Burt Lancaster’s favorite curse word was “cocksucker”. According to Lancaster biographer Gary Fishgall it was not unusual for Lancaster to telephone his producer or director in the middle of the night to dispute a contract or character point. Often that conversation began with “you cocksucker”. That was Burt Lancaster, a self-made superstar, aggressive, ambitious, competitive and masculine. But on the other hand, Lancaster was also an avid reader who held Sunday afternoon bridge games at his house and dreamt of being an opera singer as a child. He is at once both a cowboy and a gentleman rascal. And that’s how I first got to know him.
When I was four years old my father worked at Movies Unlimited, and he brought home two films for me. The first was a western by Richard Thorpe titled Vengeance Valley (1951). In this film Burt Lancaster plays the elder of two brothers (the younger played by Robert Walker), whose job it is to keep the ranch afloat. The second film was Robert Siodmak’s swashbuckling pirate comedy made at Warner Bros. titled The Crimson Pirate (1952). In The Crimson Pirate Lancaster sports his signature toothy grin and Apollo physique as he leaps and bounds across the screen with comic flare. Unlike Vengeance Valley, the Burt Lancaster of The Crimson Pirate is a playful and irresponsible Romantic. It would take me fifteen years to realize how these two characters colored and informed my personality, my ability to tell right from wrong and my sense of responsibility. But at four, I couldn’t even remember Burt Lancaster’s name, and referred to him as “the skipper” (as his crew does in The Crimson Pirate) when I wanted to watch one of his films.
It’s interesting that Burt Lancaster has become the role model and hero for three generations of Currys. To my Nana he was a new Hollywood star, whose films in the late fifties had a depth she admired. She loved Burt Lancaster, and that fandom was passed on to my father who reveled in Lancaster’s action adventures like Valdez Is Coming (1971), The Scalphunters (1968), The Professionals (1966), Lawman (1971), and The Train (1964). Then he in turn passed Burt Lancaster onto me. And as I have grown older and studied film my admiration for Lancaster has grown, just as my tastes have changed, preferring his more cerebral and dramatic works such as The Swimmer (1968), The Leopard (1963), The Gypsy Moths (1969), Sweet Smell Of Success (1957) and A Child Is Waiting (1963) to the adventure films I enjoyed so much as a boy.
In college I read three biographies on Burt Lancaster. This experience transformed my image of him from adventure hero into that of a serious artist. His production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster was a role model in my design for Zimbo Films, copying almost exactly the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster relationship with Arthur Krim at United Artists in my own relationship to festival distribution. But Lancaster wasn’t just a savvy businessman, he was an actor. He taught himself in the army, worked his way onto Broadway and then into leading roles in motion pictures. According to all accounts Lancaster sought to improve his craft constantly, seeking out only the newest and most challenging parts to play in conditions that were often considerably difficult. He became John Frankenheimer’s muse, Luchino Visconti’s closest friend as well as Robert Aldrich and Sydney Pollack’s mentor for all these reasons. He even managed to harness his experience as an acrobat while making his early adventure films.
What Burt Lancaster achieved as a film artist is considerable, and has set a standard for myself. Often I find myself thinking back to something Lancaster did, in his films or in his life, when faced with a difficult decision. I wasn’t a particularly social person when I was a boy, and in many ways Burt Lancaster filled that void, and continues to do so today.
Ten Underrated and Rarely Seen Burt Lancaster Treasures
1-I Walk Alone, dir. Byron Haskin, 1948
2-Kiss The Blood Off My Hands, dir. Norman Foster, 1948
3-Come Back Little Sheba, dir. Daniel Mann, 1952
4-Apache, dir. Robert Aldrich, 1954
5-Trapeze, dir. Carol Reed, 1956
6-Separate Tables, dir. Delbert Mann, 1958
7-Castle Keep, dir. Sydney Pollack, 1968
8-Ulzana’s Raid, dir. Robert Aldrich, 1972
9-Conversation Piece, dir. Luchino Visconti, 1974
10-Go Tell The Spartans, dir. Ted Post, 1978