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The Religious Affiliation of
great American actor
Burt Lancaster grew up in a devout Protestant family living in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in East Harlem in New York City. Burt Lancaster's family attended a "nondenominational" Protestant church named the Church of the Son of Man. The Lancasters were stalwarts in this congregation. Burt sang in the choir of his family's church throughout much of his childhood, until the age of fifteen when puberty changed his voice.
Throughout his life Burt Lancaster strived to live by many of the Christian ethical teachings his mother instilled in him. Throughout his adult life, Lancaster made reference to the senior preachers at the Church of the Son of Man, and the teachings and values he learned from them while growing up attending church there. One of Lancaster's personal heroes as an adult was Jesus Christ (in addition to Lincoln, Jefferson and Galileo). But Lancaster was not active in any denomination or congregation as an adult. Lancaster did not necessarily consciously reject his Protestant upbringing, but he was not religious in a traditional churchgoing sense. During the 1970s he was seriously dating and sometimes living with girlfriend Jackie Bone. When she rediscovered the Christian faith she had been raised in as a child, Lancaster felt he couldn't share this with her, and the couple split over the issue.
From the 1960s onward Burt Lancaster was a devout supporter of the activist/quasi-religious organization known as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Lancaster held leadership positions and was an ardent supporter and fund-raiser. During the last decades of his life, Lancaster was so completely committed to his charitable and advocacy work with the ACLU, that the organization became his de facto religion. Providing details about the extent and depth of Lancaster's commitment to liberal political causes generally and the ACLU specifically is beyond the scope of this page, but the subject is covered in detail in multiple biographies about him. See, for example, references to Lancaster's position as an ACLU adherent, spokesman, fundraiser and leader, described in Kate Buford's biography Burt Lancaster: An American Life, pages 43, 267, 329-31, 333, 341.
From: Gary Fishgall, Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, Scribner: New York (1995), pages 15-16:
...it was Elizabeth [Burt Lancaster's mother] who taught Burt to be honest. As an adult, he vividly recounted the time she gave him a quarter, asked him to go to the store to buy a quart of milk, and then whipped him when he got home for failing to notice the extra nickel that the grocer had given him in change. After the spanking, she sent him back to the store to return the money...
Elizabeth was as generous as she was honest. "Bums were forever knocking at our door for handouts," Burt recalled. "First my mother owuld bawl them out. Then she'd feed them." And she lacked prejudice, instilling in her son a lifelong tolerance for people from different races and faiths. "I saw the way she treated black people who lived in the neighborhood," he said. "She would invite them in for tea and coffee and talk to them, the way she related to the Jewish people there. Now, we as children, my two brothers, my sister, and myself, we saw all this. It was expected that we would do these kind of things. This was our Bible of our upbringing."
In 1916, when Burt was three... Burt made his acting debut in the Christmas pageant at the Church of the Son of Man. This small nondenominational Protestant chapel on E. 104th Street was operated by the Union Settlement House, and the Lancasters were part of its largely Irish and German congregation. During the performance, in which Burt played an angel, he discovered that a piece of gum had stuck to the bottom of his shoe, and his efforts to remove the offending confection brought the house down. His budding career was not ruined, however; for years, he and his brothers played the Three Wise Men in the church's Nativity observance.
Fishgall, page 17:
When Burt [as a child] was not losing himself in books, he was escaping at the movies. His hero was the king of the swashbucklers, Douglas Fairbanks. "When the Mark of Zoro played the Atlas Theatre in our neighborhood [in 1920], Burt was there when the doors opened at eleven," his father remembered. "He was still there at eleven that night, forgetting all about lunch and dinner." Once again poor Willie had to fetch him home. For days, thereafter, the seven-year-old bounded around the livingroom furniture, imitating Fairbanks' feats of derring-do.
Despite such antics, Burton had no interest in becoming an actor. In fact, he wanted to be an opera singer. Until he was fifteen, he sang soprano in the choir at the Church of the Son of Man. Then he entered puberty, his voice changed, and his dreams of singing career came to an end. Concert pianist was also out; he took piano lessons, but he never developed an aptitude for the instrument.
Still, music remained his passion.
Fishgall, page 19:
What saved [young Burt] Lancaster from the city's mean streets [East Harlem, New York City]--aside from his family--was the Union Settlement House.
The settlement movement, which began in Great Britain in 1884, sought to improve the conditions of lower-class communities throug a combintation of activities and social action and to help menial laborers advance through training and education.
Sponsored by the Union Theological Seminary, a nondenominational Protestant institution, the Union Settlement House began modestly in a tenement on E. 96th Street in May of 1895 but soon mooved to larger quarters on E. 104th Street, between Second and Third Avenues. By 1915, when Burt was two years old, it boasted about thirty resident workers, and its facilities included an assembly hall and a gym, and a boys camp on Lake Stahahi in Palisades International Park. It sprogram included the first kindergarten in East Harlem, the first public bathhouses, and the first playground for small children. Indeed, youngsters were a particular focus. For them, the Settlement House was a treasture trove of fun and exciting things to learn--arts and crafts, foreign languages, dramatics, sports, woodworking.
On both his father's side and his mother's side, Burt Lancaster was descended from Irish Protestants. From: Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Alfred A. Knopf: New York (2000), pages 11-12:
By the second half of the nineteenth century, the Lancasters and the Roberts family, his [Burt Lancaster's] mother's Belfast people--working-class Northern Irish Protestants--were poor and trapepd by the island's limitations. His paternal grandfather James emigrated to New York in the mid-1860s, more than a decade after the Great Famine... James had two key advantages as an Irish Protestant: he was educated enough to read and he was a skilled worker, a cooper... He settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, at 40 Essex Street...
By 1880 the next great wave of immigration filled New York's Tenth Ward around Essex Street with Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and starvation. James [Burt Lancaster's paternal grandfather] married Susannah Murray, another Irish immigrant... and they had five children, including James Henry (Jim), Burt's father, born December 6, 1876. James Sr. moved the family uptown to... between East Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth Streets... just south of today's Queens-Midtown Tunnel...
...The Roberts family left Norwalk for Manhattan shortly after 1880...
Buford, page 15:
That $112 plus interest [an inheritance from the death of then four-year-old Burt Lancaster's maternal grandfather] as waiting for him was another indication to Burton [Burt Lancaster]--like his blond hair, blue eyes, Anglo name, property-owning parents, and Protestant faith--that he was different from the poorer, foreign people he lived among...
As he approached the age of seven, the raggedy, dissonant city that defined him was growing up too. The U.S. census of 1920 confirmed that for the first time America wasn an urban nation, with New York elevated to a new status as capital not only of the postwar country but of the world. When mass immigration was stopped in 1924, only one million of New Yorks six million residents were white, native-born Protestants [like Burt Lancaster], and only a handful of these lived in East Harlem [where he lived].
Buford, page 16:
Though Eastern European Jews remained a significant presence in the neighborhood east of Third Avenue--Burton's [i.e., Burt Lancaster's] first childhood pals were Jewish--immigrant Italians from Naples, Calabria, Sicily, and Salerno now dominated the quarter.
Buford, page 18:
[Burt Lancaster's mother] took him to the Metropolitan Opera house on Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street to sing in the children's choirus... The backstage bustle and onstage drama were an exaggerated version of the peaks and valleys of life he saw every day on the streets of East Harlem, an art form he would love with a religious intensity...
With a strong dose of noblesse oblige, Lizzie [Burt Lancaster's mother] showed by example that the Lancasters had an obligation to give to those less fortunate, which covered just about everyone in the neighborhood. The word on the street was that Mrs. Lancaster, after chewing you out for being a bum, would feed you and send you on your way. Burton [young Burt Lancaster] watched these transactions, listened as his mother purposely simplified her speech to "Second Avenue English," had black neighbors in to tea, and shared what little they had. The actions became what he would call his "Bible."
