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Burt Lancaster (November 2, 1913 - October 20, 1994) was an Oscar-winning American film actor, noted for his athletic physique (a rare thing for leading men of that time), distinct smile (which he called "The Grin") and, later, his willingness to play roles that went against his initial "tough guy" image. Initially dismissed as "Mr Muscles and Teeth", in the late 1950s Lancaster would abandon his all-American image and gradually he would be regarded as one of the best actors of his generation.
Lancaster was born Burton Stephen Lancaster in New York City in 1913 to James Henry Lancaster, a postman, and Elizabeth Roberts. His parents were both Protestants of working-class Northern Irish origin, with Lancaster's grandparents having been immigrants to the U.S. from Belfast and descendants of English immigrants to Ireland. Lancaster's family believed themselves to be related to Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts; their surname originates from 11th century French immigrants to England with the surname "de Lancastre". Lancaster grew up in East Harlem and spent much of his time on the streets, where he developed great interest and skill in gymnastics. Later, he worked as a circus acrobat until an injury forced him to give up the profession. During World War II, Lancaster joined the United States Army and performed with the USO.
Though initially unenthusiastic about acting, he returned from service, auditioned for a Broadway play and was offered a role. Though the play was not successful, Lancaster's performance drew the attention of a Hollywood agent who had him cast in the 1946 motion picture The Killers. The tall, muscular actor (his exact height has been disputed, with some sources claiming he was 6'1" and others 6'2") won significant acclaim and appeared in two more films the following year. Subsequently, he played in a variety of movies, especially in dramas, thrillers, military and adventure films. In two, The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate, a friend from his circus years, Nick Cravat, played a leading role, and both actors impressed audiences with their acrobatic prowess. In 1953, he played one of his most famous roles with Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. The American Film Institute acknowledged the iconic status of the scene from that film in which he and Deborah Kerr make love on a Hawaii beach amidst the crashing waves. The organization named it one of "AFI's top 100 Most Romantic Films" of all time.
In the mid '50s, Lancaster went on challenging himself with varied cinematic roles, and satisfied longtime aspirations by moving into film producing as well. In most of his roles, whether in drama, circus, western or other genres, the self-taught actor was successful; he evolved into a solid and versatile performer and eventually a star. His work was recognized in 1960 when he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, a Golden Globe Award, and the New York Film Critics Award for his performance in Elmer Gantry.
During the latter part of his career, Lancaster left adventure and acrobatic movies behind and portrayed distinguished characters. This period brought him work on several European productions, with directors such as Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci. Lancaster sought demanding roles and, if he liked a part or a director, was prepared to work for much lower pay than he might have earned elsewhere; he even helped to finance movies in whose artistic value he believed. He produced a number of films himself and also mentored such new directors as Sydney Pollack and John Frankenheimer, thus adding to his numerous acting achievements a pioneering role in the development of independent cinema. He also appeared in several TV films.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Lancaster has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6801 Hollywood Blvd.
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