Burt Lancaster sent shockwaves through Hollywood when he rolled around in the surf with Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. His body was as tight and plucked as a contemporary underwear model—but this was the 1950s and men didn’t do that. The rumors started flying: Was Lancaster gay? Attending debauched parties? Was he maybe even a communist?? The man himself said very little about his private affairs; instead, he let his actions speak for themselves.
1. He Grew Up On The Streets
Burt Lancaster was born at his family’s home in East Harlem, New York on November 2, 1913. His parents were both working-class Irish immigrants who insisted that, although they lived in the slums, they were a better sort of folk, destined for great things. Lancaster didn’t care about that: He ran free and wild on the streets—at least when his authoritative mother wasn’t around.
2. He Had A Severe Upbringing
Lancaster’s mother, Lizzie, was a formidable woman with a mean streak. She weighed about 250 pounds and her discipline tactic of choice was a strap, which she used to teach her children lessons in honesty. One time Lancaster accidentally received an extra five cents in change at the grocery store and, when Lizzie found out he hadn’t returned it, she beat him for his dishonesty. There was, however, a much kinder side to Lizzie.
3. He Learned About Equality
Lizzie Lancaster did something very simple that most white Americans weren’t doing at that time: She invited friends for tea. The difference was that these friends were African Americans. This simple act must have had an impact on young Lancaster, because as an adult he would fight for the civil rights of minorities. And even as a child, Lancaster couldn’t help but stick up for the underdog.
4. He Saw A Friend In Need
At the age of nine, Burt Lancaster met Nick Cuccia, and the two friends had fantasies of joining the circus together. Cuccia was both extremely short and Italian: neither of which were a benefit in those days. Lancaster continually had to look out for his friend and, in fact, after becoming famous, he kept Cuccia on his payroll for life. But before all this happened, the two fulfilled their dream: They actually joined the circus.
Lancaster found his way out of the slums and under the big top.
5. He Was A Swinger
Lancaster and Cuccia formed a duo called Lang and Cravat and signed up for the Kay Brothers Circus. Lancaster really came to life swinging on the horizontal bars, but life and finances were tough in the ring—and the duo had to resort to desperate measures. They eventually tried performing at burlesque clubs to make more money, doing their acrobatics between striptease acts.
At one point, Lancaster even posed without his clothes on for men’s magazines. Burt Lancaster’s life was getting seedier by the minute—yet amidst all this unwholesomeness, he surprisingly managed to find romance.
6. His Love Was In The Air
Lancaster’s first wife, June Ernst, was, like her mother before her, a renowned acrobat. The two met under the big tent where they performed together. However, this romance was doomed from the start. Lancaster and Ernst parted ways sometime in the late 1930s for mysterious reasons. They remained legally married but had nothing to do with one another—something that would cause no end of trouble later on.
Losing a wife wasn’t the only tragedy Lancaster faced while working under the tent: It turns out he both fell out of love…and just plain fell.
7. He Crash Landed
In 1939, soon after his split from Ernst, Lancaster suffered a painful accident during a performance. The result was an injury that left his finger infected. Lancaster nervously visited the doctor and waited for the diagnosis. The news was devastating. The doctor gave Lancaster an ultimatum: You can give up acrobatics or give up your finger.
The circus was Burt Lancaster’s life, and it was all ripped away in an instant. Where would he go next?
8. He Sang For His Supper
Though it pained him, Lancaster decided to keep the finger. Devastated, he left the circus and had to scramble to find other work. Lancaster tried sales and even performed as a singing waiter in a few different restaurants. By 1942, he still hadn’t found something he liked as much as circus performing—but the US Armed Forces were about to solve that dilemma.
9. He Amused The Army
In 1942, things were heating up in Europe, and the US army soon drafted Burt Lancaster for service. Lucky for him, Special Services noticed Lancaster’s talents and signed him up to entertain the servicemen alongside such stars as Sammy Daivs Jr. and Mickey Rooney. Sounds like a great gig after what he’d been through—but Lancaster’s skills weren’t quite fully appreciated.
10. He Played A Minor Role
Burt Lancaster freely admitted that he didn’t actually do much to entertain servicemen, and was quite honest about his limited role. He says that he immensely enjoyed traveling through Europe and North Africa as—get this—the person who turns the pages for the pianist. His job didn’t quite use his entertaining skills, but it did help him turn an important page in his life.
