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Thursday, 2 November 2017

BURT LANCASTER, BELFAST & A BRILLIANT SCREEN LEGEND



Burt Lancaster born this day 1913. I wrote this 4 years ago.

This November is the 100th anniversary of Burt Lancaster’s birth and a significant milestone to prompt recollections of him as a very successful film star…… and also to reveal his family’s Northern Irish connections.  Burt and Belfast are firmly connected by his grandparents’ origins.

Most film fans would agree that Lancaster was one of the Hollywood greats.  His screen career began in 1946 with a stunning debut as Swede in film noir The Killers, opposite Ava Gardner.  Over the next forty-five years, he made some of cinema’s finest movies.  He was nominated four times for Academy Awards - including roles in From Here To Eternity, Birdman of Alcatraz and Atlantic City – and won an Oscar in 1963 for Elmer Gantry.  He was adept in dramas, action films and westerns, and was one of the first Hollywood actors to gain control over most of his career choices when he formed his own production company in the early 1950s.  In his younger days, he was well-honed and athletic in flamboyant roles like Captain Vallo in The Crimson Pirate and in his later years intense and dark as more mature, dramatic characters. 

After I had given a talk on actor Stephen Boyd at the recent Belfast Book Festival, I met a man called J. J. Tohill who presented me with a DVD he had compiled entitled “The Northern Irish Connection In Hollywood”.  He told me about the Burt Lancaster links to Belfast, something that struck a chord in the movie trivia part of my memory bank.  Mr Tohill maintained that part of the reason why Lancaster spoke in such a distinctive way was because of the influence of his grandparents’ Ulster roots and, therefore, the “Norn Iron’ accent in his genes.  It is difficult to substantiate the claim but it is not an impossible notion.  Burt did have a unique vocal style, so he did.  Kate Buford, a Lancaster biographer wrote: “His famous speaking voice would always have an Irish, cocky, romantic lilt with an Ulster edge.”  If you study the voice, you might just get a rhythm, an inflection, a pronunciation that supports the idea.

Family history records are sketchy but this is what we know.   In the mid-1800s, there is a smattering of evidence that a Lancaster family lived in the Clifton Street/Antrim Road area of Belfast, possibly in Eia Street or close-by.  Lancaster’s paternal grandparents were James Lancaster Sr, born around 1840 and Susanna Murray, born in 1835.  They were Ulster Protestants who, in the late 1860s, made the move to America in search of a better life, settling in East Harlem, Manhattan.  Their son James Henry Lancaster, born in December 1876, was Burt Lancaster’s father. 

Lancaster’s great-grandparents on his mother’s side were Northern Irish working-class Protestants, Alexander Roberts and Ann McDowell.  They had a son called James, born in 1846, who married Jennie Smith.  (Sadly, there are no archive clues as to the Belfast locations associated with this side of the family.  Biographer Kate Buford believes there may also be a connection to Derry.) Like James and Susanna Lancaster, the family emigrated to America and set up home in Connecticut.  James and Jennie had a daughter called Elizabeth, born in May 1876.  She was Burt Lancaster’s mother.  When Elizabeth was four-years-old, the family moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  To cut a long story short, Elizabeth and James Henry met, courted briefly and married in 1908.

Burt Lancaster’s paternal and maternal grandparents lived through one of Ireland’s most devastating periods in history – the Great Famine.  The blight that wiped out potato crops started in the south but quickly spread north.  Belfast, a relatively wealthy, industrial and merchant city, attracted the desperate and the needy in search of survival.  Poverty-stricken people, described by one commentator as “families in the veriest wretchedness, with scarcely enough rags to cover their shivering, emaciated bodies”, found their way to the city in ever-increasing numbers.  Sickness, death, violent riots and impossible pressures on basic resources forced many citizens to sell up and buy emigration tickets to America.   The Lancasters and the Roberts, unknown to each other at this stage, chose to cross the Atlantic in search of new beginnings, both families eventually ending up in neighbouring districts in New York.

Burton Stephen Lancaster was born on 2 November 1913 in Manhattan.  He was brother to James, Jenny and William Lancaster.  Lancaster’s mother Elizabeth insisted on raising her children as devout Protestants, attending regular services at the Church of the Son of Man in East Harlem.  Young Burton sang in the choir.  Gary Fishgall, another Lancaster biographer, refers to Elizabeth’s scrupulous generosity, honesty and integrity, traits that she instilled and often spanked into her children.  In an interview, Burt Lancaster recalled the time she gave him a quarter, asked him to go to the store to buy milk, and then spanked him when he got home for failing to notice the extra nickel that the grocer had given him in change.  After the spanking, she sent him back to the store to return the money.  “Mother beat the hell out of us,” he once said. “She’d have wild outbursts.” 

Burt grew up on tough, tenement streets and developed a passion for fitness that eventually led him to become a circus acrobat.  After a stint in the army, work opportunities were scarce, so to earn some money, he accepted a part in a play.  He was unenthusiastic about acting as a career until an agent offered to take him to Hollywood.  In 1946, The Killers brought Lancaster to the attention of the world.

He grew to be a supporter of civil rights and liberal causes, but not a practicing churchgoer.  It is not too much of a stretch to assume that strict Ulster Protestant morals enforced by his mother played a part in his outlook on life, justice and politics, interests at odds with the alleged wild side of his lifestyle as a movie star.  He married three times and had five children, two sons and three daughters.  “I found marriage somewhat stifling,” he mused. “I don’t know if I am the kind of man who ought to be married.” 

Burt Lancaster is one of the most popular cinema stars of all time even twenty years after his death at 80 in 1994.  His films feature regularly on television and, after reading this, Northern Ireland viewers might just listen a bit more closely to the way he delivers his lines to detect any sign of his Belfast roots.  When I watch his fiery, feisty performance as Elmer Gantry, I’m sure I hear something familiar.


Joe Cushnan’s book “Stephen Boyd: From Belfast To Hollywood” is out now.

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