Buford, pages 19-21:
Lancaster would credit Union Settlement House on East 104th Street as the single most important influence, after his mother, on his childhood and youth. An experiment in making the Christian Kingdom of God--the "City of the Light"--manifest in the slums, Union was founded in 1895 by a group of alumni from the Protestant Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Underwritten by contributors like Mrs. J.D. Rockefeller Jr. and Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, it was created to serve the as yet unnamed area devoid of civil services north of East Ninety-sixth Street. One of at least fifty settlement houses set up around the country by 1895, Union was based on the activist charity work of Jane Addams's Hull House in Chicago. "Hail the glorious Golden City,/ Pictured by the seers of old!" went one settlement hymn of the time. "Only righteous men and women/ Dwell within its gleaming walls/ Wrong is banished from its border/ Justice reigns supreme o'er all/ We are the builders of that city . . . All our lives are building stones. . . ."
At their best such experiments in the "social gospel" tapped into the ardent hope that America might be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies of a heavenly kingdom for all people, a place where racism and class conflict wither in the glorious light of justice. Union's "special gift," as Janet Murray, widow of former Settlement House director Clyde Murray, described it, was to have settlement workers "literally go down, 'settle,' and live in crowded immigrant communities as neighbors," and then help the residents put pressure on the city and federal governments to make changes. The movement was a training ground for the progressive era of the first two decades of the twentieth century, often described as a golden age of American politics. While Union quickly shed any religious affiliation as inappropriate for its mission ina Jewish/Catholic neighborhood, its ethos remained religious in its insistence that the American experiment have an applied meaning.
Happily unaware of all this idealistic freight, Burton [young Burt Lancaster] trooped down a couple o blocks to the settlement house every day to have fun. It was his home away from home, buzzing with boxing matches and other sporting events, and classes in painting, drama, English, hygiene, sewing, and dancing. Countless clubs taught the rules of parliamentary procedure: changing the world began with meetings...
On Sundays the Lancaster family attended the Union-affiliated Church of the Son of Man, a Protestant island at 227 East 104th Street. Called "the church in a house" because it was indistinguishable form any other building in the neighborhood, the small, plain church was deliberately austere, stripped down to the essentials of the Christian mission. "Isn't it more satisfying to touch a few lives deep down at their roots," asked the pastor, Harris Ely Adriance, in one of his sermons, "than a large number who 'hit the trail' and then forget what it's all about?"
Burton [young Burt Lancaster] was one of those so touched. The names of Adriance [the pastor] and his assistant, David Morrison, turn up, again and again, in interviews throughout the actor's life. The two men were like emissaries from another planet, pointing the way to a different kind of life. Though Adriance, a skilled preacher, was constantly wooed by "[t]he Fifth Avenue churches," Burton [Burt Lancaster] would remember he turned down all offers in order to stay with them. A literate, intent man, slim with a small face, big eyes, receding hair, and a large forehead, his central message was St. Paul's plea for a noble life. "Lives that tell," he exhorted from the pulpit in the tiny wainscotted church room, "are those that are thus spread out to the full octave" of justice and fairness. One Sunday, Burton watched the pastor stop his sermon to welcome and seat a black woman who stepped into his church for the first time. "Not to be blinded, not to be controlled by prejudice, not to be warped, not to be unreasonable, these are the things," the preacher insisted, "for the spiritual man to battle for." Planted like a sead in the head of young Burton [Burt Lancaster], these ideas would grow.
David Morrison was an exotic character born in Punjab to English missionary parents. He was also an artist who taught drawing lesons at the settlement house and at the private Allen-Stephenson School on East Seventy-eight Street. Using his drawings to illustrate Bible lessons, he gave children's sermons which in fact taught the children about art, how to see what they saw. Burton [Burt Lancaster] watched and listened, taking in Morrison's lesson that art, supposedly an elitist preserve, was a natural expression of life.
Most of the time, however, Burton was what his Sunday-school teacher, Carrie Nester--like Lizzie, a stalwart of the church--remembered as just another "snuffle-nosed little boy." He was the star of the children's choir until he was fifteen, his pure soprano voice revered even more than a tenor's. He had his first acting role as a shepherd (some accounts say angel) at the age of three in the church's annual Christmas pageant. Bundled into a burlap sack, he had no words to speak, but halfway through the production, when the angel, sheep, and shepherds usually get restless, Burton, center stage in front of the alter, discovered a wad of chewing gum on the bottom of his shoe. He sat down and started to work at pulling it off. "After much exasperated pulling," his father would remember, "he snarled at the top of his little voice, 'How'd this damn gum get on my shoe?'" A roar of laughter burst from the audience, who had been watching this bit of distracting business intently. "Mrs. Lancaster," her husband recalled, "was not amused" and whisked Burton off the stage.
Adriance [the preacher at the Church of the Son of Man] got the eleven-year-old Burton to try out for his first proper acting role in 1924, the lead in a settlement-house production of Three Pills in a Bottle. Participation in the one-act play... earned him credits toward two weeks at Union's Nathan Hale summer camp across the Hudson River... [This was the real start of Burt Lancaster's acting career.]
Burt Lancaster called on the experiences and strong beliefs he gained in the Church of the Son of Man when he starred in the title role in Elmer Gantry, one of his most famous roles, for which he received an Academy Award. From: Buford, page 200:
...Lancaster, supremely bankable, wanted to play the role to which he could bring all he was: Irish shaman, Church of the Son of Man choirboy, settlement house do-gooder...
Buford, page 23:
Lancaster, the star who was supposed neer to have had an acting lesson, was in fact involved in play after play at Union and other settlement houses [social gospel-based community centers built by Protestants] directed by new disciples of Boleslavsky...
The Lab's theater opened for its first season in 1925 without [Burt Lancaster], presenting The Sea Woman's Cloak by Princess Troubetzkoy. Playing the part of a isherman in the play was Harold Adolph Hecht, an ambitious, idealistic Jewish actor, born in 1907 in Yorkville, a product of a Bronx settlement house who remained a regular member of the Lab for the rest of the decade. A quarter century later he would watch Lancaster, a complete unknown, on stage in New York and realize he was seeing his future.
Buford, page 31:
Girls made him [young Burt Lancaster] nervous. When he was sixteen he had his first romance with a Jewish girlfriend, Esther (some accounts say Hester), who became "the only girl" in his life for two years. When he had money he would go to a dime-a-dance hall on Broadway with one of his more experienced pals and hope for introductions. "He wasn't much with the girls," remembered Natoli. "It's not that he wasn't interested. He didn't have a way with them."
Fishgall, page 22:
Perhaps because of Elizabeth [his mother], Burt [Lancaster] was not terribly comfortable with members of the opposite sex. "He's uneasy with women," observed screenwriter Alan Sharp. Shirley Jones, Burt's Elmer Gantry costar, agreed: "I've watched him several of his other films, and I think he's least comfortable in a love scene. I've never asked him that, and I don't know whether he'd say yes to that or not, but I've always felt that he's much more comfortable in action scenes and scenes with men than scenes with women."
In his public remarks, Burt only mentioned one youthful relationship with a girl, saying, "At fourteen, I learned my first respect for stern Jewish morality because I had fallen in love with a Jewish girl." That he had few other adolescent relationships was confirmed by his father, who wrote, "When he was in his teens, he never seemed to bother with girls, but I suspect he made up for lost time later, after he'd left home." Of course, Burt had little money for dating, and as as student of all-boys schools, he had minimal opportunities to meet members of the opposite sex. As an adult, he would often display uncommon courtesy as a real gentleman--and at other times he maintained a cavalier nonchalance reflected in a string of one-night stands and short-term affairs. It is likely that this blend of the reverential and the licentious had its roots in a largely sexless adolescence--abetted perhaps by the ambivalence toward women that his mother fostered.
Regardless of the impact that Elizabeth may hve had upon her son's sexual and emotional development, she left him with many of the fundamental values that he would carry through life. As he once remarked, "[She] instilled concepts as strong as an orthodox religion. However poor you were, you never lied, you never stole, and you always stuck by a promise. I've always remembered her rules because she made sure I would. If I didn't honor them, I could expect--and got--a cuff."