11. He Got Noticed
Norma Anderson was a stenographer who found herself stationed in Italy. One day a colleague coaxed her into substituting for an ill actor who was entertaining the servicemen. While Anderson nervously took the stage, she couldn’t help but notice the incredibly hunky man licking his finger to turn the pianist’s pages. She quickly asked a friend about Lancaster’s availability and the friend arranged for a blind date. The two soon fell in love.
12. He Got A Lift
Burt Lancaster returned from Italy with Anderson and seemed to be through with acting—but acting didn’t seem to be through with him. One day, he was riding in an elevator to go see Anderson and a producer spontaneously asked him to audition for a role in a Broadway play. Lancaster nailed the audition and his performance caught the eye of another producer, who wanted him to come to Hollywood.
The offer stunned Lancaster—but that didn’t stop him from making an outrageous demand.
13. He Wanted More
Even though Lancaster was completely unknown in Hollywood, he decided he wanted more than just a job as an actor. In an incredibly bold move, Lancaster immediately asked if he could produce films as well as act in them. Hello? Remember Burt, you’re nobody. Somehow Lancaster’s confidence worked and the producer promised that Lancaster would be able to produce films five years after arriving in Hollywood.
There was no precedent of this in Hollywood, which was still under the studio system that left actors powerless. There was, however, one caveat: Before Lancaster could start producing, he had to prove himself as an actor. But don’t you worry—that didn’t take him long
14. He Went Dark
Lancaster’s first released film, 1946’s The Killers, cemented two Hollywood careers: Lancaster’s and co-star Ava Gardner’s. The film was a commercial and critical success, and the National Film Registry now considers it a classic. Lancaster had found a happy home playing the dark characters needed in the film noir movies of the day. He was an instant star, and never had to play a supporting role.
While filming The Killers, however, Lancaster got some disturbing news.
15. He Was A Reluctant Family Man
While The Killers was in production, Burt Lancaster found out that his girlfriend, Norma Anderson, was pregnant. Without thinking much about it, Lancaster came up with a plan: He’d save enough money to end the pregnancy. Maybe he should have checked with his girlfriend first, because Anderson had no intention of ending her pregnancy—her religious beliefs wouldn’t let her.
Lancaster was in a bind. His star was rising, but this illegitimate child could ruin everything. What was he going to do?
16. He Married On The Down Low
At this time, Lancaster was still under contract with Universal Pictures, and they didn’t want a leading man with an illegitimate child. So the studio took control of the situation—which is always a bad sign. First, they had to have a quiet wedding ceremony in Arizona. Then they explained that Anderson was a widow whose husband had passed while fighting overseas.
Meddling behavior like this probably made Lancaster even more convinced that he should produce his own work and get out of the studio system.
17. He Went Too Far
Burt Lancaster’s first attempt producing his own movies immediately started a controversy—even before the end of the opening credits. You see, the 1948 film had a very gruesome title: Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. Ewww gross. Small US towns and countries such as Canada and Australia couldn’t handle the marquee goriness. Lancaster switched the title to The Unafraid for those regions, and it went on to become a modest box office success.
18. He Bucked The System
Even though Kiss the Blood Off My Hands ran into some controversy, it did something quite revolutionary. Until this time, most actors were stuck as a cog in the studio system—they had little or no control over the type of movies they did or roles they got. Lancaster was one of the first actors of his era to actually produce films. Ok great, now Lancaster had more control: So why did he continue to typecast himself?
19. He Made A Grown Man Cry
Even though he was typecast as a tough guy, Burt Lancaster did have a sense of humor. He liked to joke, and he wasn’t above pointing those jokes at people’s insecurities. Lancaster was tall, manly, and mostly did his own stunts. His frequent co-star was Kirk Douglas—who aspired to be everything Lancaster was, but literally fell short. It turns out that Douglas secretly wore elevator shoes that increased his height.
Lancaster decided it would be a riot to make fun of the shoes in public. Legend has it that the jokes made “tough guy” Douglas cry.
