Burt Lancaster a presence to be reckoned with

Critic’s Notebook: In life and on screen, the Hollywood star was a redoubtable individual. His rich and varied career is celebrated in a centennial retrospective at the Billy Wilder Theater.

‘The Killers’ | 1946 Virginia Christine, Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner starred in Lancaster’s film debut, which was directed by Robert Siodmak.

Burt Lancaster was the first movie star I ever met. I’ve encountered others since, but the circumstances have never been so dramatic.

The year was 1971 and I was a young reporter for the Washington Post covering the Cannes Film Festival on my own dime. Few Americans made the trek in those days, which is why Lancaster’s publicist contacted me and asked if I wanted to be part of a small lunch the actor was giving for journalists at the glamorous Hotel du Cap, a legendary spot perched just above imposing rocks that jut boldly into the Mediterranean.

Though Lancaster — the subject of a UCLA Film & Television Archive centennial retrospective that starts Friday night at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater — did not have a film in the festival, he was there nevertheless, simply being a movie star.

I discovered just what that meant when I arrived at the hotel’s ocean-view dining room only to be told by the publicist that Mr. Lancaster would be late. By way of explanation, he simply pointed out the room’s enormous glass windows, where I turned my head just in time to see, as if on cue, the spectacularly fit 58-year-old actor elegantly dive off those rocks and into the Mediterranean for a final pre-luncheon swim. Talk about making a Hollywood entrance.

Just minutes later, Lancaster appeared at the table wearing an enormous bathrobe over his swim trunks. His hair was still wet and a towel was snuggly wrapped around his neck like a boxer after a tough fight. Clearly, there was no need to dress just to meet journalists.


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