Charlton Heston was in his early 30s when he starred in Cecil B. deMille’s The Ten Commandments, so what is Burt Lancaster doing at 61—Grandpa Moses? It was a question no one dared to put to the brawny ex-trapeze artist as he bristled around the Israeli sets of Moses—The Lawgiver punching out paparazzi or separating a Palestinian from a bedouin in a for-real battle on the Dead Sea shore, in which 21 were wounded. (It was at the time of the Yom Kippur War tensions.)
This Moses—a $6-million British-Italian co-production currently playing CBS on six Saturday nights—is, in Lancaster’s immodest view, enormously “superior” to the DeMille movie. It is also, adds Burt of his first TV role, nothing less than “the best thing that’s been done on television.” To be sure, the script was classily co-written by Anthony (Clockwork Orange) Burgess, except for a few throwaway kernels, as when one dusty Israelite says to another, “It’s this one-god business I find hard to take in.” Lancaster (whose last brush with religion, Elmer Gantry, won him an Oscar) took to the role like a lamb to the altar. By way of preparation, the dead-end Irish kid from East Harlem steeped himself in latter-day Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. And lest anyone supposes that the young Moses was Dad in Supp-hose, that role was played in last week’s expository premiere by Burt’s son William, 27.
Billy is one of five kids by Lancaster’s second wife, Norma Anderson. (His first was a fellow circus acrobat.) Norma met Burt while he was on the USO circuit as a PFC entertainer during World War II. Since their divorce in 1969, Lancaster has maintained a roistering semisecret relationship with Jackie Bone, variously described as a hairdresser or production secretary. In 1971, after being busted for drunken driving not far from their home in Malibu, Lancaster was released in her custody. Last year it was Burt who bailed out Jackie after she spent a night in Rome’s Rebibbia jail following an altercation with a traffic cop.
He was playing at the time a suicidal baron in Bernardo Bertolucci’s much-awaited next tango, 1900, and will shoot a cameo in Robert (Nashville) Altman’s upcoming Buffalo Bill and the Indians, which stars Paul Newman. Lancaster cronies are laughing up their tunics over one implausible line in the new CBS series. It is the pharaoh’s welcome home to his scruffy shepherd cousin Moses: “You look like a very poor relation.” The Burt they know kisses off almost every proposed property these days with the line, “I’m too rich to bother.”