20. He Returned To The Big Tent
Even though Burt Lancaster was at the top of his game in Hollywood—his name generally brought in a cool million at the box office—he still missed life swinging under the big tent. In the early 1950s, Lancaster made an unlikely career move: He rejoined the circus. He did acrobatics for four weeks—maybe to get it out of his system. I certainly hope he got paid more this time than he did back in the day. His old salary for circus performing? Three dollars a day plus a free meal.
With the circus bug satisfied for now, Lancaster was soon back to making movies and raking in the big bucks.
21. It Went to His Head
Clearly, by this time in his career, Burt Lancaster was making considerably more than three bucks a day—and this fact may have gone to his head. On the set of the 1952 swashbuckler The Crimson Pirate, Lancaster’s behavior was making the director and crew seasick. He was completely unmanageable, overbearing, crass, and all-around unpleasant.
Even the crew complained about his foul mouth; which is kind of like a dog complaining about barking. But The Crimson Pirate had an even darker and more dangerous effect on Lancaster’s career.
22. He Was A Marked Man
The 1950s was a strange time in Hollywood. Politicians were on the lookout for what they considered communist threats. The Crimson Pirate came under suspicion, not because of Lancaster himself, but the lines he said in the film. Apparently FBI director—J. Edgar Hoover— didn’t like the monologue that Lancaster delivered in praise of simple working men. He thought it made the character sound like a “communist pig.”
Since Lancaster was both an actor and a producer on the film, the FBI marked him as a potential communist; a mark that would follow him to the grave—and, as we’ll see—beyond it.
23. He Wandered
Lancaster was still married to Anderson, but was rumored to be unfaithful. In fact, there are stories about him and “a platoon” of make-up girls and production assistants. Some reports even place him in the arms of Marlene Dietrich—although that list includes much of Hollywood. Women who met Lancaster seemed to fall under his spell. Well, that phenomenon was about to include not just the women he met, but every woman in America—and probably a lot of men as well.
24. He Got Wet
In 1953, Burt Lancaster shot a scene that would cement his place in motion picture history. In From Here to Eternity, Lancaster kisses Deborah Kerr on the beach in Hawaii while waves crash around and even over them. The scene sent filmgoers swooning and immortalized Lancaster and Kerr—but it almost didn’t happen.
25. He Went Horizontal
Lancaster and Kerr’s cavorting on the beach wasn’t in the original script for From Here to Eternity. In fact, the scene was meant to be shot somewhere else entirely, and with the actors standing up. At the last minute, it was Lancaster himself who suggested taking it all to the beach and going horizontal. Director Fred Zinnemann loved the idea and the rest, as they say, is history.
Lancaster received an Oscar Nomination for the film—even though there’s some evidence that he may not have actually been acting.
26. He Said, She Said
It may not have been a shower scene, but there was some actual steam rising between Lancaster and Kerr while rolling around in the surf. Burt Lancaster admitted that something happened between them, but Kerr didn’t go that far. She said there was some attraction between the two—hello, it’s Burt Lancaster—but it didn’t, according to the modest Kerr, go any further than that.
We’ll never know the truth, but we can always wonder.
27. He Needed A Beach Body
Lancaster knew a lot was riding on the infamous beach scene with Kerr, so he took his role seriously. He also was aware of how he wanted to look in his speedo. It turns out that between takes, Lancaster would pump up his muscles by jogging on the spot or doing push-ups. He also did some serious manscaping—which wasn’t a common practice at the time. Well, it turns out that it was all worth it, because the scene went viral—well…1950s viral.
28. He Made The Cut
While the Motion Picture Association was banning stills of the famous beach kiss between Lancaster and Kerr, another group was making sure they got their own personal copies. It seems that some projectionists were doing some editing of their own. They apparently cut out frames from the scene and kept them as souvenirs. With all this covert clipping going on, it makes you wonder if most people have even seen the scene in its entirety.
29. He Lent A Hand
When he was shooting From Here to Eternity, Burt Lancaster’s co-star, Frank Sinatra, was trying to revive his dying career. Sinatra, known mostly for comedies and musicals, was certainly out of his element with this dramatic role. Legend has it that Lancaster and fellow actor Montgomery Clift gave Sinatra a quick study in dramatic acting. But was Lancaster in a position to teach acting to anyone?
