At 19, Burt Lancaster dropped out of college to perform a circus act with his childhood best friend, Nick Cravat. Their highbar routine earned them $3 a week each, and eventually became good enough to tour with the Ringling and Barnum troupes. “He was an unlikely acrobat because he was so tall,” says Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life

But Burt, who stood 6-foot-2, never minded standing out in a crowd. By the time he arrived in Hollywood at age 33, he’d already done stints with the circus, the Army, on Broadway and had been divorced. A fully formed man, Burt knew his mind and wasn’t about to let anyone step on his freedom. “I’d still be the same punk kid I used to be back in East Harlem during the Depression if I was afraid to take a chance,” he once said. 

Burt Lancaster

In films, Burt could be a chameleon. “He didn’t settle into one role like the great stars of the time, like Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck, who played within a certain range,” Buford explains. “He liked to flip it around.” In 1952, Burt swashbuckled in The Crimson Pirate and played a middle-aged alcoholic in Come Back, Little Sheba. A few years later, fans watched him shoot ’em up in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and portray a creepy gossip columnist in Sweet Smell of Success. “Audiences reacted terribly,” admits Buford of the latter, “but now that movie is a classic.” 

For Burt, who was one of the first actors to form his own production company, it was never about fame or money. He turned down Ben-Hur, which would become the highest-grossing film of 1959 and win an Oscar for Charlton Heston, because he didn’t like its religious overtones. “He was the first actor in Hollywood to be offered $1 million to star in a movie. He said no,” says Buford.

Burt didn’t like rules in his personal life, either. He wed his second wife, Norma Anderson, a USO entertainer, in 1946. Though they had five children together, it was a contentious relationship. “He loved Norma, but she had a really difficult alcohol problem, and that ultimately doomed them,” says Buford. 

His marriage was in its last chapter when Burt met hairdresser Jackie Bones on an airplane in 1966. “She saw him and remembered thinking, ‘There is one lonely man,’” says Buford, who says that Burt found her attractive because she was “a tough cookie.” They would remain together for several years, but Burt strayed with both women and men. “Jackie told me he preferred women, but he didn’t like labels. He was way ahead of his time,” she says. 

His last marriage, to Susan Martin, lasted until Burt’s death in 1990. “I think he loved every woman he was with when he was with her,” explains Buford, who adds that even after his relationships ended, Burt remained intensely loyal to his past lovers, friends and wives. “He took care of people — even Nick Cravat, his old circus pal. He used his stardom and his money to do that,” she says. “He had few close friends, but Kirk Douglas once said he envied Burt because he had such loyal friends.” 

— Reporting by Fortune Benatar

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