An anecdote from early in Lancaster's career as an entertainer, describing how a New York City mayor who was from Lancaster's childhood neighborhood exhibited politics similar to Lancaster's own politics later in life. From: Buford, pages 37-38:
Heading north in November to "winter" at home like an old circus hand, Burt returned to a jubilant East Harlem. La Guardia [Fiorello Henry LaGuardia], "America's most liberal congressman," the half-Italian, half-Jewish gadfly who had argued against nativist hysteria for a larger, braoder vision of immigrant America, had just been elected mayor of New York City. He stubbornly continued to live in a tenement apartment on 109th Street and Fifth Avenue, three blocks north of the Lancasters. When he championed Roosevelt's New Deal, East Harlem residents gained in "solidarity and empathy," recalled neighbor Jim Giorgi. What would later seem in Hollywood like extreme behavior from [Burt] Lancaster was very like La Guardia's. "The Little Flower," about five feet, four inches tall, freely admitted he was "inconsiderate, arbitrary, authoritarian, difficult, complicated, intolerant--a somewhat theatrical person." He also liked humiliating people and would routinely test a new victim to see if he would fight back. "Arguments based on precedent," according to biographer Thomas Kessner, "made him seethe," and Helen Harris described his "elecrifying" speeches at the tenement house, where he denounced "tin-horn gamblers and sin generally." The only thing that could stop and quiet him was music.
As Burt refined his routines at the settlement house and plotted his next circus season, La Guardia took office on January 1, 1934, in one of the worst winters in New York history... More than eighty percent of East Harlem housing, including the Lancaster building, lacked central heating and fuel chits were distributed, redeemable at an East River pier for hundred-pound bags of coal, which people hauled home through the snow-blocked streets in baby carriages, wagons, or on their backs. Eighteen million Americans were out of work and East Harlem claimed the largest number of unemployed of any neighborhood in a city that itself had the greatest number of people on some form of relief (one estimate was 23 percent). La Guardia insisted that it was the duty not of charitable "hell-fearing millionaires" [i.e., wealthy Christians, who had been doing most of the giving] but of government--of society--to give direct relief. Lancaster would vividly remember the soul-destroying side of chits and queues: "The Depression brought change," he said later. "Despair. Hating the dole."
Buford, pages 39-40:
Lancaster claimed he fell in love with June in one February 1935 moment when the Ernsts, Nick, and Burt were all piled into one of the string of Chevrolets that Lang & Cravat bought on time throughout the decade. They were heading south to a quick gig at the Orange Festival in Winter Haven, Florida. June looked out at the cold New Jersey landscape and said, "Look at the trees in their brown little dresses!" Everybody laughed. Burt and June were married within a month. The entree by marriage into into this tight little world of circus greats was a perfect move for an ambitious young performer. All the more so because, according to Gracie Hanneford, daughter of circus equestrian clown legend "Poodles" Hanneford, who met Burt the following spring, it was "sort of looked down on to marry an outsider."
Fishgall, page 52:
Shortly after the film [The Killers (1964): Burt Lancaster's first film role] wrapped on June 26, Lancaster drove east, where a telegram from hellinger reached him... Jubilant over the response to the film's previews, the producer crowed, "I'm afraid you're destined to be a big star, you poor guy."
Lancaster had a compelling reason for returning home that summer. On June 30, Norma [Burt Lancaster's girlfriend] had given birth to his child. It was a boy, whom they named James... But the new parents would not wed until the end of the year. It is unclear why they did not marry in New York while they had the chance, but it may have been that Burt and his first wife, June Ernst, had yet to divorce. Indeed, June's sister, Mary, and family friend Frank Robie maintained that Burt and June did not formalize their estrangement until Burt's involvement with Norma.
Fishgall, pages 59-60:
On Saturday, December 28 , Burt took another hiatus--to marry Norma Anderson in Yuma, Arizona. His best man was Army buddy Irving Burns... Yuma was chosen as the site of the wedding because, unlike California, Arizona did not impose a three-day waiting period. The border town sported several wedding chapels, and the courthouse issued marriage licenses twenty-four hours a day. "A lot of movie stars came in," explained Carol Brooks, curator of the Arizona Historical Society - Yuma, because "they were guaranteed that they could arrive and get married, and there would be no publicity."
Because of the death of Burt's brother William on November 23, the affair [i.e., the wedding] was low key... Quickly returning to Los Angeles, Burt settled his new bride and son in the home he had rented in Malibu...
Buford, pages 98-99:
 [Burt Lancaster's] immersion in the art, business and politics of anti-HUAC Hollywood threw him together with fellow enthusiast Shelley Winters. [Although he himself was not a Communist, Lancaster strongly opposed the House Committee on Un-American Activities.] She was cast opposite Garfield in He Ran All the Way and thus placed smack in the middle of the blacklisted world of the movie's director, Berry, and coscreenwriter, Hugo Butler, both Communists. She signed the amici curiae brief, she was at all the meetings, she attended the Gene Kelly/Betsy Blair liberal parties made up of like-minded liberals such as Hecht, Mailer, Lancaster, and Garfield. A blond actress with a brassy, New York edge, Winters hooked Lancaster with a sudden, overwhelming, emotional force. For the man who had women falling at his feet, this was an affair of love, sex, and politics. "Politically Shelley was very progressive," said Lucy Kibbee, "and I know she introduced Burt to a lot of music and art and stuff he really loved. He was hungry for it." He also gave her books to read like The Naked and the Dead: "[Burt] was always," Winters recalled, "trying to educate me." In he autobiography, she described Lancaster as "charming and funny and, oh, God, so handsome! And he was, I think, one of the most gracefully athletic men I've ever seen..."
Winters was an uninhibited city girl who had, Berry recalled, no qualms about affairs with married men--indeed she would describe Lancaster as being unfaithful to her when he made love to his wife. "Shelley had a kind of moxie about her," said Knox, "a kind of Jewishness that Jewish girls have, that he [Lancaster] fell for, that was so different from Norma [Lancaster's wife] who was a WASP."
[Lancaster] came very close to leaving Norma for Winters, the only time he would be so seriously tempted for more than twenty years. By 1951, what Winters called their "lovely and sad backstreet romance" was over.
About Burt Lancaster's starring role in Come Back, Little Sheba, which garnered the actor his first notice as a serious dramatic actor. From: Fishgall, pages 104-107:
When William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba opened on Broadway on February 15, 1950, virtually every critic found it, to quote John Chapman of the Daily News, "a work of great promise . . . which falls a little short of being a play." It was distinguished by its two principal characters: Lola Delaney, a blowsy, middle-aged housewife yearning for her little lost dog, Sheba, and her husband, an alcoholic chiropractor called Doc who is wasting away in a loveless marriage. Two spellbinding performances by Shirley Booth and Sidney Blackmer kept the play running for five and a half months.
On August 5, 1950, six days after the play closed in New York, Hal Wallis contracted it for the screen. The Paramount executives were, as he put it, "shocked at the thought of making a picture with beaten, unkempt, depressing people. . . . But the decision was mine."
To put the drama before the cameras, Wallis engaged the play's director, Daniel Mann, although the former actor and borscht-belt comedian had never directed a film before. Wallis also wisely retained the play's star--after briefly considering Bette Davis. Although Come Back, Little Sheba would mark Shirley Booth's screen debut, the forty-five-year-old actress had been a Broadway luminar for two decades. She was also the voice of Miss Duffy on radio's Duffy's Tavern. But Come Back, Little Sheba was her greatest triuph, for which she won both a Tony and a New York Drama Critics Circle award.
Although Wallis considered Both's costar as well, he realized that he would need someone with greater drawing power than Sidney Blackmer to play opposite the largely unknown actress. His choice was Humphrey Bogart, who would hve been ideal, but the actor's asking price was too high. Lancaster was desperate for the part, even though he was at least ten years too young for it. "I guess I wanted to play Doc Delaney in 'Sheba' more than any role I ever got close to," he said at the time. Michael Curtiz lent his support to the casting. Having seen the actor go from a shining teenager to an unhappy middle-aged has-been in Jim Thorpe, he encouraged Wallis to give Burt the role.
Finally, Hal decided to at least let Lancaster test for it. On the designated day, Burt showing up on the set wearing a conservative suit and no makeup and had his wild, wavy hair slicked down. "This result," to quote reporter Thomas Wood, "created such a plausible illusion of refinement that Wallis decided to look no further."
