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Oscar Winner Burt Lancaster Dies at 80

October 22, 1994|From a Times Staff Writer

Burt Lancaster, the performer, producer, gymnast and iconoclast--who from his earliest beginnings was always a star--has died, his wife announced Friday.

The 80-year-old Academy Award winner and onetime top athlete had been in failing health since suffering a stroke nearly four years ago. He died overnight Thursday of a heart attack in their Century City condominium, Susan Lancaster said, adding that there will be no funeral and that burial will be private.

Lancaster had been in relative seclusion since he was hospitalized in Los Alamitos in November, 1990. He suffered the stroke while visiting a friend in Orange County and lately had refused visitors, even such old friends as Kirk Douglas.

The stroke proved the last in a series of physical maladies that had befallen the virile and versatile star of more than 70 films.

In 1983 he underwent multiple coronary artery bypass surgery, and he continued to suffer from a heart condition.

Even though he filmed "Little Treasure" six months after the surgery and continued working steadily in film and television, Lancaster was denied the title role in "Old Gringo" in 1988 because of his health. Columbia Pictures decided that insurance on him would be too expensive, and cast Gregory Peck instead.

But Lancaster bounced back from that setback to give a heralded performance in "Field of Dreams" in 1989, portraying Moonlight Graham, a onetime ballplayer who had a brief brush with athletic glory before becoming a physician.

With that role, as with dozens of others throughout his lengthy acting career, it was as though Lancaster had been born for his chosen work.

Some actors struggle upward through minor roles to second leads to star status; others cite an academic preparation, beginning with collegiate drama courses and progressing through Actors Studio and summer stock to professional acclaim.

Lancaster took no courses and played no second leads, but was a bona fide star from his first screen appearance in 1946 until a few years before his death.

Sometimes his career accomplishments seemed almost too numerous to be real, much less recalled.

The Academy Award he won for "Elmer Gantry" in 1960 and the Venice Film Festival award he received two years later for "The Birdman of Alcatraz" were remembered. But many forgot the earlier Oscar he had shared with Harold Hecht as co-producer of "Marty," which was voted best picture of 1955.

Lancaster's work in such major dramatic productions as "Come Back Little Sheba," "From Here to Eternity," "Judgment at Nuremberg," "The Rainmaker," "Seven Days in May" and "Atlantic City" tended to overshadow his work in such films as "Trapeze," "The Flame and the Arrow" and "The Crimson Pirate," which displayed the lighter side of his nature.

Notified of Lancaster's death, Kirk Douglas said their 50-year relationship had been precious. Douglas said that after he survived a helicopter crash a few years ago, he came to realize "just how important life and friends really were."

"Burt was not just an actor," Douglas added. "He was a curious intellectual with an abiding love of opera who was constantly in search of unique characters to portray. . . . Elmer Gantry . . . the Birdman of Alcatraz."

Recalling the films he and Lancaster had made together and the dozens of other pictures that featured the outspoken onetime floorwalker and salesman, Douglas said:

"You know, Burt isn't really dead. . . . People years from now will still be seeing us shooting at each other . . . still watching him in his many other great films. At least he's at peace now."

Burton Stephen Lancaster was born Nov. 2, 1913, in the East Harlem section of New York City, attended Public School 83 and DeWitt Clinton High School, and often said he might have "grown up to be either a cop or a criminal (his brother became a policeman; several of his childhood playmates would end up in Sing Sing) if it had not been for athletics and the public library."

He was 6 feet, 2 inches tall by the time he was 14, with a husky physique and quick reflexes that won him an athletic scholarship to New York University. An alert and retentive mind gave him a lifelong fondness for books. But formal education began to bore him by the middle of his sophomore year and he quit college to join the circus.

He teamed up with boyhood friend and gymnastic partner Nick Cravat--who later joined him for on-camera stunts in "The Crimson Pirate" and "The Flame and the Arrow"--and formed the acrobatic team of Lang and Cravat, getting a job with the Kay Bros. show at a salary of $3 per week and three meals a day.

"I knew," he said in later years, "that I'd found the kind of thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life--the only question was what part of the business would be best."

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