At a 1976 tribute, Lancaster discusses the many transformations of his career: from circus performer-turned-Hollywood star to actor-producer hyphenate and international iconoclast.
by Richard Parkin
“Any decent artist fights for their time. You can impose certain limits on yourself but if you want something to be really good, you want the right to take the time to do it,” said screen legend Burt Lancaster to the audience at his 1976 San Francisco International Film Festival tribute. Describing the ongoing power struggle between filmmaker and financier, he continued, “That’s very hard when you’re in a business where everything has to be stamped out and finished at a certain time.”
By the mid-’70s, American cinema was in the midst of another shift in the tug of war pitting artistic expression against studio head knowhow. Filmmakers like Martin Scorcese, Robert Altman, and Francis Ford Coppola had gained the upper hand (if only momentarily) to pursue projects that expressed their unique artistic visions while maintaining support from studios. In 1976, the 20th San Francisco International Film Festival paid tribute to an American screen icon of a different era whose legendary career was a forbear to the artistic independence of the current filmmaking landscape. With over 60 credits to his name, spanning every genre imaginable, from early film noir to romance, Westerns to foreign art films, Burt Lancaster was an exemplary tributee in the era of the new cinematic maverick.
On a Thursday afternoon at the Palace of Fine Arts, the 63-year-old actor took the stage, captivating the audience with his dominant frame, deep voice and movie star presence. The tribute opened with excerpts from such classic films as I Walk Alone, The Flame and the Arrow, From Here to Eternity, The Bird Man of Alcatraz, and the recent Buffalo Bill and the Indians. As the Examiner’s Walter Addiego wrote, “The clips proved Lancaster to be an energetic performer with great range and sensitivity, a popular actor in the best sense. His appearance onstage occasioned two standing ovations from an audience obviously impressed by these qualities.” According to Addiego, the audience roared at Lancaster’s comedic exchanges with Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo and sat stunned by the hellfire sermons of Elmer Gantry that won the actor his 1960 Academy Award.
Sitting for his interview with Festival Associate Director Mark Chase, Lancaster opened up about his lifetime spent in entertainment, though not strictly as an actor. He recounted how, at the end of his sophomore year at New York University, he “literally ran off and joined the circus.” In 1934 he was paid five dollars a week to work as a professional acrobat. “In those days I managed to save about four out of those five dollars,” Lancaster reminisced, using part of his income for an occasional weekend beer, which “was the extent of my expenses.” (Lancaster would later coproduce and star in 1956’s Trapeze, displaying his physical prowess and reliving his days in the circus.) An enlisted grunt during World War II, Lancaster found himself “in effect, back in show business.” Due to his background as a performer, Lancaster became a Special Serviceman who staged recreational events and plays for combat soldiers. Upon returning from Italy, still in military uniform, Lancaster met a man in an elevator who gave him a script to read. Shortly thereafter, Lancaster won a part on a Broadway play. “As a result of that particular play . . . I received many offers for screen tests . . . one from a man who was preparing The Killers. I got the part . . . and it was off to the races as we say,” laughed Lancaster.
At his tribute, Lancaster admitted that he once thought of films as a waste of time. “I seldom ever [went] to them because I [didn’t] find them particularly interesting and I [didn’t] particularly like what was being done.” By establishing himself as one of the industry’s leading men with films like Jules Dassin’s Brute Force, Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross and Michael Curtiz’s Jim Thorpe—All American, Lancaster gained the stature to produce films on his own terms. Lancaster went into business with his agent Harold Hecht to form one of the first independent film production companies as the era of big studios came to a close in the late 1940s. Serving as coproducer with Hecht, Lancaster garnered a series of critically acclaimed box office successes, beginning with The Crimson Pirate in 1952, followed by Apache, Vera Cruz and the 1955 Best Picture winner Marty .
Through these career triumphs, Lancaster played a key role in revolutionizing the film industry. The independent company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster established a new template for the production of films outside the aegis of the studio system. “The studios themselves, what should I say, they don’t make pictures anymore,” Lancaster explained. “They partially fund them. They handle the distribution and they make money from that. They make contracts with independent filmmakers to come in and make the pictures as they wish to do it.” Through this new business model, Lancaster was given an unprecedented amount of freedom to pursue projects of his own without the supervision of executives. Lancaster recounted the studio mandate as “You do it all yourself, we have nothing to do with it. You merely guarantee us the delivery of the film, we have no right to say anything . . . only initially to agree to the project you wish to do. From then you’re on your own. We don’t have to see the picture until the day you deliver it.” Lancaster followed, “We were in the driver’s seat and [the studios] had to do pretty much what we wanted to do.”
“We did some innovative things, some things that were quite original. And then we began to run into trouble. See, we did films like Sweet Smell of Success.” Immediately, Lancaster let out a big sigh, a sigh that we hear now when films like Sorcerer, 1941, Apocalypse Now or Heaven’s Gate are mentioned. “Sweet Smell of Success cost us $2,600,000, which was a lot of money in those days. The film lost a million and a half dollars. We found ourselves now getting into a terrible spot very much like major companies do get into.” Lancaster continued, “We made one film at a time. We literally tailor-made the film. If we didn’t like what we had, we went back and reshot it. We put more money into it, things of that kind. Well you can’t run a large organization, in any business form, where you can have that kind of artistic indulgence. You simply can’t do it and do it successfully.” Despite their initial financial triumphs, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster was eventually undone by the commercial failure of, ironically enough, Sweet Smell of Success, other costly “artistic indulgences,” and growing overhead. “And so our company broke up, and Mr. Hecht went on to do his own things and I went on to do some things of my own, the first one of which after that was Elmer Gantry. So I just remained a kind an independent myself.”
Independent indeed. Lancaster would go on to pursue roles that challenged his already diverse career, most notably with the Italian epic The Leopard. By forming a bond with director Luchino Visconti, Lancaster entered a new phase of his career that opened himself to new roles and projects from filmmakers abroad.
In discussing his title role in The Bird Man of Alcatraz, Lancaster expressed his critical view of America’s prison system. Lancaster confirmed that the film presented “the question whether or not prison serves any purpose at all, in terms of even protecting society and, certainly, what does it ever do for those who are the inmates of prisons.” Lancaster clarified his position by branding rehabilitation as a “ridiculous word, because it simply does not occur.” Known for his strong stance on social issues, from supporting the civil rights movement early in his career to his fight for AIDS awareness later in life, Lancaster was never afraid to be vocal on important topics when it was considered unfashionable to do so.
While the tribute celebrated Lancaster’s illustrious career, the event was not just about looking back at the past glories of an aging screen idol. Three decades after his first film Lancaster was still able to hold intrigue over filmgoers with his upcoming projects. Audience members attempted to squeeze revelations about Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 from the star. Still unseen in the U.S. at the time, the film was rumored to be a masterpiece. Lancaster gushed, “Bertolucci is just brilliant. . . . I understand it is a magnificent film and I would be very surprised if it wasn’t.” The audience was enthralled as Lancaster discussed his role in the controversial scene that prompted Italian censors to temporarily ban the film. He played a “very old bumbling man of 80 who attempts to rape a little girl and who is totally incapable, totally impotent, and whose whole life becomes a kind of impotency.” For a career that will always be remembered by action roles that epitomized masculinity and sex appeal, Lancaster was unafraid to challenge his well-established image by pursuing roles that portrayed the dark side of sexual desire. Lancaster’s role in 1900 remained the buzz of the evening, carrying into the newspaper headlines of the following day where San Franciscans eagerly anticipated Lancaster’s return in his next Italian epic.