The economics of motion picture production rarely allow for extensive rehearsals before the cameras start to roll, but in the case of Sheba, Danny Mann insisted upon such an interval. Thus, on February 18, 1952, the cast gathered on the soundstage at Paramount, where the Delaney house had been constructed. Richard Jaeckel, the twenty-five-year-old actor who was playing the young, athletic Turk, was immediately impressed by the director's approach: "At the first rehearsal he told the actors not to come in with ideas etched in stone, but to be prepared to change and experiment. I looked around and everyone was paying strit attention, including the stars, Shirley and Burt." As an added benefit, Mann shot most of the film in sequence.
The quiet, bespectacled director had a manner that fostered good work, and Lancaster, playing so far from his normal age range and type, welcomed the help. "Burt was like a baby in Danny's hands," recalled Terry Moore [a popular devout Latter-day Saint actress], cast as the Delaney's pretty, young boarder, "because he needed help. He was in unfamiliar territory." And the director responded. "Danny handled him with kid gloves," she asserted.
Mann was talended, but according to Moore, "He always picked a scapegoat." In Come Back, Little Sheba, the actress, only twenty-three but a twelve-year movie veteran, became the target of his wrath. After a particularly rough day, Burt offered her words of encouragement and tried to help her see why an insecure director might need a scapegoat. "I never forgot that," said Moore. "I thought that was so wonderful and so big of Burt. And from then on, he was my protector. He went to Danny and said, 'Just cool it.'" [Terry Moore received an Academy Award nomination for this role.]
That Shirley Booth was delivering a rich, multilayered, and highly compelling performance became evident early on. No one was more impressed than her costar. "Now there's an actress I could talk about all day," enthused Burt. "She's an inspiration. This was her first picture and we expected her to be on edge, but she was so calm that she reassured all of us."
Of course, Booth had months of experience with Lola on Broadway, but, as she explained, "I had to adjust my Lola to Burt Lancaster's Doc. Burt was younger than Sidney Blackmer, it would have been silly toa ct the little girl for Burt that I had for the more comfortably mature Sidney. Burt's more restless interpretation, on the other hand, brought a more mature conception of Lola on my part." [Footnote: Both was twelve years younger than Blackmer; she was six years older than Lancaster.]
Lancaster was so impressed that, looking back on his career more than twenty years later, he would still assert, "Shirley Booth is the finest actress I have ever worked with."
For Burt, the challenge was to find a way to play a man considerably older than he, whose dreams had not come true, who had succumbed to a loveless marriage, and who was fighting against a powerful disease, alcoholism. He was, in Burt's opinion, "the most human, if imperfect, kind of guy ever written into a play or script." But Lancaster understood him. As he saw it, Doc "was doing the best possible job in an unfortunate marriage. Such people are legion. . . . Quietly, unensationally, they go on year after year putting up with mates they never should have married in the first place." Although he could not--and would not--say so, he sounde dlike a man who was speaking from firsthand experience; after all, Burt had married Norma six months after she had given birth to his child. [Footnote: In Come Back, Little Sheba, the audience discovers that Doc married Lola because she was pregnant, although she subsequently suffered a miscarriage.]
Clearly, Lancaster's own domestic situation helped him understand Doc's drinking problem. This too was not for public consumption. Instead, he noted another source of inspiration: the derelicts who congregated near the offices of Chicago's booking agents in his days as an acrobat.
[page 107] To help the robust thirty-eight-year-old appear in late middle-age, the makeup department plastered down his wavy locks and added a bit of gray to his temples. Wardrobe also helped. "We dressed Burt in a sloppy, shapeless button-up sweater, padded his figure to flab out his trim waisteline, and gave him babby trousers that made him look hip-heavy," Wallis recalled. "He wore pale makeup over a stubble of beard, but we still had a problem hiding his magnificent physique. We had him stoop a little, hollow his chest, and walk with a slow scuffle in bedroom slippers." The producer was impressed by Lancaster's lack of vanity.
As Burt's performance took shape, he, like Booth, earned the respect of his costars. "I began to realize that this wasn't just a physical guy," recalled Jaeckel. "This guy was a very cerebral gentleman and, boy, was I wrong in thinking that he could only swing from one tree to another." To whcih Moore added, "I thought he was marvelous. I believed him always."
The production wrapped on May 22. It took a long fourteen weeks to shoot what was essentially a four-character, one-set drama that would run only ninety-six minutes in the final cut. That Wallis was willing to go so far beyond the standard eight-to-teen-week shooting schedule reflected the care to which Come Back, Little Sheba had been treated. For Burt it had represented a chance to stretch himself creatively beyond anything he had done before. As he put it, "Alas, for the first time since I can remember, I was called on to really act."
Buford, pages 122-124:
Fishgall, page 109:
Lancaster confounded everyone's expectations by next agreeing to portray a defeated middle-aged loser in a claustrophibic story of broken dreams, small redemptions, and yearning for a lost little dog named Sheba. Cast as Doc Delaney in the Paramount screen version of William Inge's Broadway hit, Come Back, Little Sheba, he was shifting into a character actor part long before that would be all that was left.
Wallis, true to habit, had seen the play and bought it cheap when nobody else had touched it for six months. The studio was not enthusiastic: Who wanted to see a movie about what Lancaster described as a "disullusioned ex-alcoholic married to a pitiful frump"? But the star of the play was Shirley Booth, whose brilliant performance as Doc's wife, Lola, had won her both a Tony Award and a New York Drama Critics award. The cachet of having Booth in her first film performance directed by her stage director, Daniel Mann, appealed to the producer's instinct for blue-chip product. If the movies were to outdraw TV, so one school of current Hollywood wisdom went, they should do better what they had always done--piggyback on the prestige and audience recognition of the New York theater. The black-and-white, small-scale artiness of the movie Sheba and the casting of the unglamorous, unyoung Booth was deliberate. This was Hollywood's new, serious, realistic filmmaking.
Though Lancaster later claimed that he asked Wallis to let him play Doc, the New York Times reported that not only did Lancaster initially find it difficult to imagine himself as the gloomy chiropractor, but it was Curtiz who suggested to both Wallis and Lancaster that the actor who had convincingly prtrayed Thorpe's disintegration could also play Doc. Lancaster told Wallis that though the film was Booth's, he would be good box-office balance to her untried screen presence. He also tested for the part at his own request, wearing no make-up, a Brooks Brothers suit, and plastering down his hair to look old and tired. When shooting began in mid-February on Stage 17 at Paramount and on location in Los Angeles at Thirty-seventh Place and Vermont Avenue near USC, he had become immersed in the unlikely role. "I guess I wanted to play [Doc] more than any other part I ever got close to," he recalled. "[He] is the most human, if imperfect kind of guy. . . ."
And for the man who had lost out on Streetcar, Sheba was another chance. Doc Delaney was an alternate template for some of the most memorable roles of his career, the squishy noir core that kept seeping out. Though Norma [Lancaster's wife] and not he was the alcoholic and they were hardly childless like the Delaneys, the central regret of a shotgun marriage is common to both the movie and the life. "We all make mistakes," Doc pleads with Lola in one of th emore convincing scenes. "So what? We've got to keep on going, don't we?" When Lancaster is given more reative things to do as Doc--attack Booth with a kitchen knife, collapse in a screaming, drunken fit--he forgets the circumscribed movements of an older man, the strange eyebrows slashed over half his forehead, and just emotes. Booth, working hard, as Lancaster would remember, to unlearn her stage movements for the movie camera, cautioned him: "Burt, once ina while you hit a note of truth and you can hear a bell ring. But most of the time, I can see the wheels turning and your brain working." Yet, when she overheard someone deride the choice of "gymnast" Lancaster at a Chateau Marmont party during production, she countered, "Don't sell him short. He's called me at three in the morning, not even realizing what time it is, to ask me to explain a scene. One day he'll be a great actor."
