By Mark Goodman
November 07, 1994 12:00 PM

Norman Mailer once said that he had never looked into a pair of eyes as chilling as Burt Lancaster’s. Nor, it seemed during the star’s Hollywood heyday, was there a pair of shoulders so broad, a set of teeth so white or a laugh of such bighearted, roof-raising menace. Those elements conspired to form an artist’s portrait of the archetypal Tough Guy, a devil’s darling who could rule the terrain around him—be it rifle company or circus ring, pirate ship or preacher’s pulpit—by the sheer power of his personality. Says his friend, actor Ed Asner, of Lancaster’s screen persona: “He was the rottenest son of a bitch in the world, carrying those big ivories—but you just knew you couldn’t hate him.”

There lay the essence of the rich—and sometimes risky—characters that Lancaster chose to play in a career that started late (at 33, in 1946’s The Killers) and roared through some 80 films for screen and television, bringing him an Oscar for 1960’s Elmer Gantry and fame as one of the last of the classic Hollywood stars. But onscreen, and in his very private life as well, there was a genuine sentimental side to Lancaster, 80, who died on Oct. 20 of a heart attack in his high-rise condominium in Los Angeles with his wife, Susie, at his side. “I loved his soft, gentle nature,” she says quietly. “Even until the very end, we understood each other. There was an unspoken language between us, transmitted by a touch or a glance.”

Lancaster, twice divorced and the father of five (William, 47, James, 45, Susan, 42, Joanna, 40, and Sighle, 38) married the former Susie Martin, now 52, in September 1990, after they had met in 1983 on the set of the TV movie Scandal Sheet (she was in charge of extras). Two months after the wedding the actor suffered a stroke while visiting a friend in a nursing home. It left him partially paralyzed on the right side and largely confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

The prognosis wasn’t good; at the time doctors told Susie frankly that her new husband might not have long to live. But Lancaster was, among other things, a former circus acrobat who had kept vigorously fit all his life, and he wasn’t about to waste away in bed. “Burt could go all over the house in his wheelchair,” Susie recalls. “He was the best wheelchair driver in the western world.” Moreover, Susie never wavered in her belief that he would recover. “My attitude was that if I had given up hope, Burt would have read that in me fast,” she says. “I don’t care if it was false hope; it was the way I had to cope—for Burt and for me.” Lancaster had physical or speech therapy four or five days a week, she says, “because he wanted to get better and work. He was strong, inside and out.” She was fortunate, she adds, that all his children lived within a few miles and visited their father frequently. “They were great,” she says. “It was just as Burt said: ‘They will always stand by me.’ ”

Still, Lancaster required a nurse virtually round-the-clock, with only two hours a day for him and Susie to be alone. Says Susie, recounting his final days: “On Monday he was doing very well. We had music on—he liked to conduct—and we sat holding hands and miming a waltz.”

On Thursday he began to tire. “At the end of the day,” she says, “we were sitting up in bed. He was lightly touching my hair, as he always did, with what I call butterfly kisses. I had his hand cupped in my hand, and it was on my cheek. We were holding each other.” Then, she says, he took a deep breath, exhaled and died.

Generations of fans gathered, in spirit, to mourn. (Lancaster had requested that there be no funeral, just a private family service.) Says Shirley Jones, who went from playing sweethearts in musicals to the lovesick hooker in Elmer Gantry: “He was responsible for getting me that role. He really went to bat for me.” After the first day’s shooting, she recalls, “I was just about in tears. Burt said, ‘Listen, kid, you’re marvelous. You’re going to win the Academy Award.’ ” In fact, that 1960 film earned Oscars for both of them.

Jones’s experience to the contrary, Lancaster could also be reserved when it suited his purposes. Another friend, actor Paul Picerni, says Lancaster once told him, “You’ll never be a star, Paul, because you’re too friendly. You’re always saying hello to people, on the set or wherever. I never say hello to anybody unless they say hello to me first.”

That may have been his life strategy in a nutshell. Lancaster grew up in New York City’s East Harlem with his postal-clerk father, his mother, a sister and two brothers. “One of my brothers was a cop,” he once said, “and two of my friends were inmates at Sing-Sing. I probably would have been one or the other if it hadn’t been for the public library.” He also loved music—he used to save his pennies to buy a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera—and sports. By age 14, he was 6’2″ and a basketball star at DeWitt Clinton High School.

Graduating in 1930, he attended New York University on an athletic scholarship. But he tired of college after two years and, improbably, ran off to join the circus. He and a boyhood friend, Nick Cravat, formed an acrobatic team and landed a job with the Kay Bros, circus for $3 per week and three meals a day.

