FROM circus tumbler to cinema star is not a career granted to too many entertainers, and indeed it may never have happened to the acrobat Nick Cravat had it not been for a boyhood friendship with Burt Lancaster. This oddly balanced pair, the high and mighty Lancaster and the low-slung Cravat (5ft 2in in his tights), had they remained in the circus ring, might have borrowed the billing of Revnell and West: 'The Long and Short of It'. Their rapport, as displayed in some of the most joyful spoof spectaculars ever screened, was a delight to the eye and, in cinematic terms, totally unique.
Cravat was born in New York in 1911, two years before Lancaster. They first met at the Union Settlement House, where they both spent every moment they could spare studying acrobatics, coached by a former circus performer, Curly Brent. Ardent pupils, the boys developed a yearning for the legendary life under the big top. The 1931 Depression prompted the pair to finish with formal education and to try their luck as circus performers. Pooling their spare cash, they spent dollars 90 on a second-hand car and drove across country to Petersburg, Virginia. Here, under the name of Lang and Cravat, they were hired to perform a bar act by the King Brothers Circus. They were paid dollars 3 a week between them, plus their board. After a 30-week run they left to join a bigger circus run by the Cole Brothers, whence they continued to progress until the act broke up when Lancaster and the United States entered the Second World War.
After demobilisation, Lancaster tried his luck in Hollywood and soon became a star. With four notable films under his belt, he contacted his old partner and in November 1948 they dusted off their old double-act and performed it as a surprise item during Lancaster's personal appearance tour to promote his latest picture. This time they were paid a little more than dollars 3: they shared dollars 10,000 a week, and when the following year they returned to their old employers, the Cole Brothers, it was for the even higher fee of dollars 11,000.
Lancaster, who enjoyed acrobatics far more than acting, now sought to combine the two. He had formed his own production company, Norma, and was thus able to select his subjects. Always a fan of the silent-movie athletics of Douglas Fairbanks, he had a screenplay contrived in which he would out- leap, out-swing and out-spin his old hero. This became The Flame and the Arrow (1950), a dashing romp in 12th-century Lombardy, with Lancaster as the tooth-flashing Robin Hood figure and Nick Cravat as his eye-rolling, deaf mute partner. To prove they did all the stunts themselves, the pair once again went on a personal appearance tour promoting the picture.
The next film was The Crimson Pirate (1953), a British-made picture with Lancaster as an ex-buccaneer joining a revolution against Spain, and the Mediterannean standing in for the Caribbean. Eva Bartok played the lovely lady in distress, but she was billed under Nick Cravat, who took the co-star spot for the only time in his life. He was Ojo the Mute, once again communicating in gestures so that press and patrons now were convinced he was born that way. In fact, Cravat had learnt Indian sign-language during a location visit to Lancaster when his old buddy was filming Jim Thorpe, All-American (1951).
Cravat made eight films in all with Lancaster. There was a submarine drama, Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), a western, The Scalphunters (1968), a horror film, The Island of Dr Moreau (1977, but none of them spotlighted the pair in their fabulous acrobatics. Cravat on his own seemed to fair better for a while. He was in The Veils of Bagdad (1953), King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Three Ring Circus (1954) and in Walt Disney's popular frontier epic Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955). A somewhat pathetic part was his appearance in The Midnight Man (1974), a minuscule role found for him by its star, his old chum.
No great actor, but certainly a great acrobat, Cravat once described his work to an interviewer. 'All I do is go on the set in the morning, find out what they want me to do, and go ahead and play it.'