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Burt Lancaster: The last real action hero

Larger than life, both on and off the screen, Burt Lancaster richly deserves a new retrospective billing him as one of the greats, says Geoffrey Macnab

A 69-year-old Hollywood legend has just finished making his first film in Scotland. At the end of the production, the cast and crew group together to buy the star a special gift for the end-of-shoot party – a full Highland outfit, kilt, sporran et al. The star immediately strips to his underpants, in full view of his fellow guests, in order to haul his tartans on. "It was quite an amazing thing to see," the Scottish producer Iain Smith recalls.

The film is Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983) and the star is Burt Lancaster. As a kid growing up in Glasgow, Smith had seen Lancaster appear in one of his favourite films: The Crimson Pirate, in which Lancaster played a roistering but very nimble Jack Sparrow type. "I saw it in the Saturday morning cinema in Glasgow. I tried to recreate being Burt Lancaster in that film. When I suddenly had the opportunity to work with him, it was very strange to disassociate the movie I had seen with the man I was now working with," Smith says.

Burton Stephen Lancaster (1913-1994) was one of the most paradoxical figures in Hollywood history. Depending on the account, he was either a vainglorious and very hammy movie star or a sensitive and subtle actor; a sports-loving jock or a man of culture who had once wanted to be an opera singer. Some contemporaries talk about how tough he was to work with. Others revere him and credit him with launching their careers.

There was something far-fetched about his life story. Lancaster was the Harlem street kid who (as former protégé Sydney Pollack put it) "had run away to join the circus". An athletic and physically imposing young man, Lancaster had won a sports scholarship to New York University but had dropped out to pursue a career as an acrobat at the Kay Brothers' Circus. When he belatedly made it to Hollywood in the mid-1940s, he quickly became known as an action hero. However, he was far more cultured than his image suggested.

"If you look back on my career, you'll see I never got stuck in a mould. Even when I was beginning, I was always trying to find ways to refine my talent and do something different," Lancaster once said. "Once the public decide what you are you might as well give up trying to be anything else."

Watch a film profile of Burt Lancaster

Lancaster was willing to take character parts as well as conventional leads. One moment he might be kissing Deborah Kerr on the beach (in From Here to Eternity), the next portraying an Apache warrior in a revisionist western. He worked with old-timers but also with New Wave directors like Louis Malle and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Intelligent, ruthless and ambitious, Lancaster set up his own production company in 1948. Sometimes, his performances were very overripe indeed. His Oscar-winning turn as the revivalist preacher in Elmer Gantry (1960) is far from subtle. Whether nursing a huge hangover, collecting for nuns in a speakeasy or sweet-talking the demure Sister Sharon (Jean Simmons), he is brash in the extreme. The character is supposed to be a crude, vulgar show-off but Lancaster plays Elmer with such wild exuberance that he makes even the noisiest and most narcissistic TV preachers of today seem restrained by comparison.

There are many other movies in which Lancaster soars way over the top. As the grinning, sadistic gunman in Robert Aldrich's western Vera Cruz (a film he also produced), we see him in psychopathic mode, threatening to kill innocent kids and spearing a Prussian officer through the throat with a spear. In The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), playing a prisoner who spends 40 years in solitary confinement and stays sane by keeping canaries, he is self-conscious in the extreme. We are always aware that we are seeing a big star playing an introspective character.

If he could appear brutal and peremptory on screen, he sometimes seemed that way behind the cameras too. He was the boss as well as the star and British directors often seemed to fall foul of him. Charles Crichton (the ex-Ealing comedy director whose credits include The Lavender Hill Mob and A Fish Called Wanda) was sacked a few weeks into the shooting of Birdman of Alcatraz. Lancaster was equally savage with another Ealing comedy director, Sandy Mackendrick, firing him from the George Bernard Shaw adaptation The Devil's Disciple (1959.)

"Sandy was a very clever director and a very nice guy but he took one helluva lot of time," Lancaster later said. At least, by then, Mackendrick had directed Lancaster in one of his greatest performances, as the columnist JJ Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957.) Ironically, that film seemed remarkable precisely because of Mackendrick's inventive camerawork. It helped, too, that Mackendrick made manifest an aspect of Lancaster's persona that had hitherto only been hinted at: his malevolence and his capacity for bullying.

Contemporaries' accounts of working with Lancaster often make him sound just like Hunsecker. Pollack recalls him as "a very intimidating man". Lancaster had spotted Pollack coaching the child actors on John Frankenheimer's The Young Savages and had taken an interest in Pollack's career. When there were problems on Lancaster's John Cheever adaptation, The Swimmer, the star instructed Pollack to come in and direct some sequences uncredited. "He [Lancaster] said: 'dear boy, I need you to do some work on the picture'. He didn't ask me... he told me."

The Swimmer boasts probably the most poignant performance that Lancaster ever gave. He plays Ned Perrin, a middle-aged American who has lost his wealth and family. We see Ned embark on an epic, cross-country journey home, via his neighbours' pools. Only slowly do we realise that he is a damaged, mentally fragile figure who has been cast out of his "golden pen" and can't cope with the loss of status. The film is an eccentric but moving allegory about a yuppie in decline. Lancaster plays Ned beautifully, conveying the defiance and the vulnerability of the character. Toward the end of his bizarre journey, we see him shivering and forlorn, still in his swimming trunks, trying to cross a busy freeway and seemingly oblivious to how odd he appears.

In the latter part of his career, he excelled at playing avuncular patriarchs falling on hard times. One of his most famous parts was as the aristocrat Don Fabrizio, struggling to come to terms with the social and political changes in 1860s Sicily in Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963).

Lancaster's performance in Local Hero was equally magical. He played the American oil magnate Felix Happer, who discovers the beauty of the northern lights when his company tries to buy up a Scottish village. The twist here was that the American oil men were dreamers while the Scottish villagers were the ruthless money-grabbers.

Lancaster is so familiar to most viewers that they think they can pigeonhole him. However, contemplate his films a little more closely and you realise that he was a far more protean figure than his reputation suggests. He may not have been the greatest actor, but he was certainly one of the most adventurous.

A Burt Lancaster season runs at BFI Southbank, London SE1 (020-7928 3232) until 24 March