On the road in 1935 he met and married another circus artist, June Ernst; they divorced a year later. Meanwhile Lancaster and Cravat climbed the circus ladder till they were performing, by 1939, with Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey. Then Lancaster got an infected finger and was told he’d have to quit the circus or have the finger amputated. “I decided to keep my finger,” he once said, and he turned to the oddest of jobs—including floorwalker in the lingerie department at Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago, where he would occasionally entertain the customers by doing back flips.

Drafted into the Army in 1942, Lancaster spent three years in Special Services, producing shows across Europe and North Africa. That’s when when he met a USO entertainer named Norma Anderson, whom he pursued back to New York City at war’s end. While visiting her, he was spotted in an elevator by an agent who invited him to a casting call for a play titled A Sound of Hunting. The play was a honker, but Lancaster drew enough attention to get seven Hollywood offers.

Before heading to L.A., Lancaster married Norma. (They had five children and they divorced in 1969.) Then he signed on to play opposite Ava Gardner in The Killers. The film helped launch him as a tough guy, and soon, using his acrobatic skills, he added “swashbuckler” to his résumé with films including The Crimson Pirate and The Flame and the Arrow. Then Lancaster did something that, in its day, seemed revolutionary: He teamed with his agent, Harold Hecht, and director James Hill to form a production company. “I’ll go on making swashbucklers for my own company,” said Lancaster, who saw the enterprise as a way to control his own career. “But in my outside pictures I want to do things that will help me as an actor against the time when I have to give up all this jumping around.” True, he played to type as a hard-barking top sergeant with an eye for the captain’s wife in 1953’s From Here to Eternity. But he went out on a limb repeatedly to portray an aging, alcoholic chiropractor in 1952’s Come Back, Little Sheba; a fool of a lover in 1955’s The Rose Tattoo; and, most memorably, a savage Broadway gossip columnist—baldly based on Walter Winchell—in 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success. “I’d still be the same punk kid I used to be back in East Harlem,” he told a reporter, “if I was afraid to take a chance.”

Critics didn’t always applaud his choices. Lancaster was born to play that randy roustabout of a faith healer, Elmer Gantry, just as he was born to play Sergeant Warden in Eternity. But he had little talent for low comedy (as in The Rose Tattoo) or high tragedy (as the grim German jurist in 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg). Still, Lancaster persevered and proved better than critics had expected as the aged Italian aristocrat in Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film The Leopard.

Lancaster’s risk-taking was strictly professional; personally, he kept himself out of the gossip columns. Quiet and paternal at home, Lancaster saved his demonic energy for the movie set. So did his fellow actor and kindred spirit Kirk Douglas. The two battled their way through a string of movies, most notably Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and Seven Days in May (1964). “Kirk would be the first to admit he’s difficult to work with,” Lancaster once said, “and I’d be the second.” (The grieving Douglas issued only a simple statement upon his friend’s death. “Burt isn’t really dead,” it read in part. “People years from now will still be seeing us shooting at each other.”)

Lancaster never lost his intensity; it simply evolved as he fulfilled his vow to maintain his career past his swaggering prime. “He was only alive when he was on the high wire,” says screenwriter John Guare, who got to know Lancaster during the filming of Atlantic City in 1979. “I had the feeling that he was a very complicated circus performer, and that this wasn’t a movie set to him, but a circus ring.”

He went on to film Local Hero (1983) and Field of Dreams (1989). But he began to have health problems. In 1983 he had quadruple bypass surgery, and he was bitterly disappointed when Columbia Pictures refused to sign him to play in 1989’s The Old Gringo because the insurance would have been too costly. (The role went instead to Gregory Peck. Lancaster sued and won an out-of-court settlement from the studio.) Meanwhile he and Susie had married and settled into their new life together when he was felled by his stroke. Rumors to the contrary, says Susie, he did not go into total seclusion. She would occasionally take him to the Hillcrest Country Club, and the couple visited Robert Wagner and Jill St. John at their home on Oct. 3. Of the old friends and golf buddies who dropped by, Ed Asner browsed through Annie Leibovitz’s new photography book with Lancaster, and Sidney Poitier sat and talked to him by the hour. But perhaps director Sydney Pollack’s reflections on his visits best sum up the grand old actor’s fierce spirit. “The last time I left him, he doubled up his fist like a fighter. Then he smiled and shook his fist as if to say, ‘I’m going to beat this.’ ” Adds Pollack: “I’ve spent my life working with movie stars. There isn’t anyone else like him, and there never will be again.”