In his early films Burt Lancaster often played haunted, troubled characters – his career began in the brooding films of director Robert Siodmak.
He then turned to lighter subjects, becoming a smiling, gallant, swashbuckling hero before again reverting to the more thoughtful topics of films like Come Back. Little Sheba and Birdman of Alcatraz.
In his younger days Lancaster was a gymnast and an acrobat, touring with his diminutive friend Nick Cravat (who later appeared in his more energetic movies), as Lang and Cravat, but his career as a circus performer ended with a hand injury. After the war he found work on Broadway as an army sergeant in A Sound of Hunting. At this point he was spotted by the movie industry and made his film debut in The Killers.
Lancaster soon proved himself a shrewd operator and before long he had started his own production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. with his agent Harold Hecht and the producer James Hill. They went on to produce such memorable movies as Apache, Trapeze and Sweet Smell of Success.
Lancaster received the Best Actor Academy Award for his role as the preacher in Elmer Gantry, and was voted Best Actor by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for his superb performance in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, proving that, though well into his sixties, he was still a compelling actor.
Here is our pick for five of his best movies.
The Killers (1946)
An insurance investigator (Edmund O’Brien) digs up crime, betrayal, and a glamorous woman (Ava Gardner in best femme fatale mode) behind an ex-fighter’s (and current gas-station attendant’s) death. Classic noir from Robert Siodmak, a master of the genre, scripted by Anthony Veiller with an uncredited assist from John Huston, based on a story by Ernest Hemingway. Lancaster made a sizzling film debut in the role of Swede, the murdered boxer. Rozsa’s main theme was later borrowed for the opening sequence of TV’s Dragnet. Ava Gardner said of Mark Hellinger, the producer who cast her in The Killers “Mark saw me as an actress, not a sexpot. He gave me a feeling of the responsibility of being a movie star, which I had never for a moment felt before.
Director: Robert Siodmak
Cast: Edmond O’Brien, Ava Gardner, Jack Lambert, Burt Lancaster, Sam Levene,
Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)
An attractive boarder stirs the barely hidden seeds of contempt between a tired, disappointed housewife and her husband, a washed-up alcoholic doctor. Great performances bring William Inge’s 1950 play to life on the big screen. Lancaster campaigned vigorously to win the role of the husband in Come Back, Little Sheba. At that point in his career Lancaster wanted to extend himself beyond the action heroes seen in such films as The Crimson Pirate. Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama: Shirley Booth. Academy Award Nominations: 3, including Best Supporting Actress: Terry Moore; Best Film Editing.
Director: Daniel Mann
Cast: Shirley Booth, Burt Lancaster, Lisa Golm, Richard Jaeckel, Terry Moore, Philip Ober
From Here to Eternity (1953)
Landmark example of Hollywood melodrama at its finest. An all-star cast brought what was considered an unfilmable novel to the screen with skill and grace. The story portrays the loves, hopes, and dreams of those in a close-knit army barracks in Hawaii shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Montgomery Clift plays a former boxer who refuses to fight after blinding a friend in the ring and is sent to the remote outpost as punishment for his insubordination. Donna Reed plays spectacularly against type as a bar girl who comforts Clift. Lancaster and Deborah Kerr have their illicit sprawl in the surf, and Frank Sinatra makes a remarkable movie-career rebound. A big story with performances to match. Based on the novel by James Jones. The film grossed well over $12 million in 1953, making it the third most popular movie that year. The first and second slots went to Peter Pan and The Robe, respectively. Golden Globes for Best Director; Best Supporting Actor: Frank Sinatra. Academy Award Nominations: 13, including Best Actor: Montgomery Clift; Best Actor: Burt Lancaster; Best Actress: Deborah Kerr; Best Score.
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cast: Ernest Borgnine, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Philip Ober, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, Jack Warden
Elmer Gantry (1960)
Fine adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel about a charismatic ex—football player who becomes an evangelist, plagiarizing speeches to promote himself above all else as he successfully exploits the folks of America’s Corn Belt during the ’20s. Of all the roles he played, Burt Lancaster said the philandering evangelist was “most like me.” Lancaster admitted using John Huston’s “mannerisms” to create the character Academy Award Nominations: 5, including Best Picture. Other awards include a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama: Burt Lancaster.
Director: Richard Brooks
Cast: Burt Lancaster, John McIntire, Jean Simmons, Edward Andrews, Dean Jagger, Arthur Kennedy,
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
A thoughtful study of the prison life of Robert Stroud, a convicted murderer who found a redemptive outlet in caring for wayward birds. Despite an unforgiving prison system favoring punishment over rehabilitation, Stroud went on to make breakthroughs in the treatment of bird diseases. Prior to director John Frankenheimer helming the movie, both Joshua Logan (South Pacific) and Charles Crichton (Ealing’s The Lavender Hill Mob) were engaged to direct. Crichton was fired after one week on the set.Academy Award Nominations: 4, including Best Actor: Burt Lancaster.
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Hugh Marlowe, Neville Brand, Betty Field, Edmond O’Brien, Thelma Ritter
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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