The reviews were largely respectful when the picture was released at the end of the year, with raves for the performance that won the forty-five-year-old Booth an Oscar. Lancaster's new effort set him up for some ridicule, as he knew it would. "Burt Lancaster," reported The New Leader, "far outside his normal range of habits, manages to give off an air of infinite repose, like a statue of Lincoln in a public park." But The New Yorker's John McCarten marked the particular accomplishment: "To my astonishment and delight . . . a man I've always associated with acrobats who used to peform while people were being seated in the old Keith [vaudeville] houses, is highly effective. . . ." Lancaster's own dry assessment was, "Alas, for the first time sinc eI can remember, I was called on to really act. Bear with me." He delighted in what he rosily recalled as "extraordinarily interesting reviews for the first time," concluding, "that was a progression in my career."
The audience absorbed another twist in the Lancaster star zigzag. At the end of Sheba, Lola recounts a dream in which she and Doc are at the Olympics and suddenly her transformed husband picks up the javelin and throws it into the sky wher it never comes down again. There is an eerie movie moment when Booth is looking at Lancaster and the audience is looking at the guy who just played Jim Thorpe.
Filming [The Crimson Pirate] in the tropics [Fiji]... In August, Norma [Burt Lancaster's wife] arrived with eldest son Jimmy, with Billy and Susan following shortly thereafter. (In September, the boys were enrolled in the Lomeri Catholic Mission School; three-year-old Susan was too young to attend.)
Fishgall, page 199:
If Lancaster and Frankenheimer formed an enduring bond [during the filming of The Young Savages], the same could not be said of the director and Dina Merrill, who played Burt's wife... As had Corinne Calvet and Terry Moore in similar circumstances, the actress turned to Lancaster for solace. "Burt was most sympathetic and helpful and tried to defend me in the best way he could," she asserted.
Fishgall, page 249:
But real life was not "fun" for Burt as 1966 came to an end. He waited until after the holidays, but on January 4, he separated from Norma. They had been married for just over twenty years.
Did his relationship with Jackie [Bone] precipitate the breakup? "I think it had a lot to do with it," she said in 1993. "I said to him one time, 'Burt, this is ridiculous. Your marriage is a mess. You've got to decide what you want to do. . . . I don't care if we stay together or not, but you've got to do something about yourself.'" He did not answer, but he did not disagree.
Would Burt have left his wife if he and Jackie had not met? "Maybe, but maybe not," said Bone. Still, she observed that the couple's problems were deep, going beyond Burt's infidelities--or, for that matter--Norma's alcoholism. "They had drifted away from each other," the actor's companion recalled. She further maintained that Burt wanted Norma to seek the divorce, and it took more than a year for her to accomodate herself to the idea.
A friend of Norma' disagreed with Bone's assessment. "Jackie had nothing to do with the divorce at all," he asserted. "Booze did." He was not even sure that Burt wanted the marriage to end, but believed rather that it was Norma's decision. "She was miserable," he said. "She wanted to get away from here."
On 24 September 1968, Burt Lancaster was experiencing a period of self-destructiveness and apparent depression. When police tried to pull him over for speeding, he instead accelerated and fled, leading the California Highway Patrol in a three-mile chase that ended in the driveway of his home. Fishgall, pages 260-261:
It was a bizarre incident, perhaps, but in keeping with the times, when liberals like Burt considered the police to be the ultimate symbols of authority. Never was that more so than at the Democratic Party's national convention in Chicago--just a month before Burt's arrest--when the police used brutal force to break up the concurrent antiwar demonstrations.
In keeping with Lancaster's posture of civil disobedience, the actor was elected the following February to the chairmanship of the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, an organization named for a longtime director of the ACLU [a quasi-religious organization regarded by many as anti-Christian in outlook, although this is not an official ACLU position]... The cochairmen were Frank Sinatra and Irving L. Lichtenstein, and the members of the advisory board included actors Tony Curtis, Paul Newman, and Sidney Poietier and director Robert Wise.
For decades thereafter, Lancaster would remain an ardent supporter of, and fund-raiser for, the ACLU. Linda Burstyn, who worked closely with him during the late 1980s when she was with the ACLU's southern-California branch, said, 'He really wanted to spend his time doing things that helped society. He felt strongly about freedom of speech [and] First Amendment rights."
Ironically, in light of Lancaster's antiestablishment credentials, the last movie that he would complete during the turbulent 1960s would cast him as a pillar of the social order. For the first time in forty-six films, he would be shown as a working business executive, appearing on-screen in a suit for the first time in seven years. Although the picture would be nominated for an Academy Award, he called it "the biggest piece of junk ever made." Nevertheless, it would earn him a small fortune, more than any other movie of his career.
It was called Airport.
Fishgall, pages 263-264:
Lancaster agreed to star in Airport, but that did not mean he liked it. According to Hunter he "was very nice, very professional, he always knew his lines. But he was just not with the group. He seemed to be above it all. I don't think he was that much interested in the picture, which bothered me, because I've never worked iwth people who did a picture unless they wanted to." By contrast, the producer asserted that other members of the cast, including Dean Martin, "really threw themselves into it."
Lancaster's disaffection arguably reached its height with Jean Seberg, playing his character's love interest, Tanya Livingston. Hunter conceded that his own choice had been Angie Dickinson, saying, "I needed that sort of sly kind of sex appeal for the role, and I wanted someone with a little more stature to play opposite Lancaster." But Universal had Seberg under a two-picture, pay-or-play contract and insisted that she be used. The beautiful, blond actress had become something of an international figure, thanks to her role in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless... For many years, she lived abroad. Then, in the late sixties, she returned to the States, starring just prior to Airport in the Western musical Paint Your Wagon [as a Mormon pioneer woman - a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]...
After about six weeks, the company wrapped in Minneapolis-St. Paul and returned to Los Angeles to film interiors on the soundstages at Universal. Five weeks later, Lancaster finished his work on Airport. Hunter was not terribly sorry to see him go. "Burt was the only one in the cast who never said good-bye," he recalled, "never said thank you, never came to the big cast party, never did anything to promote the picture. I kept saying to myself, 'You're a schmuck. You should have gotten someone else.'"
Fishgall, pages 264-265:
Burt's divorce became final on June 27, Norma having finally filed in Santa Monica, charging her husband with extreme cruelty. She was awarded custody of the three minor children, and they divided the community property, valued at least $2 million...
Electing, as any gentleman would, to avoid mentioning Norma's drinking problem, [Lancaster said in a press conference] "I can't say we split up because she's a difficult woman and I couldn't live with her or vice versa..."
...In spite of the divorce, Lancaster felt a great sense of responsibility toward Norma, a family friend asserted. Thereafter, he said, "Burt came over for certain Christmas things, he stopped by with the family. And he always watched out for her, always. Her whole staff was kind of like Burt's minions, they kind of reported what was going on. But he always watched out for her. With a lot of love. Booze just wrecked the marriage." Jackie Bone, however, asserted that after the divorce "Burt was very uncomfortable around her [Norma]. He didn't want to be around her." It may well be that both parties are right.
Buford, page 234:
Freedom had become Lancaster's secular religion. The acceleration and intensification of early 1960s American politics matched his own evolution on-screen. By 1963, he was, in the public's mind, Elmer Gantry, the Birdman, the Nazi Janning who accepts his nation's guilt. Youngstein, one of the most active organizers in the industry for an array of progressive causes, recalled Lancaster as "one of the most sensitive men to the race issue I've ever met. I put him up there with anybody. . . . He became a liberal in the best sense of what that means: somebody who wants to improve the status quo for other people." Clarence Jones, an attorney and one of [Martin Luther] King's principal advisors who dealt with thousands of eager helpers, including an inconsisten Brando, characterized Lancaster's commitment a "serious, very serious." "I remember," he said, "how struck I was by his depth and sincerity. When you're active in the civil rights movement and every day you're talking to large groups of people in churches or one-on-one . . . you can tell by the texture and inflection whether this is the real deal or just contrived."
