the lobby, all packed and about to return to his home in Kansas City, Missouri.
Benton had lit into Burt with a flow of verbal abuse which would without doubt have won him the presidency of the Missouri Muleskinners Association, had there been such an organization and had they heard him. It was not only what he said, Burt recalled ruefully, it was the conviction he put behind it.
Not until Benton had just naturally wound down had Burt said a word in defense of himself. Then he had explained that not only he, but the whole company, had been delayed several hours by problems peculiar to picture-making, and which cannot be solved unless there is complete absorption in the task. This last aspect, concentration on one’s work, Benton understood well; he himself had many times painted past meal times and appointment hours when he was deeply engrossed in what he was doing. The pepper went out of his voice and the friendliness came back in. They had dinner together and Burt posed for the canvas afterwards. But he knew then, as he knew now, that for at least one time in his life he had been bawled out by an expert.
Thinking about Benton had taken him well into the third lap of his run. He began to wonder how close he was to running a four-minute mile, and decided that he was much closer to a four-minute half-mile. Just the same, his thoughts jumped to the young English Dr. Bannister, who had first run the four-minute mile, and from this he jumped again to his plans to make a picture in England in the summer. The title of it was Trapeze, and he had signed Sir Carol Reed to direct it.
He began to pick up his pace a little bit when he started the fourth and last lap he planned to run, and felt pleased that the strength and wind for it came without too much strain. It was remarkable how much good a run could do for a man. He had arrived feeling miserable and in mourning for the sleep he had left behind in his bed. A few circuits of the track and he felt so good, so alert mentally and physically, that he was ready to tackle anything. Let’s see, what problems had he?
Should he make a musical? Nobody thought of him as a song-and-dance man. He would have to rehearse interminably. The long hours working at dance routines would mean his muscles would ache in new places altogether. And then there was the singing necessary.
Should he try to get Montgomery Clift to work with him in Trapeze? Should he make Trapeze before he made the musical?
There was Anna Magnani with whom he was working in The Rose Tattoo—should he try out a little more of his Italian on her or should he let it go with the two words he had thrown at her and which she didn’t seem to get?
How about his breakfast? He was getting hungry and it was a long drive home. Should he drop in at a drug store instead?
By this time Burt was into the home stretch and putting on a final dash. And as fast as his feet were going, so was his mind functioning as he made a series of fast decisions:
Yes, he would star in a musical.
Yes, he would try to get Montgomery Clift for Trapeze and Trapeze would be made before the musical.
No, he would inflict no more of his self-learned Italian on Anna. The Italian he had picked up as a boy in New York, and even the Italian which had come to him in Italy as a G.I. there, was somehow not the Italian which Anna spurted at you—the words had to be shaped just right, apparently, to be delivered at her speed.
And breakfast? He was too hungry to wait. He’d find a drug store in Westwood.
With this last thought, Burt finished his mile run, but he didn’t stop; he kept right on running toward the car.
—BY LOUIS POLLOCK
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE APRIL 1955