Burt Lancaster was born in Manhattan. All four of his grandparents were immigrants from Northern Ireland. Lancaster grew up on the streets and was a tuff character. He became interested in gymnastics and was a high school athlete. Following his mother’s death, he dropped out of college and later joined the circus at age 19 where he could use his considerable physical skills.
He met his lifelong friend Nick Cravet during his circus period. In 1939, a hand injury forced Lancaster to quit his beloved circus. For a time he worked at department stores as a singing waiter.
When World War II broke out he joined the Army and ended up in the USO entertaining troops. He served in the Italian theater of operation. Following the war, he was not excited to become an actor but he tried out for a stage role and landed the part. With his intense blue eyes, athletic physique, and devilish smile it is not hard to see how he got the role.
Although the play ended rather quickly he received his first movie role in The Killers (1946) based on his performance. After one movie he was a start and he kept after it. For a time he played tough guys but also took roles where he could show off his acrobatic talents such as The Crimson Pirate (1952). Before long Lancaster started his own production company and was successful at that as well.
In 1953, Lancaster one of his greatest and most well-known roles – 1st Sgt. Warden in From Here to Eternity (1953). The love scene with Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing as the wave crashed over them has been parodied and copied endlessly. He should have received an Oscar for this role but he had to wait until Elmer Gantry (1960).
He didn’t slow down a bit starring in The Young Savages (1961) as ADA Hank Bell, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Nazi Dr. Ernst Janning with Spencer Tracy and many others, and of course the Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) as Robert Stroud.
He continued to make movies through his life and he slowly drifted from the action hero to deeper parts, political roles, or comedies. In 1964, Lancaster was cast, in a fairly low budget anti-Nazi, movie with Paul Scofield, The Train (1964). He showed his acting and acrobatic talent in this movie as a member of the resistance and a railroad yard manager. If I did not already say that From Here to Eternity (1953) was his greatest role I would say this is. Maybe he had more than one. he turned in another stellar performance in Seven Days in May (1964). Lancaster took a role in a comedy The Hallelujah Trail (1965), followed by a western hired gunman in The Professionals (1966), then he jumped into the disaster flicks with Airport (1970). This was followed by a string of first-rate military films including Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), Go Tell the Spartans (1978), and Zulu Dawn (1979). Of course, he threw in a horror film with The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) and one of my personal favorites Local Hero (1983) where he played eccentric Felix Happer. He took a role as an over the hill buddy film Tough Guys (1986) and his last film, which is one of his greatest, Field of Dreams (1989) as Dr. Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham.
Lancaster was politically liberal and worked with and for many good causes including the March on Washington in 1963 fighting McCarthyism, and fighting for AIDS research. He died in 1994 from coronary problems at the age of 80.
IMDB.com Burt Lancaster Biography