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A Man in Full

BURT LANCASTER; An American Life By Kate Buford; Alfred A. Knopf: 448 pp., $27.50

March 26, 2000|ERIC LAX | Eric Lax is the author of "Bogart" with A.M. Sperber and "Woody Allen," which will be reissued this fall by Da Capo Press

Live long enough and people will forget who you are or, worse, who you were. Kate Buford has gathered the small bits and large pieces that constitute the life and work of one of the great post-World War II movie stars, and she has written a fine and intelligent book that is doubly good because it is realistic without being salacious. A model of what a celebrity's biography should be, it will ensure that we don't forget Burton Stephen Lancaster.

In 72 films that began in 1946 with "The Killers" and ended in 1989 with "Field of Dreams" (he appeared in half a dozen television movies and miniseries that aired through 1991), Burt Lancaster played, among other generally not solid citizens, a predatory army sergeant ("From Here to Eternity"), a laconic Wyatt Earp ("Gunfight at the O.K. Corral"), a reformed alcoholic with an emotional tripwire ("Come Back, Little Sheba"), a hypocritical revivalist ("Elmer Gantry"), a renegade Indian ("Apache"), an aristocratic Nazi ("Judgment at Nuremberg"), a murderer in solitary confinement ("Birdman of Alcatraz"), a circus aerialist ("Trapeze"), a monstrous gossip columnist ("Sweet Smell of Success") and a shrewdly dotty oil magnate ("Local Hero"). He would have given anything to play Don Corleone in "The Godfather" and turned down $1 million from MGM to play Ben-Hur because, although he had been a self-proclaimed atheist for decades, he found the movie "a belittling picture of Christianity as I understand it." More practically, he might also have feared getting lost in so grand an epic. "Why," he asked William Wyler, the film's director, "do you want to do this piece of crap?"

Lancaster was born in New York in 1913 and led a hardscrabble city life in East Harlem; he later summed up his youth as being "cold and scrounging for jobs" and living in mortal fear of his mother, Lizzie, a 5-foot, 9-inch beauty turned by five children into 250 pounds of volatility on feet. She would be the great influence in his life for much good but also for the lashing temper that would suddenly engulf him like a thunderhead and then leave him apologetic and wondering how he got so out of control. John Frankenheimer, who directed "The Train" in 1964, a black and white high-explosive adventure that is the mother of the "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon" school of films, watched Lancaster blow up at the production manager "to the point where I thought he was going to kill him. And after it was over, he just held his head in his hands and said, 'You know, I'm going to die of a stroke. I know it. My mother died of a stroke.' "

Yet Lancaster was a man of eminent fairness. Buford, a commentator for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," writes that "[u]ntil the end of his life he would credit Union Settlement House on East 104th Street as the single most important influence, after his mother, on his childhood and youth," and he was a generous financial supporter until his death.

The Protestant Irish Lancasters regularly attended Union's affiliated Church of the Son of Man, whose pastor, Harris Ely Adriance, turned up time and again in interviews the actor gave over the years. One Sunday, Lancaster recalled, Adriance stopped his sermon to welcome and seat a black woman who had come to the church for the first time, then reminded the congregation "[n]ot to be blinded, not to be controlled by prejudice, not to be warped, not to be unreasonable, these are the things for the spiritual man to battle for."

Freedom, Buford says, became Lancaster's secular religion, and he was mindful throughout his life of the pastor's injunction. He was an early and staunch supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. and in 1969 worked hard for Los Angeles city Councilman Tom Bradley in his first (and only unsuccessful) run for mayor, against the incumbent Sam Yorty, who predicted that the election of a black mayor would bring not only more riots like those in Watts in 1965 but also "militant extremists" who would take over the city. And he cited Lancaster as an example of one.

As Buford puts it, Lancaster's "central 'simple' belief [was] that the Bill of Rights was what 'made this country unique' by empowering the individual while setting limits on government." This belief led him to work for years for the ACLU and caused others to suspect him of communist sympathies. It also got him on President Richard Nixon's "enemies list." But enough about his good works, save to say that he was a loyal friend, and on to his good looks.

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