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Counterpunch

The Real Burt Lancaster

November 07, 1994|CHARLES WASHBURN | Charles Washburn has worked in TV and motion picture production for 30 years. He is a member of the Directors Guild of America and Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters. He expects to make his feature film directing debut next year.

Burt Lancaster was the first movie star I ever met. Hearing of his death caused me to reflect on our association, and prompted this writing.

The year was 1965. I was working in Nashville as a producer in religious broadcasting. While attending a TV writing workshop in Indianapolis, I met a Hollywood writer who saw talent in my writing and encouraged my dream of working in Hollywood as a writer-director.

The writer (John Bloch, who became one of the founders of a minority writers' program called "Open Door") confessed that mine would be an especially uphill battle because I was black. And Hollywood had not been particularly interested in opening its doors to the call of the civil rights movement, which was seeking changes all over the country. When he returned to Hollywood, John Bloch and I corresponded a lot. He'd answer my questions about Hollywood and even sent me pages from scripts to show me the form in which they were written. When I told him I'd be coming to Los Angeles, he sent me the names and agents' addresses of two Hollywood stars--one was Lancaster. Bloch reasoned that since they had been so active in the marches and other areas of the civil rights movement, they might use their influence and help open a door for me. I wrote to both.

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Lancaster answered my letter. I read his reply on his personal stationery with his signature over and over. This was the guy who, as a 10- or 11-year-old, I saw in the film "Brute Force." My childhood buddy and I used to re-enact the scene in that prison picture in which he gets shot in the back, yells out loud, spins around and, with machine gun in hand, wipes out the perpetrator. We each took turns playing that scene--usually with a sawed-off broomstick as the gun.

When I arrived in Los Angeles, I called the studio where Lancaster had his office. His secretary took my name and number and promised he would call me back. He did.

I'd have recognized that voice anywhere. I still remember, in his careful directions how to get to his office, the way he pronounced "La Brea." It was "La Bre-ah-h" coming from that famous voice.

Arriving at the studio, I was led by his secretary into his massive private office. I met and talked with him, and he made me feel very much at ease. I do remember that he had the bluest eyes I had ever seen. He allowed me to talk about my writing and directing background (live TV and stage plays), and promised to make some calls in my behalf, and would call me back with the results.

Again, he kept his word. But he seemed disappointed with his findings. No one he called was willing to meet with the Negro kid he had taken an interest in.

A few years later, after I had entered Hollywood through a training program for assistant directors, I wrote him and sent a copy of a Directors Guild magazine that featured me in a lengthy article. In the late '80s, I attended a screening of two of his films at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theater. I didn't realize he was sitting behind me until the second film ("The Crimson Pirate") was over and he was called onstage to speak. When all the speeches and questions and answers ended and the audience filed out, I headed straight for him and became a part of his entourage. We were herded into an elevator that headed for the basement.

As we wound our way through the unfamiliar lower corridors that led to a secured parking area, Burt and I walked and talked while being led and surrounded by his hosts and security people. He told me he was headed for Mexico and how to reach his Century City office to leave a message.

The film he was to do must have been "Old Gringo." I later learned that because of his health, he didn't do the picture. We never talked after that meeting, but I still have his 1965 letter and memories of a movie hero who cared.

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