How Burt Lancaster became The Swede (1947) 🇺🇸

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November 06, 2021

The Swede

He had to be big and silent — he had to be tough. The producer of “The Killers” tells you about Burt Lancaster, who is both — and much more

by Mark Hellinger (Noted columnist and fiction writer and producer of “The Killers” and “Swell Guy”)

Of course, everything about “The Killers” was important to me. It was to be my first independent production. If I turned out a hit, I would probably be a hero for a couple of months, which is about as long as any hero lasts in Hollywood. But if I failed, I might have to go to Jack Warner and ask him to give me back my old job of producing for him. This latter thought caused me to take a sleeping pill every other night.

I had a hunch that, if I could only find the right Swede, I might bat “The Killers” for a home run. Writer Anthony Veiller had taken Hemingway’s short story and developed it into a honey of a film script. And my director was to be owl-eyed Robert Siodmak, who had been breathing so heavily on Hitchcock’s collar that Alfred was beginning to perspire.

The cast looked good, too. No star names, but all great performers — which is sometimes better. Eddie O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Vince Barnett, Queenie Smith; seasoned troupers, every one of them. And as for Ava Gardner — well, the minute she walked into my office, the price on her getting the role was sex, two and even.

But where was my Swede? That was the key character, the weenie in the roll, the minister at the wedding. A “Killers” without the right Swede was Hope without a Crosby gag, or Winchell without a column, or one Smith Brother.

Originally, I had tried to get Wayne Morris for the part. But Warner Brothers had his contract and, while everyone knows that the Warner organization is amazingly generous and big hearted and friendly to anyone who makes a request for anything, I was unable to make a deal.

Accordingly, I dropped my negotiations for Wayne and began testing other actors. I tested potential Swedes until I thought I was going slightly smorgasbord. If somebody had suggested Garbo, I would have tested her too. It was all pretty discouraging.

The starting date of “The Killers” was drawing uncomfortably close, but I’m a guy who hates to take woe for an answer. Somehow, somewhere, I was going to find the right man to play the Swede.

Came the day, then, that I was lunching with Marty Jurow, an extremely able young citizen who was at that time an assistant to Hal Wallis. Marty told me of an actor that Hal had just signed; a big brawny bird whom they had brought out from New York. His real name was Burt Lancaster, and they were planning to call him Stuart Chase.

I told Marty of my casting problem. Did he think this Lancaster could possibly be my Swede? Marty shrugged, which is almost a direct answer in the film business. “Could be,” was his reaction. And it was on this enthusiastic note that he said he would send Lancaster over to see me the next day.

Now, over at Universal-International, we independent producers have individual bungalows around an inner garden. It may not be quite as attractive as it sounds, but it really looks beautiful when you have a hit. I was returning from lunch the following afternoon when I saw a character standing on the steps of Walter Wanger’s bungalow reading a letter.

When I say character, that’s precisely what I mean. This guy was big. Really big. His hair was tousled. He needed a shave. No tie. And his suit looked as though it hadn’t been pressed since C. Aubrey Smith wore short pants. But there was something about him —

“You Lancaster?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied slowly. “You Hellinger?”

Fine way for an actor to talk to a producer! For a second, I thought I was back at Warners. But I didn’t argue. He looked too good. And I thought I’d better get him away from Wanger’s bungalow before Walter got a gander at him.

We sat down in my office, and it didn’t take me long to determine that everything about this man — his carriage, his quietness, his diction — was the Swede. If all went well, my search was over.

I couldn’t, however, let him know that. Not yet. I settled back in my chair and waited for him to start selling himself. No dice. When I didn’t speak, he just sat and looked at me. So I was compelled to go into action.

“Look, Lancaster,” I said, “I don’t know what kind of an actor you are, but physically you’re my man. The role I have in mind for you is the Swede in ‘The Killers’ — and if you make the grade, you’ll be a star overnight. I’m going to give you a copy of the script to read, and I don’t mind telling you in advance that it’s the greatest, the finest, the most suspenseful...”

My voice trailed off as I saw him looking at me. “What’s the matter?” I asked.

“I read it.” he replied calmly. “My agent had a copy.”

That took a lot of the wind out of me. “Oh,” I said meekly. “And how did you like it?”

“Fair,” he returned. “My part’s fair, too.”

I swallowed hard. “Only,” I muttered, “only fair?”

He shrugged. “Well,” he said, “it may be better than I think. Or it may be worse. You see, it’s the first movie script I ever read!”

