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Lancaster: Vital Blend of Star Past, Present

October 22, 1994|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | TIMES ARTS EDITOR EMERITUS

To the end of his days, Burt Lancaster was tough, outspoken, liberal, private, a working actor and, not least, a man who knew he was a superstar and accepted it without needing to declare it.

He was, in fact, one of that fast-diminishing population of movie stars who are links to a sharply different Hollywood, when the studios were still major and television only a storm cloud on a very distant horizon, and the great stars had the status of lesser gods and the riches of royalty.

It was not only that, as Gloria Swanson says in "Sunset Boulevard," "We had faces then"--although Lancaster's face and his flashing teeth were identifiable, uncaptioned, in the farthest corners of the world--it was that the stars of an earlier era, or the stars who became superstars, like Lancaster, carried a special aura.

It was an aura they had earned by mastering the most difficult of all the Hollywood arts, survival. Lancaster and the relatively few others in the pantheon with him had acquired their status by long-term and frequent exposure in films that were good more often than bad, and by many personal appearances, many columns and fan magazine profiles and stacks of news items about their slightest doings.

In a much-used but relevant phrase, Lancaster paid his dues, commencing as a vaudeville acrobat. He once recalled that he had been the bottom man in the pyramid on a vaudeville bill in a Buffalo theater--a bill headlined by Harry James' orchestra and his new singer, Frank Sinatra.

Like Jimmy Cagney, who once thanked "that touch of the gutter" without which his career would not have been possible, Lancaster grew up tough in the Bronx. He seemed always to carry himself with something of the cocky swagger of a kid who had held his own on mean streets and was not about to concede anything to anybody.

Yet the same kid acquired a love of opera because the neighborhood was full of Italians and there was always Caruso on the night air (competing with John McCormack, whose tenor soared from the Victrolas in the Irish apartments). One of Lancaster's last major appearances was as the Phantom's father, a role created for a television version of "Phantom of the Opera." It was filmed in Paris and gave Lancaster a chance to hear plenty of glorious singing, a principal love of his life.

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All of the places Lancaster had been, so to speak, came together in "Elmer Gantry," the film and the role for which he will likely be longest remembered. Gantry had Lancaster's charismatic showmanship, and the street smarts and the swagger, the Irish tongue of the Lancaster clan, and a sudden tenderness that could be read as part of the legacy of the kid who liked opera and saved money to attend the Met.

There was another side of the private Lancaster--sensitive, intellectually curious, widely read, concerned about social issues. It was the Lancaster seen in "Judgment at Nuremberg," "Birdman of Alcatraz" and Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard"--the film and performance of which he was always proudest.

He died Thursday night at the age of 80 in the Century City high-rise condominium that he'd had decorated in the Mexican style, with wonderful tile floors, fine pieces of furniture and art that reflected not a decorator's taste but the loving eye of a discerning collector.

Like most of the fine actors who, in a sense, live to act quite as much as they act to live well, Lancaster never really thought of retirement as a viable idea. He was bitterly disappointed to lose the title role in "The Old Gringo" for health reasons, not least because his involvement had gone so far as costume fittings. The film was a failure, which was scant consolation.

Lancaster managed the star actor's most difficult trick--being immediately identifiable as the star he was and yet cloak himself so thoroughly in a characterization that for the duration of a film he became that character: the cowboy, the lifer taming birds, the Army major in the earliest stages of the U.S. presence in Vietnam in the excellent but little-seen "Go Tell the Spartans."

There is no shortage of gifted actors in the industry. But the concatenation of circumstances that produced Burt Lancaster no longer really exist in the society or in Hollywood. Few actors have done so much good work over so wide a range for so long. Few actors, it seems quite possible to say, will ever have the chance to do as much again.

So the melancholy farewells are to the fine actor, to the exemplary private man and to the symbol of a nearly vanished time.

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