30. He Was A Nervous Nelly
Apparently, Burt Lancaster’s From Here to Eternity co-star Montgomery Clift intimidated him—so much so that in their first scene together you can see Lancaster shaking. Lancaster’s anxiety was also possibly responsible for his difficult behavior during filming. He became so preoccupied with his lines and camera angles that he finally made the usually mild-mannered director snap.
One day, while Lancaster was being particularly difficult, Fred Finneman told him to go screw himself.
31. He Got Canceled
Burt Lancaster received a best actor nomination from the Academy for From Here to Eternity—but so did co-star Clift. The odds were that one of them would surely win—or were they? Sometimes Academy voters have trouble choosing when the ballot contains two stars from the same picture. In this way, Lancaster and Clift canceled each other out, which left William Holden holding the statue for Stalag 17.
32. He Wasn’t Ugly Enough
Meanwhile, Lancaster’s production company was digging up gold. 1955’s Marty, which starred Ernest Borgnine as an unattractive loser who falls for…well, another unattractive loser. The film ended up being one of the few films to ever win both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Lancaster didn’t appear in the film, and his reason why was completely mean-spirited.
As Lancaster put it, “Who wants to see a picture about two ugly people?” Apparently quite a few.
33. He Beat Legends
While Lancaster missed out on the Oscar for From Here to Eternity, he didn’t have to wait long for another chance. In 1960, Lancaster played a con-artist preacher in Elmer Gantry, but didn’t have to dupe the Academy. Even though he was up against legends Laurence Olivier and Spencer Tracy, Lancaster took home the trophy for Best Actor. After a shaky start, Lancaster’s acting chops had finally matured—just in time, too, because when Lancaster wasn’t acting, he was busy lying to his wife.
34. He Cheated
We’ve heard about Lancaster and his countless flings, but frequent co-star Shelley Winters claims to have had more than a fling. In her 1980 autobiography, Winters said she had a two-year love affair with Lancaster while he was still married to Anderson. Lancaster himself said nothing about having anything at all with Winters, but it’s in someone else’s memoir where we find out the real dirt.
35. He Was A Lifesaver
Hitchcock staple Farley Granger wrote in his 2007 memoir that he and Lancaster saved Winters’ life. While Lancaster was dating Winters, she allegedly overdosed on sleeping pills and booze. Lancaster and Granger, who’d also had an affair with Winters, came to the rescue and got her the help she needed. Winters owed Lancaster her life, but instead dumped him—for a shocking reason.
36. He Got Dumped
While Winters was dating Lancaster, she heard some upsetting news: His wife was pregnant. This led Winters to the upsetting conclusion that Lancaster was cheating on her—with his own wife! Apparently, Winters could only accept Lancaster as a cheater when he was with her, so she ended the relationship. However, if Winters believed all the rumors about Lancaster, she had much more to worry about than him cheating with his own wife.
37. He Had A Boys Night Out
In 1960, a revealing report emerged about a raid on a Hollywood mansion. It turns out that the owner of the mansion was hosting lewd parties catered to gay men. Even though the mansion was highly secure, photographers secretly snapped shots of the partygoers having all-male orgies. The attendees allegedly included Burt Lancaster, Rock Hudson, an admiral, oh…and 250 Marines.
38. He Marched
Lancaster was in France filming the thriller The Train when the March on Washington was going to take place. Lancaster was a strong advocate for the rights of African Americans and wanted to attend. He managed to get leave from the shooting schedule, and, in spite of his fear of flying, flew to Washington for the March. Then, the day after, Lancaster turned around and flew home.
His phobia of air travel couldn’t stop him from supporting a just cause—or stop his involvement in his next film.
39. He Appeared In A Disaster
1970’s Airport was one of the first of a long string of star-studded disaster movies to descend on theaters. Lancaster appeared with, among others, Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset. It certainly wasn’t a disaster for Lancaster: His name appeared above the film’s title and he received 10% of the rather Boeing-sized profits. But was he happy with it? Not in the slightest. Later Lancaster called the film: “The worst piece of junk ever made.”
40. He Made A List
In 1973, then-president Richard Nixon made his infamous “Enemies List.” Because Lancaster was vocal in his support of racialized people and other minorities, the Republican president saw him as a threat. Lancaster, however, was in pretty good company. Others on the list included Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, and even that EGOT winning subversive Barbra Streisand.