Buford, page 260:
It is a measure of how difficult the decision to divorce was that it took so long in coming. "Tormented by guilt for a marriage that died," was a bit of Modern Screen reportage that close friends would not have dismissed as hyperbole. "They stayed together long after it was over," recalled Pollack of the couple. "Burt was so good with Norma and her terrible drinking problem. She would fall down but he was never embarrassed for her. He always called her 'Norma-girl': 'Come on, Norma-girl, let's get home,' he would say. He had another part of his life that was going elsewhere, obviously, but he stayed there because he respected her and he was decent to her, in a way. Now you could speculate all sorts of things like, Why did she drink? Did she drink because in some way he was there but he wasn't there? I don't know."
Buford, page 267:
The attorney had also suggested the First Amendment advocacy of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to Lancaster in 1970 only to find that the organization was already a central focus of Lancaster's life. "Here's this great big aggressive guy," recalled Tony Curtis, "that looks like a ding-dong athlete playing these big tough guys and he has the soul of--who were those first philosophers of equality?--Socrates, Plato. He was a Greek philosopher with a sense that everybody was equal." In the late 1960s the Southern California affiliate of the ACLU was a small, struggling local part of the natinoal organization founded in 1920 by Roger Baldwin. It elected Lancaster to serve as chairman of its newly formed fund-raising arm, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. In October 1968, he hosted a party at his home to raise money for the ACLU to use for the defense of the more than four hundred people arrested in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention the previous August. In November 1970, he and Sinatra cochaired the Foundation and hosted a $1,000-a-plate dinner to benefit the organization.
In the real world of civil rights and civil liberties--the arena where, as he saw it, the powerless necessarily define the battle--he found the tough, practical work that satisfied his aching need to do something productive, the equivalent of making something with his hands. "A role in the ACLU was a place for Burt," said McKissack. "It wasn't fashionable--the only people from films that you'd see in there would be those who'd suffered so immensely from things like the blacklist." While serving as a member of the five-person ACLU Foundation executive committee, he cast the key vote to retain Ramona Ripston as executive director of the Southern California affiliate, a position she would build into a powerful advocacy force in Los Angeles politics. "The foundation board was all white males," recalled Ripston, who had worked with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Mississippi Freedom Party, and the New York Urban Coalition. "There was a feeling that a woman couldn't run the ACLU foundation, nor have access to the books. The vote finally came down to two 'yes' and two 'no.' Who had the deciding vote? Burt. He had a scotch or two and finally he said, 'I think she should be executive director.' I always loved him for that."
Buford, pages 276-277:
Lancaster flew to Sinai in fall 1973 to bury the granddaddy of all patriarchs, Moses. The $5-million biblical epic produced for RAI television and Sir Lew Grade's British ATV-ITC consortium and called, simply, Moses, was [Lancaster's] first and lats venture into bearded, robe-flapping Charlton Heston territory. As preparation, he read the Old Testament and the forty-page entry on Moses in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. When a reporter asked if he was following Heston, Lancaster snapped back, "If Charlton was trapped in biblical films, it was his own fault--he accepted the limitation."
The big schism in [Lancaster's] life was leaving behind the religious, patriotic passion of the Church of the Son of Man and an old part of him yearned for the "tough customer" God who, as he told one reporter, "made man to torment him with dissatisfaction" until he realized that "only in Me will he be satisfied." Together, Moses and God made a religion from the harsh choices and necessities of survival--a process Lancaster could respect. [Jackie] Bone [Lancaster's long-time girlfriend] remains certain that he was never the atheist he claimed to be, that "something happened, somewhere--perhaps hs mother's death--to turn him off" from what he still, deep down in his Elmer Gantry heart, believed. He tossed off any such identification. The Ten Commandments, he said, were fine--but not for him.
Buford, page 285:
The arrangement with [Jackie] Bone was no longer the passionate, fractious union it had once been. The "no questions, no recriminations" rapport had never really worked and could not endure into something more binding. There had been frequent, long separations and friends noted her tendency with time to criticize his children, something he could not tolerate. When she rediscovered her childhood Christianity, he could not share that with her. In 1977, he bought her a house in Malibu, confirming the split. She would still accompany him to social functions and, infrequently, on location.
Fishgall, pages 300-301:
For Lancaster, the role of the professor [in Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (1974), released in the United States as Conversation Piece] was a major risk. Even in a career marked by bold choices, he had never attempted a character so sedentary. Moreover, the professor was unmistakably gay. Although he and Konrad never consummate their relationship, a homoerotic undertone clearly pervades their feelings for one another.
Burt tried to argue otherwise in 1975, asserting that Visconti "didn't want to open up the homosexual angle completely." But, as Visconti biographer Laurence Schifano put it, "Lancaster is manifestly wrong in saying that Visconti was afraid to bear down on homosexual relationships and explore these complex feelings. He constantly did precisely that in all his work. But never had Visconti dealth with a homosexual relationship more gently, never was it more religiously purified of any desire for possession, than at this period when fate forced him to live alone in an ivory tower from which he tried desperately to escape."
Burt had to know that this was so; his performance was infused with the knowledge. It is tempting to argue, in light of the allegations over his own bisexuality, that he had a strong personal reason for wanting the character's sexual orientation to go unacknowledged. He realized, however, that the professor was based largely on Visconti, and it was no secret that Visconti was gay. Burt even said of him, 'Now here's a man who loves little boys. It's as simple as that. He's a throwback to the old Roman emperors." In point of fact, Lancaster modeled his performance on Luchino. As Suso D'Amico put it, "That's Visconi. The movement of the hands, the way he walked, sort of in a very decided way." Cardinale, who appeared in a very brief flashback, agreed, saying that watching Burt act, "you think of Visconti." She considered the performance a tribute, reflecting the star's love for the director.
Fishgall, pages 371-373:
When Lancaster told Peter Riegert in 1982 that he chose projects by doing one for the pope and one for himself, he was not speaking literally. But The Jeweler's Shop was not only for the pope, it was by the pope. That is, the 1960 play on which the film was based had been written by John Paul II, then Karol Wojtyla, bishop of Krakow.
The story of The Jeweler's Shop was simple. Two young couples--Stefan and Anna and Andrej and Teresa (respectively played in the film by Ben Cross and Jo Champa and Andrea Occipinti and Olivia Hussey)--meet and marry in Krakow in 1939, then flee Poland in the wake of the Nazi invasion (which results in Andrej's death). Years later, in Canada, their children fall in love and return to Krakow to marry. The character who links the couples' stories is the old jeweler who sells them their wedding rings. A wise, mystical figure, he serves as the pontiff's spokesman, voicing the theme that the film's director, Michael Anderson, stated as: "You don't put a widding ring on unless you mean it to be an enduring and lasting bond."
Anderson, born in London in 1920 but a citizen of Canada, was probably best known for his 1956 Oscar-winning film, Around the World in 80 Days. But it was his 1968 picture about a fictional pope, The Shoes of the Fisherman, that earned him Vatican approval for The Jeweler's Shop.
One can readily see why he would want Lancaster for the old jeweler. But why Burt chose to do the vehicle is difficult to fathom. Not being a Catholic, or religious or even monogamous, he could not have been drawn by the theme. Moreoever, he must have known that the script was terribly old-fashioned and lacking strong character development. Perhaps he was attracted by the challenge of humanizing the jeweler, essentially an allegorical figure, who had to render lines like "Love is a constant challenge. It is given to man so that he can challenge fate. The future depends on love." Or perhaps he wanted to do a favor for RAI, with whom he had worked several times since the making of Moses, the Lawgiver. The Italian firm was producing The Jeweler's Shop as a $9-million television movie in conjunction with PAC of Italy and a consortium of French, Canadian, and American companies...
[page 373] Before The Jeweler's Shop aired on Italian television, it was previewed at the Vatican. "I had been told there would be a small screening," Anderson recalled. "We thought there would be thirty or forty people there." There were six thousand. Afterward, the pope congratulated the director. "He was very complimentary, touching, and surprisingly humorous," Anderson said at the time.
The TV movie was not picked up in the United States, either by a network or a premium cable channel, and one can see why. Its effect was too much like that of a Sunday-morning morality drama to appeal on a mass level to American audiences. It was eventually acquired for syndication by New Line Cinema and, as such, appeared as afternoon or late-night fare on various local channels around the country.
