Monday, August 30, 2010

Burt Lancaster: An American Life

(Nick Cravat and Burt Lancaster - photo from Cravat's family collection)

Just finished Kate Burford's bio of Burt Lancaster, a fascinating read. For those of you too young to recall him, Lancaster was an actor who arrived with the noir movies in the late 1940's, and was the hottest thing onscreen for the next twenty-five or so years, worked right up until a major stroke crippled him late in 1990. He died four years later, never able to come back from it.

If you haven't seen The Crimson Pirate, Elmer Gantry, or Atlantic City, you missed some great movies. He won the Oscar™ for Elmer Gantry, and rightly so. Was in maybe sixty-five or seventy others, and the list includes some great roles.

Lancaster brought a fluid, powerful grace to his roles, he was very strong. This was because he and his childhood buddy Nick Cuccia (screen name "Nick Cravat,") learned gymnastics as teenagers, ran off to join the circus, and spent several years with various tent shows as acrobats, doing a bar act. They worked together on and off for the rest of their lives.

When Lancaster hit it big, he called up his old buddy and convinced him to come to Hollywood to help him get into shape, and to act in several movies with him. Apparently Nick had to be talked into it -- Cravat had such a thick New York accent he seldom spoke in his movie roles, and played Lancaster's sidekick in The Crimson Pirate as a mute, something he did in several other movies.

Cigarettes, booze, women, and daily gallons of cholesterol aside, Lancaster was reportedly still able to do a giant swing on the high bar in his sixties, run five miles on a reconstructed knee, and when a passenger on a cross-country airline flight had a heart attack, reputedly reached over two seats and plucked the stricken man out into the aisle with one hand ...

Cravat was a short man, five-two as an adult, but he had the same kind of acrobatic moves and power that Lancaster did, and if you haven't seen The Crimson Pirate, you really should, the two of them just tear up the scenery. It was a throwback to the old Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn movies, funny, and as they did throughout most of their careers, Lancaster and Cravat did their own stunts. That gave the movie an instant credibility -- no cuts to stuntmen, and it showed.

(Even if you don't remember seeing Cravat in anything, you almost certainly did. Remember the gremlin on the wing outside William Shatner's window on that episode of The Twilight Zone, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet? Yeah. That was him ...)

Note on the photo: Cravat and Lancaster, training. Lancaster chain-smoked unfiltered Camels, drank martinis by the pitcher, and ate steaks piled high with butter. But he also ran three times a week and worked out, and when in his mid-seventies he had a stroke, the admitting doctor, who didn't recognize him, observed that the patient looked to be a man about sixty.

And note the footgear. Must have been one of the first minimalist-shoe guys -- those look like ballet slippers Lancaster is sporting ...


Ed said...

Burt Lancaster was great - Looking forward to reading that biography. When a kid I remember seeing Ten Tall Men a 1951 movie he did - I tried to find a dvd to buy - none. I was sent a dvd copy - probably from a tv showing - not the best. It was no oscar winner movie but it was fun. A young LeBeau from Hogan's Heroes had a bit part and Roland Gilbert was also in it. FBI disclaimer - no "cash" changed hands on that dvd transaction.

Ed said...

.... and Lancaster was great in Local Hero, '83 - Oil tycoon that loved the night sky - and had a wacky therapist - classic. There was also Trapeze, '56. I remember seeing it as a kid too - my parents told me he had worked as a circus performer when younger. Always could tell he had skills.

Ed said...

.... and sorry to Gilbert Roland fans.... a comma would have worked.

Anonymous said...

One of my all time favorite movies is "The Professionals", and he was hands down my favorite part. He had the kind of on-screen charisma you don't see very often.


Dan Moran said...

Actors of the 20th century ...

1. Audrey Hepburn
2. Bogie
3. Burt Lancaster

That pretty much covers it. If Burt Lancaster had been cast in "Sabrina" the universe would probably have ended.

And anon ... "The Professionals" is a great and sadly unremembered movie. Lancaster at the top of his form.

chris said...

Lancaster was truly a self-made man - articulate ( his hidden Irish-ness revealing itself ) and highly personable who needed no praise or comment from anyone to complete his self-awareness and confidence in his own judgments, whether it be in acting or any other discipline. Beauty touches the spirit in many ways. CM