41. He Tried To Age Gracefully
When Lancaster was 63 years old, he made a humble announcement: He was now too old to play a romantic lead. Well, it seems that Hollywood didn’t agree. In 1980, he appeared in the gangster drama Atlantic City, where he portrayed an older suiter of Susan Sarandon, who was 34 at the time. Critics also took note and he won the Los Angeles and New York film awards and received his final nomination for the Best Actor Oscar, which he lost to Henry Fonda.
42. He Fought A Disease
When movie heartthrob, and Lancaster’s friend, Rock Hudson got his AIDS diagnosis, Lancaster joined the fight against the disease. Hudson later turned to Lancaster to deliver his last words to Hollywood. It was a jam-packed and emotional crowd who heard Lancaster recite Hudson’s message of sorrow and hope. When Hudson finally lost his life, Lancaster was the only male celebrity at the funeral.
Sadly, it was Lancaster’s own health that was next on the line.
43. Poor Health Didn’t Stop Him
After a multiple coronary bypass operation, Lancaster almost literally jumped off the operating table and back to work. He only waited six months before filming Little Treasure with Margot Kidder and Ted Danson in 1984. Even though he still had a heart condition, he continued to appear in film and television. That is, until Hollywood saw him as a liability.
44. He Needed Insurance
Lancaster wanted to continue acting, but in Hollywood, money is almost always the bottom line. He was all set to play the lead in 1988’s Old Gringo when Columbia Pictures took a pause. It seemed to them that the increased insurance needed for the ailing star would make Lancaster’s involvement too expensive. Lancaster got the axe and Gregory Peck replaced him. Luckily, there was another studio more than willing to foot the bill.
45. He Played The Field
While Columbia was balking at paying higher insurance rates for Lancaster, Universal welcomed him into the baseball movie Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner. There were, however, signs that Lancaster was getting on in age. For example, he mistook his co-star, Timothy Busfield, for an assistant and did the unthinkable: He sent him on all kinds of errands. Later Lancaster embarrassingly realized that he had a scene with Busfield.
Field of Dreams was Lancaster’s final role for the big screen—it wasn’t, however, the end of his, er, performance in general.
46. He Took A Romantic Lead
At the ripe age of 77, Lancaster assumed a role that may have been challenging to his health: He married a woman almost 30 years younger than him. In 1990, the almost octogenarian star hooked up with 48-year-old Susan Scherer, a television production coordinator. This marriage lasted until the end of Lancaster’s life—which, sadly, wasn’t a very long time.
47. He Disappeared
In 1990, Lancaster was visiting a friend in Orange County when he suffered a stroke. This incident sent Lancaster into the hospital and then into self-imposed seclusion. In his condo, Lancaster preferred the company of his new wife and not many other people. He even turned old pal Kirk Douglas—and his elevator shoes—away. Four years later, Lancaster passed with his wife by his side.
48. He May Have Had A Secret Life
In 2000, six years after his passing, the FBI released documents shocking new documents about Burt Lancaster. Back in the 1950s, J. Edgar Hoover was keeping a close eye on Lancaster—specifically on his private life. The information pointed to Lancaster having affairs with many men, and even being a predator. Whether we can trust this information is another story.
Hoover could have made it up to further implicate Lancaster, who he saw as a dangerous communist.
49. The Gay Rumors Won’t Die
Even outisde the FBI, rumors of Lancaster’s homosexuality continue to proliferate. Most of them come from Lancaster’s acute attention to staying fit and his preference for male personal secretaries over female ones. The other, maybe more telling, proof is the number of times he visited Rock Hudson’s home, where gay orgies allegedly took place frequently.
Hollywood insiders have a habit of protecting the secrets of their own, so we may never know the absolute truth.
50. He Started A Scene
Even though Lancaster’s alleged gay lifestyle was almost completely under wraps, some people say that he and Rock Hudson may have started something that’s still with us today: The idea of being openly gay. Young people finding out that two famous men, like Lancaster and Hudson, were, or even could have been, “a little light in their loafers”—to use an old euphemism—maybe set the tone for future men and women to come out.