Buford, page 324:
The Jeweler's Shop, a movie based on a play by Pope John Paul II, was probably [Burt Lancaster's] most unlikely project--a "sermon on legs," as one review described the original play about the mystical union of marriage. In love himself, [Lancaster] rationalized the project at a press conference in Rome as "a story about what love means and the power of love."
About the filming of Elmer Gantry (1960), in which Burt Lancaster had the title role as a less-than-admirable Protestant preacher. The studio believed that they were safe in making such a movie, because while it may be offensive to the relatively unorganized and less-influential Protestants, it actually pleased Catholics (who wielded far more power in movie censorship and more ability to sway box office attendance). Protestant (and "Evangelical Christian") churches in America were far more anti-Catholic at that time then they are today. From: Buford, pages 199-205:
...Sinclair Lewis... cautioned the budding screenwriter [Richard Brooks] entranced with Elmer Gantry, Lewis's muckraking tale of an errant Protestant evangelist, not to be afraid of turning the book into a better movie. While filming Brute Force, Brooks told Lancaster... to read Lewis's novel because someday they were going to make a movie out of it.
As Brooks kept renewing the option [to adapt the novel into a movie] over the next decade, he had trouble finding a studio willing to touch the story of the smoking, drinking charlatan who seduces, loves, and uses the charismatic woman preacher, Sister Sharon Falconer, only to be brought down by a prostitute he had launched on her own road to ruin. But by 1959 Brooks had made The Blackboard Jungle and Lancaster, supremely bankable, wanted to play the role to which he could bring all he was: Irish shaman, Church of the Son of Man choirboy, settlement house do-gooder who opposed evangelism as a sapping of the will to work for change, backroads circus hustler, and progeny of the 1920s Manhattan which had embraced the novels of Lewis. Above all, Elmer Gantry played into his enduring fascination with the duality of good and evil within one person, within himself. Lancaster was the venal preacherman...
The director had ammassed a collection of articles on the two key figures, Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson, of the great revivalist wave that swept across America in the teens and 1920s. An ex-basebal player who used his superbly proportioned and coordinated body to sensational effect during his world-famous revvial meetings, Sunday vaulted onto the platform "as beautiful," wrote journalist John Reed, "as a Greek runner," crying, "O-o-o-o-oh, come to Jesus!" More controversial because of her gender (only "fringe sects" had women preachers), McPherson roared down the aisle of her Anglus Temple in Los Angeles on a motorcycle, shoting "Stop! You're speeding to Hell!" and was the most photographed woman in America by the late 1920s.
[page 201] Billy Graham was the other model for Gantry, a fact carefully denied by the director and star. Several months after Lancaster's anti-HUAC speech at the Commodore Hotel in January 1949, thirty-year-old William Franklin Graham converted six thousand Californians under a huge canvas tent, exhorting them with fiery rhetoric to find the answers to their postwar fear in Jesus (a Gantry press release claimed the movie was shot in Los Angeles because the area had "spawned so many religious cults and sects that it seemed only fair"). In what became his great evangelistic "crusade" of the 1950s, during which sales of bibles reached an all-time high, Graham had a style markedly similar to Sunday and McPherson, only more mainstream and global. Brooks kept a file labeled "Billy Graham" stuffed with newspaper and magazine articles on which he pencil-marked the salient characteristics. Graham's deliery was at "machine-gun speed" with "restless pacing on the platform" often covering a mile and a half in one session, leaving him soaking with sweat. His original style of dress was gaudy--he wore a pistachio-green gabardine suit to his first visit with President Truman. In 1958 the Los Angeles Times reported that his crusade had swelled to "staggering proportions" for a revival at Madison Square Garden. The preacher who reminded the faithful that the word evangelist came from the Greek word euvangelion, meaning "good news," admitted he got his start selling Fuller brushes door-to-door.
To play Sister Sharon, Brooks chose Jean Simmons, the beautiful Sister Sarah of the 1955 movie version of Guys an Dolls. Arthur Kennedy was cast as Jim Lefferts, the cynical reporter who watches, laughts, reports, and understands everyone, especially Gantry. A fine back-up cast included Edward Andrews as an appropriately fatuous George Babbitt, the title character from Lewis's other notorious novel of the 1920s, Babbitt. To fill the movie's revival tents with true believers, nonprofessional revival-goers who knew the hymns by heart were bused in from Long Beach.
When Lancaster saw Shirley Jones play an alcoholic who commits suicide in a Playhouse 90 television drama with Red Skelton called The Big Slide, he suggestd her to Brooks for the part of Lulu Baines, the prostitute who brings him [Burt Lancaster as Protestant/Evangelical Christian evangelist "Elmer Gantry"] down...
[page 202] Six days were budgeted for shooting the spectacular fire climax scene in which Sister Sharon's brand-new Tabernacle--and Sister Sharon--go up in smoke...
[page 203] To avoid unnecessary prerelease controversies, the sets at Columbia and on the backlots of other studioes with "1920s streets" were closed to everyone but carefully screened visitors. In fact, Gantry was calibrated to offend only so much and only those least likely to pose any real threat to the movie. While Lulu Baines's recounting of her early seduction by Gantry--"He got to howlin' 'Repent! Repent!' and I got to moanin' 'Save me! Save me!' and the first thing I knew he rammed the fear of God into me"--got the movie banned in Boston, the Protestant mainstream was not, by nature, easily galvanized into group action nor did it feel comforable defending fundamentalist evangelism. The only group happy with the idea of the movie was the Catholic Legion of Decency, which comprised the Production Code censors. Catholics were not allowed to attend [Billy] Graham's revivals, listen to his radio program, read his speeches, nor were they allowed to join Masonic orders (Babbitt is referred to as a Mason in the movie). As a portrait of Protestant vice and venality, Elmer Gantry seemed a justification of the Catholic Church's vigilance, through the Code, as guardians of American morality. Worldly, carnal, passionate, and dangerous, Gantry personified the American religious alter ego. There, but for the Catholic Church, went the nation.
Angry letters came in to Lancaster and Brooks during production asking why nobody in Hollywood had the guts to take on the "evils and shortcomings" of the Catholic Church. It seemed unfair that the denomination that had been so integral a part of the political, ideological, and social conformity of the postwar era shoulod benefit from Elmer Gantry. "Make a sequel about a Roman Catholic priest who is a louse," wrote someone from New Jersey. "I'll even write it from my own expeience--a story of a . . . priest who is a fornicator, an adulterer, a drunk, a gambler, and a general no-good bum. We'll call it Father O'Reilly, or Father Mozzarelli, or Father Foulzanski. We'll get Bing Crosby for the role of the priest and we can even let him sing a song or two--140 million non-Catholics will see it." A "businessman" from Indianapolis suggested that Brooks make a movie that mentioned the "connection between the Roman Catholic Church and Senator McCarthy."
The movie got a "B" rating from the [Catholic] Legion of Decency ("Objectionable in part for all"). No one under sixteen was allowed to see it without a parent and an explanatory prologue was thrown in as an added warning. Variety recorded that restriction was "the first time that such an adults-only classification has been brought into play." Now the pciture was officially notorious with whatever boost that might bring to the box-office take, and the Code administration, having passed it, was in the odd position of having to defend not only its decision, but the movie.
[page 204] The cracks in the Production Code were now all too obvious. Sex, violence, and religion were passed without question in a "biblical" like The Ten Commandments. A single word in a contemporary movie came under scrutiny regardless of context or intent. The last line of Gantry was a case in point. The original script called for Lefferts to say to Gantry as he heads out of town, "See you around, brother," to which Gantry replies, "See you in hell, brother." The Legion objected and either Brooks or Lancaster--each claimed the solo experience--had to sit for the better part of three days discussing with three Jesuits in New York their intent with Gantry's parting shot. Did he know he was damned? The title character could not willingly, knowingly send himself to hell. The line was cut, Lancaster keeping it in reserve to use at a later, different time.
...[Burt Lancaster] did not have to act in Elmer Gantry, he bragged, he was just himself. His model, the star later claimed, was the "mannerisms, the charming demeanor" of Huston. Said Brooks, "Burt just . . . blossomed." In his graceful, lithe Gantry who runs, jumps, slides and shouts to heaven "Can you hear me, Jesus?" older reviewers indeed saw Billy Sunday... Lancaster's gritty, grifting two-cent tabloid preacher burst through the screen, commanding his captive audience out there in the dark to listen and believe.
