By the time I interviewed Burt Lancaster for The New York Times in 1977, he’d done just about all there was to do on film, and I figured his distinguished career was probably at an end. But I was wrong. His subsequent performances in “Go Tell the Spartans,” “Cattle Annie and Little Britches,” “Local Hero,” “Tough Guys” and, especially, Louis Malle’s superb “Atlantic City” were among his strongest. On screen and off, Lancaster was one of a kind. --GUY FLATLEY


He’s 63, with a weathered face and a white wilderness of beard. Yet he carries himself with the pantherish grace of a Hemingway hero, as agile as the doomed Swede in “The Killers,” the movie which shot him to stardom more than three decades ago. His voice is husky, his diction precise but punchy, vibrant with the echoes of the New York streets he walked so long ago. As in his movies, his blue eyes gleam with intensity.

Burt Lancaster, survivor of the Great Depression, shoeshine boy turned circus acrobat turned superstar, sits behind his desk in his Hollywood high-rise office, lights a Camel and coolly ponders a career that defies categorizing. It has been peppered with triumphs and potboilers, dark melodramas like “The Killers” (with Ava Gardner, above) and “Brute Force,” spoofy swashbucklers like “The Flame and the Arrow” and “The Crimson Pirate,” and anguished slices of life like “Come Back, Little Sheba” and “Separate Tables.” It also includes tough jabs at institutional hypocrisy like “From Here to Eternity” and “Elmer Gantry” (for which he won an Oscar), stylized esoterica like “The Leopard” and “Conversation Piece,” quasi-political thrillers like the current “Cassandra Crossing” and “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” and “H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau,” a sci-fi flick set to open on July 17.

But, most of all, Lancaster remembers Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900,” a film which he finished many, many months ago and one which still awaits a distributor sufficiently daring to gamble on the marketability of a five-hour-plus mixture of Latin passion and Marxist polemics. On the other hand, it is conceivable that the producer Alberto Grimaldi will succumb to impatience and present the film in a severely shortened version, despite Mr. Bertolucci’s cries of mutilation.

“Bertolucci was wonderful to work with, but he was really very naughty,” says Lancaster. “He knew damned well he wasn’t going to make the 3-hour picture he had contracted to make for Paramount. After all, it’s a 50-year historical perspective of the life of Italy. My role is that of a ruthless aristocrat, a very important s.o.b., a man who hates his son but loves his grandson, played by Bob De Niro. Eventually, I become old and crusty and senile, and one of the scenes that was lifted in Italy, because of the censors, was the one in which I attempt sexual intimacy with a little girl. In anger and impotence and shame, I hang myself.”

Not a happy ending, yet Lancaster agreed to play the pervert without a second’s hesitation, partly because he was a passionate admirer of Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris.” “When Bertolucci came and asked me if I’d do ‘1900,’ I said there was no way he could afford me, no way he could meet my usual salary. So I worked for nothing. There are times, however, when I do a film like ‘Cassandra Crossing’ simply because I need the money. I kid you not. It’s a matter of life style. I have only one dress suit to my name, and a few jackets and pants, but it still costs me $300,000 a year just to live. I must continue to work.”

And so he sweats away for American International, turning beasts into men, and men into beasts. “H.G. Wells wrote an anti-vivisectionist tract in ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau,’ a story about the dehumanization of people. But I don’t delude myself; I know the animals will steal the film.”

Last year, audiences cheered another Lancaster film--“The Bad News Bears,” written by Bill Lancaster, one of the veteran star’s five children. The part of the boozing manager of a fumbling team-full of Little Leaguers would have provided an exciting challenge for the screenwriter’s father, but that plum went instead to Walter Matthau, who made his movie debut 22 years ago in “The Kentuckian,” a film directed by, and starring, Burt Lancaster.

“Recently, I said, ‘Billy, I have an idea for a screenplay. Would you write it for me?’ ‘No, Dad,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to make it on your own.’”