Though he didn't enter films until his 30s, Burt Lancaster used his strong physical presence and winning charm to become a popular Hollywood star for over four decades. Lancaster built his career in a number of tough guy roles, before trading in his all-American image for darker and more complex dramatic roles in the 1950s and 1960s.
In fact, Lancaster displayed his exceptional range across a wide range of genres that included Westerns, film noir, historical dramas, sweeping romances, thrillers and biopics. Despite only winning one Academy Award in his career, he was one of Hollywood's greatest actors. Here are just six out of many great films starring Burt Lancaster.
Directed by Michael Curtiz
, Jim Thorpe – All American
starred Lancaster as the titular Native American sportsman who was widely considered to be the greatest athlete of the 20th century. But despite excelling both on the field and in the classroom, Thorpe routinely ran into problems trying to crack through the white establishment, leading to a slow, but steady disintegration after being stripped of his Olympic gold medals for playing semi-professional baseball. Tragedy strikes when Thorpe’s son dies, his marriage falls apart and he finds comfort in a bottle, only to get a chance at redemption years later. Though not nominated for an Oscar, Lancaster was perfectly cast as Thorpe and delivered the first of many great career performances.
Certainly one of his most acclaimed films, From Here to Eternity
featured Lancaster as a non-commissioned officer stationed in Oahu who engages in an affair with the wife (Deborah Kerr) of a commanding officer. The film also focused on a wisecracking soldier (Frank Sinatra
) targeted for abuse by a mean-spirited sergeant (Ernest Borgnine), a bugler (Montgomery Clift) compelled to become a boxer, and the hostess (Donna Reed) of a gentlemen’s club. Meanwhile, all the personal trials and tribulations come to a head following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. From Here to Eternity
won eight Academy Awards, though Lancaster failed to win following his first-ever nomination. Still, his iconic beach scene with Kerr remained one of the most famous cinematic moments of all time.
MGM Home Entertainment
Lancaster co-starred opposite Gary Cooper
in the commercial hit Vera Cruz
, a gritty revisionist Western
where they played two mercenaries caught between two warring factions during the Mexican revolution in 1866. Playing the wittier and more charismatic of the two, Lancaster’s charm shined through the darkly comic and violent film that served as a sort of precursor to the spaghetti Westerns
of the following decade. By this point, Lancaster was hitting his stride and was about to enter into his most fruitful period, while his co-star – who received top billing – was nearing the end of his career.
MGM Home Entertainment
In this toned-down adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Lancaster gives a tour-de-force performance as the titular Gantry, a drunken, womanizing preacher whose dishonesty is matched only by his charm. Always on the make, Gantry partners with the far more trustworthy Sister Sharon (Jean Simmons), whose dreams of building a tabernacle are realized after hiring him onto her traveling ministry. Of course, his past comes back to haunt him in the form of a prostitute (Shirley Jones), who jeopardizes Gantry's success by putting him into an uncompromising position. Undeniably his most flashy role, Lancaster earned his one and only Academy Award for Best Actor.
MGM Home Entertainment
Lancaster earned his third Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Robert Stroud, a convicted murderer who spent over five decades inside the notorious Alcatraz prison, where his nursing of a sick bird that flies into his cell leads to him becoming a world-famous ornithologist. It’s only through his study of birds that the hardened criminal finally receives his absolution. Though director John Frankenheimer manages to keep audience interest up while confining his film to a jail cell, Birdman of Alcatraz
glosses over the facts of the real life Stroud, who was excessively violent and diagnosed a psychopath despite his scientific advances. Still, Lancaster’s sensitive portrayal remains one of the best of his career.
Lancaster delivered his most chilling turn as a dedicated, but delusional American general who plots a military coup to overthrow an allegedly soft President of the United States (Frederic March). Standing in the general’s way is Colonel Casey (Kirk Douglas
), one of his Joint Chiefs who uncovers the plot and works with the president to find concrete evidence in order to dismantle the scheme. With a script written by Rod Sterling and directed by Frankenheimer, Seven Days in May
was a taut political thriller that presaged the paranoia films of the 1970s like Three Days of the Condor
and The Parallax View
. For his part, Lancaster showed a rare versatility that allowed him to play both hero and villain with equal measure.