Criticizing the movie for not coming clear on the value of religion or the authenticity of evangelism, some reviews missed the intent of the filmmakers. For Brooks and Lancaster Elmer Gantry was a portrait of the vulgar, slickly charming, huckster soul of America in love with success because it is the mark of the elect. Flaunt yourself, your body, sell your God-fearing sould. Lure attention to yourself because that is all you have in this big lonely land with no past. In that transaction in the glamorous, corrupt heart of the circus, vaudevile, the movies, Babbitt's commerce, the politics of democracy, religion. Only in the new nation filled with restless people looking for roots, certainty, a leader, home does it matter so much to find the answers, to make it all add up.
[page 205] Gantry is the seducer in a movie that reviewers remarked as being about the many kinds of seduction. He even seduces himself. The act of engaging attention, keeping it, and exploiting it is the seducer's--and the evangelist's--first ally. Cutting through the holy hype, the actual seduction scene in Gantry is a meeting of two consenting adults, two erotic equals. "I want you so bad, I'm in pain half the time," says Gantry to Sister Sharon. "I'd like to tear those holy wings of fyou and make a real woman out of you. I'd show you what heaven's like: no golden stairways, or harp music, or silvery clouds. Just ecstasy comin' and goin'. . . . When are you going to make up your mind to take it?"
Behind the bombast was an alert, nuanced portrayal of the man Brooks described as wanting "what everyone is supposed to want--money, sex, religion. He's the All-American boy." In the end, Gantry--as Lancaster felt he had done when he left religion behind in East Harlem--no longer looks through a glass darkly or speaks as a child. He has grown up but at a price. He will remain enough of a believer to know his eternal destination is hell, the apostate fleeing the hound of heaven. Lancaster's personal heroes were Lincoln, Jefferson, Galileo--and Jesus Christ. Shaw, watching him on the set, felt he "really believed in the bullsh-- he was preaching." The audience could decide for itself whether to believe Gantry or not. This was a movie for grown-ups.
From: Ronald Bruce Meyer, "Burt Lancaster (1913)" webpage on RonaldBruceMeyer.com website (http://www.ronaldbrucemeyer.com/rants/1102almanac.htm; viewed 23 August 2005):
It was on this date, November 2, 1913, that American actor Burt Lancaster was born Burton Stephen Lancaster, one of five children, in New York City. Lancaster had a tough life on the streets of New York and attended a Protestant church. There he was strongly influenced by its pastor and the seeds of his liberal humanitarianism planted...
Lancaster's most famous role would have to be Sinclair Lewis' fire-and-brimstone evangelist/con artist in the 1960 film Elmer Gantry. In the title role, Lancaster won not only a Best Actor Oscar, but a Golden Globe, and the New York Film Critics Award.
Not surprisingly, Elmer Gantry had some difficulty navigating past the Production Code film censors. Catholics generally had little trouble with the title character, because his portrayal was only critical of Protestant fundamentalists, leaving Roman Catholics feeling smugly moral. And Elmer Gantry didn't criticize religion, per se; instead, it criticized religious charlatans. The implied sexual relationship between Elmer and Sister Sharon Falconer caused the Catholic Legion of Decency to give it a "B," a restricted rating, allowing no children under 16. As for the Protestant reaction, their churches hated it for the same reasons the Catholics liked it.
What were Burt Lancaster's own thoughts on religion? Bearing in mind that an actor is trained and paid to be someone he is not, it is unfair to assume that Lancaster thought of religion in the same way as his con-man character. Although she fails to explain how or why, biographer Kate Buford says Lancaster "left religion behind in East Harlem" [in Burt Lancaster: An American Life, 2000, p. 205].
Fishgall, pages 381-382:
During his hiatus from Field of Dreams, Lancaster busied himself with a five-hour miniseries for RAI entitled The Bethrothed (Promessi Sposi), based on the panoramic 1827 novel of the same name by Alessandro Manzoni. Manzoni "is sort of like Dickens for the English, except Dickens was a much more prolific writer"... Lancaster was to play Cardinal Federigo Borremeo, a historical figure born in Milan in 1564... It was not a large role, but it required an actor with maturity and dignity. "Apparently the director always worshiped Lancaster as a child," recalled King. "So when he knew that he was going to do a film with the financial availability of this--which was quite massive--and could employ someone like Burt Lancaster, he immediately turned to him for the very important part of his elderly cardinal.
Fishgall, page 384:
By an odd coincidence, in July 1988, as Burt was consumed with a film about lost chances and death, Norma Lancaster [his ex-wife] passed away at the age of seventy-one. The date was July 21. Although the official causes were pneumonia and a stroke, her death certificate revealed alcoholic liver disease. According to one friend, her drinking had progressively worsened during her final years. "She was as hopeless an alcoholic as you could ever run into towards the end," he recalled. "She had serious things happen to hwere doctors would tell her, 'Now, Norma, if you take another drink, you're going to die.' And she'd stop for two weeks, and then she'd go back to drinking by degrees."
On July l26, her body was cremated at the Angeles Abbey under the auspices of the Neptune Society. Her children held a memorial service for a gathering that included members of the local school boards and municipal government. Burt, a friend recalled, came late and stayed briefly, but his appearance was appreciated.
About Burt Lancaster's third wife Susan Martin, from: Buford, pages 315-316:
Susie, born Susan June Martin in 1942, had grown up in Los Angeles her father, David R. Martin, a publicist for MGM... After briefly entering a Roman Catholic convent at the age of twenty-one, she married, had a son John, and was now separated from her husband after twenty-one years of what she termed a "verbally and emotionally abusive marriage." She was working as an extra on shows like Roseanne [starring Jewish Mormon comedienne Roseanne Barr] and Cagney and Lacey...
[Burt Lancaster and Susie Martin began dating and sleeping together.] There was little talk of marriage. Susie was enmeshed in a slow divorce and Lancaster was reluctant to enter, again, into an arrangement that had not worked for him in the past. There may have been, too, a reluctance to marry while Norma [his ex-wife] was still alive. With age she had returned to her Catholic faith and considered herself, according to the family friends who kept in touch with her, still married to Lancaster. He knew that a monogamous alliance was important to Susie. There would be no more indulging in outside liaisons.
Fishgall, page 390:
Four months after the airing of Voyage of Terror, Burt surprised many in Hollywood by getting married, Susie's divorce having become final on January 5, 1989. It had been twenty-one years since his relationship with Norma had come to an end, and five years since the onetime secretary had entered his life...
The civil ceremony, held September 10, 1990, was simple and restricted to family members. The following day, the newlyweds embarked for Charleston, South Carolina, and the final role of Lancaster's career [Separate but Equal].
Fishgall, page 396:
On November 2, 1993, Lancaster turned eighty. While the family celebrated quietly on Friday, November 5, the world rememberd. TNT, Ted Turner's cable network, devoted a full day and evening to Burt's films, starting with Castle Keep at 9 A.M. and running through Vengeance Valley, Apache, Vera Cruz, Birdman of Alcatraz, Ten Tall Men, and Trapeeze. Meanwhile, the Arts and Entertainment channel broadcast All My Sons, the American Movie Channel aired The Rose Tattoo and Rope of Sand, and Showtime fetured Separtae Tables.
It ws the last birthday. On October 20, 1994... Burt Lancaster died. He was at his home, with his wife at his side, when the fatal heart attack struck. "This last week he'd been better than ever," Susie told the press. "It came as a complete surprise." She added, "He went very, very peacefully. We were together, thank God. He was putting my hair and touching my face and he took a sigh and that was it."
Buford, page 343:
On October 20,  as [Burt Lancaster] sat with Susie quietly in their bed, he had one last heart attack and died.
...There was no funeral, no memorial service. He considered all that "bullsh--." There is a grave, in Westwood Memorial Park just south of Wilshire Boulevard, with a simple slab: "Burt Lancaster, 1913-1994."
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