American film actor who projected a unique combination of physical toughness and emotional sensitivity.
One of five children born to a New York City postal worker, Lancaster exhibited considerable athletic prowess as a youth. At age 19 he joined the circus and performed in an acrobatic act with partner Nick Cravat, a lifelong friend who would go on to costar in several of Lancaster’s films. Lancaster served in the army during World War II and became interested in acting as a result of performing in USO shows. Following the war, he landed his first professional acting job in the Broadway play A Sound of Hunting (1945). The play was short-lived, but Lancaster’s performance was noticed by a talent scout who took the actor to Hollywood. Lancaster’s debut film, Desert Fury (1947), was delayed in its release; he first came to the attention of audiences in the film noir classic The Killers (1946). With this film, Lancaster established a duality to his screen persona: he was the rugged he-man of his publicized image but also a capable actor with a penchant for offbeat roles.
Lancaster quickly gained control over his career and thus avoided Hollywood typecasting. In 1948 he cofounded Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, one of the first star-owned production companies. Along with antitrust legislation that forced studios to divest themselves of their theatre holdings, such ventures were instrumental in the downfall of the studio system. Although the films that Lancaster made for Hecht-Hill-Lancaster were not the company’s most successful, the enterprise was important in establishing Lancaster’s reputation as a versatile actor.
Lancaster appeared in numerous films of quality throughout his career, particularly during his first two decades as a screen star. His drawing power steadily increased during the late 1940s and early ’50s because of his performances in such films as I Walk Alone (1948; the first of seven films in which he costarred with his friend Kirk Douglas), All My Sons (1948), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Criss Cross (1949), The Flame and the Arrow (1950), Jim Thorpe—All American (1951), The Crimson Pirate (1952), and Come Back, Little Sheba (1952). He earned his first Academy Award nomination for From Here to Eternity (1953), the classic film in which Lancaster and costar Deborah Kerr created one of the most indelible images in film history with their beachside love scene. His series of hit roles continued throughout the 1950s with such notable films as Apache (1954), The Rose Tattoo (1955), Trapeze (1956), The Rainmaker (1956), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), and Separate Tables (1958).
Lancaster won an Academy Award for one of his most powerful and charismatic performances, that of a charlatan evangelist in Elmer Gantry (1960). He was memorable in a supporting role as a Nazi war criminal in Judgment at Nuremburg (1961), and received another Oscar nomination for his sensitive portrayal of Robert Stroud—a prison inmate who became one of the world’s leading ornithologists—in director John Frankenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Lancaster’s other standout films from the 1960s include Luchino Visconti’s Il gattopardo (1963; The Leopard); two more films for Frankenheimer, Seven Days in May (1964) and The Train (1965); The Professionals (1966); and the cult favourite The Swimmer (1968).
Although his first film of the 1970s was the blockbuster disaster epic Airport (1970), Lancaster appeared in few films of note during that decade. His supporting performance in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976) was well-received, but not until 1980 did Lancaster revive his career with an Oscar-nominated performance as an aging, small-time bookie in director Louis Malle’s Atlantic City. Other memorable character roles followed, including a turn as a dreamy, star-gazing Texas oil billionaire in the comedy Local Hero (1983), an enjoyable reunion with Kirk Douglas in Tough Guys (1986), and his moving portrayal of an aging doctor who still regrets his missed opportunity in professional baseball in the immensely popular Field of Dreams (1989). Lancaster gave his final performance in the acclaimed TV miniseries Separate but Equal (1991), after which health problems forced his retirement.