TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Six — Burt Lancaster

Handsome. Rugged. More.

Handsome. Rugged. Passionate. Talented.

With an impressive career that spanned six decades, Burt Lancaster was all this, and more.

“Any time Burt was in a film, you wanted to go see it. Any time he was on television you wanted to watch it,” actress Rhonda Fleming once said. “That’s the magic and the magnetism that he had.”


Burton Stephen Lancaster was born in New York on November 2, 1913, one of five children. He spent much of his time at the local Union Settlement House, a youth club and sports center, where he and his closest friend, Nick Cravat, learned acrobatics and gymnastics. These skills stood both boys in good stead after high school when they formed an act known as Lang and Cravat and joined the Kay Brothers Circus in Petersburg, Virginia. The two later signed with a bigger circus, touring for several years, and even did a brief stint with the famed Ringling Brothers. (During this time, Lancaster married a circus aerialist, but the union was short-lived.) His performing came to an end, however, when he suffered an injury to his right hand.

With circus partner and childhood chum Nick Cravat.

Lancaster spent the next several years in Chicago, earning his keep through a variety of jobs, including engineer for a meat packing firm and floorwalker in the lingerie department at Marshall Field’s department store. During the war, he spent the bulk of his time entertaining troops in North Africa, Sicily, and Austria, and performing in a military revue. While overseas, he met a USO performer named Norma Anderson; the two would get married in December 1946 and went on to have four children. (They divorced after 22 years, and the actor wed again in 1989. This third marriage lasted until Lancaster’s death in 1994).

After the war, Lancaster moved to New York City, where Norma worked as a secretary to a radio producer in the RCA building. One day, while visiting Norma at her job, Lancaster was noticed in the elevator by an associate of Broadway producer Irving Jacobs. The man suggested that Lancaster audition for a part in Jacobs’s upcoming play, A Sound of Hunting. Lancaster landed the role and made his Broadway debut in November 1945. Upon the recommendation of co-star Sam Levene, he signed with agent Harold Hecht, and a short time later, he signed a long-term deal with producer Hal Wallis. The following year, Lancaster was cast in his first big-screen feature, The Killers (1946). He was 33 years old.


  • Hal Wallis wanted to change Lancaster’s name to Stuart Chase. Fortunately, Lancaster put the kibosh on that idea.
  • The actor made his television debut in 1969 – on an episode of Sesame Street.

    With Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, and Sidney Poitier at the 1963 March on Washington.

  • Lancaster’s son, Bill Lancaster, was a screenwriter who wrote the screenplay for the 1976 hit The Bad News Bears.
  • In August 1963, Lancaster flew home from Europe, where he’d been on location shooting a film, to participate in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.
  • Along with his agent, Lancaster formed his own production company; the two were later joined by James Hill, a producer perhaps best known for being Rita Hayworth’s fifth husband. The Hecht-Norma company and the later Hecht-Hill-Lancaster company, produced a number of first-rate films, including Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), Marty (1950), The Bachelor Party (1957), and Sweet Smell of Success (1957).
  • Lancaster suffered a stroke in 1990 while visiting actor Dana Andrews in the hospital. He died four years later, in 1994. His friend, Nick Cravat, died the same year.


I expected to encounter a dilemma when selecting my recommendation for Burt Lancaster Day, but I assumed it would be a toss-up between such noirs as The Killers (1946), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), or Criss Cross (1949). Interestingly, not one of these films are airing on Lancaster Day – and I, instead, faced another kind of quandary. At first I planned to pick Atlantic City (1980), a fine feature from late in the actor’s career, and which I only saw for the first time earlier this year. But then I spied From Here to Eternity (1953) on the list, and I knew I’d made my decision.

Come on in. The water’s fine. (And so is Burt.)

Besides the fact that it’s a great, epic film, with multiple storylines and incredible performances, I selected it for two reasons. First off, From Here to Eternity is one of those pictures that I share with classic film novices to introduce them to old movies. And secondly, I saw it on the big screen for the first time at the 2019 TCM Film Festival and bawled like a baby at the end. (I was so overcome that I couldn’t stop crying long enough to try to meet Donna Reed’s children after the movie!) And what more of a recommendation do you need than that?

Eternity takes place in Hawaii, primarily on an army base, just before the outbreak of World War II. Lancaster is a tough, but fair, sergeant who falls in love with his boss’s lonely wife, played by Deborah Kerr. This is the film which features that famous scene on the beach with Lancaster and Kerr passionately kissing in the sand as Kerr admits, “I never knew it could be like this.” Gets me every time.

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen this film, do yourself a favor and tune in – you may have forgotten just how good it is. And if you’ve never had the pleasure, treat yourself! You’ll be glad you did.

And join me tomorrow for Day Seven of Summer Under the Stars.

~ by shadowsandsatin on August 5, 2020.

5 Responses to “TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Six — Burt Lancaster”

  1. I didn’t realize how long it has been since I last watched From Here to Eternity until I read your impassioned review. The recorder is set.

    • Before last year, it had been a while for me, too. I think that because I was watching it with my daughter, I kinda saw it through fresh eyes, and it just blew me away all over again. It really is something.

  2. A nice tribute to Burt. I too have to rewatch From Here to Eternity soon. I like the idea of using this movie as an introduction to classic film newbies. I haven’t thought about that, just because it’s really so depressing.

    Which brings me to you crying at the TCM film festival. 🙂 I can see that happen to me.
    On a different note, I hope I’ll make it to the festival at some time. Well, if it ever takes place again.

    PS. Lovely picture of Belafonte, Heston, Poitier and Lancaster.

    • Thank you, Margot! It’s funny that I never thought of it as depressing, all those years when I was recommending it to people, and I’m fairly certain that I never, not once, cried at the end. I don’t know what it was that made me lose it so completely last year. Made me love the movie even more, though! (Crying at a movie always bumps it up for me.)

      I like that picture, too — and I love the idea of Burt leaving his job, basically, and flying back to the U.S. for the march.

  3. […] Day 6: Burt Lancaster […]

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