A few days later, after going through the motions of a test, I signed a contract with Burt. And for films beyond “The Killers,” too. For some time to come, he’ll do two pictures a year for Hal Wallis and one for me. Unless, of course, he gets fed up with Hollywood and decides to open a book store in Ethiopia, or something. With Lancaster, anything can happen.

Incidentally, you’ll remember that Wallis had renamed him Stuart Chase. I objected, pointing out that a certain famed economist of the same name might be slightly puzzled if he found himself billboarded as a movie star. Hal agreed, and we began to search diligently for another name for Burt Lancaster.

We searched and we searched, but nothing seemed quite right. One morning, my secretary whispered something to me and I promptly phoned Wallis.

“Hal,” I said excitedly, “Myrtle suggests something that nobody has thought of. What about using his real name — Burt Lancaster?”

Wallis agreed, and Burt Lancaster became Burt Lancaster. Isn’t it remarkable what we Hollywood master-minds can accomplish if we only try?

Burton Stephen Lancaster was born thirty-one years ago in New York City. He was raised on 106th Street, between Second and Third Avenues, a district in which even a girl would hate to be named Pansy. He went from public to high school, and then enrolled in New York University. A year later, he skipped the book circuit, joined a circus and started earning five whole dollars in cash every week.

Money didn’t mean much at the time. He was cashing in on travel and a swift education in the seamy and dreamy sides of life. What’s more, he was mastering the trade of an acrobat. That’s a good trade, too. Because if you can’t afford a decent meal, you can always tell yourself that you’re keeping in trim.

When Burt finally began to look around for a change, it was during the lean theatrical years. He worked with the WPA theater, in the one-lung vaudeville that still exists, and then into fairs, carnivals, and night clubs. For one night only, he was a master of ceremonies, and he admits he was terrible. Knowing him as I do, he didn’t have to tell me.

If the draft hadn’t come along, he might never have been discovered— for by 1941, he was a dying duck as far as show business was concerned. He was then working in the promotion department of Columbia Community Concerts, but the Army gave him the chance he couldn’t make for himself. The Army sent him to North Africa and later to Italy for twenty-six months, as an actor and director for soldier shows.

When the war ended and Burt returned to New York, his future looked about as exciting as another honeymoon to Tommy Manville. He verged on starvation for a while, and then landed a role in a play called “A Sound of Hunting.” It was the first time he had ever appeared on a Broadway stage, and the play ran only three weeks. But it made Burt Lancaster.

The movie people who saw the show went nuts about the big guy. Contracts were shoved in his kisser and practically every company in Hollywood was after him. But he signed with Hal Wallis, because Hal not only matched all other offers but also agreed to an outside picture yearly.

Not that the Wallis contract went through in completely sunny fashion. That wouldn’t be like Lancaster. He and Hal had reached a verbal agreement in New York and were on their way to a lawyer’s office to sign the deal. They were crossing Broadway and Hal pointed to an advertisement of a big film that was about to open at the Hollywood Theater.

“I produced that picture,” Hal said. “Would you like to see it when it opens?”

Burt shook his head. “I should say not,” he replied slowly. “I saw it in Italy and I thought it was terrible!”

Nice going, wasn’t it? At that moment, it is questionable that Burt had ten bucks he could call his own. He was talking to his future boss, and no contract had actually been signed. He was flaunting every Hollywood rule, which is nice flaunting when you can afford it. Yet he called the situation as he saw it.

More power to him. Lancaster is completely honest. He has no personal axe to grind and will, when asked, tell anybody how he feels about anything. When I took him on tour with “The Killers,” I was afraid he might tell the reporters to get out. He would have, too, if one of them had annoyed him.

Right now, Burt likes to analyze everything. He won’t play bad parts consciously. He wants to know why about everything. He argues every point, and he gives in only when he’s convinced he’s wrong. Eventually, he’s going to be a headache to a great many producers. But that’ll be okay with me. I don’t mind a headache when genuine talent goes along with it. It’s the no-talent trouble-makers who drive you daffy in Hollywood.

Lancaster doesn’t give out at all to strangers, regardless of who they are. He deadpans and watches. Two years from now, I suppose he’ll be more diplomatic. Success changes people in different ways, and I trust that Burt will survive the Hollywood hoop-de-do. I’ve never seen an actor quite manage it yet, but Lancaster may be the exception to prove the rule. I certainly hope so.

As yet, he shows no signs of hatband inflation. When we were in Pittsburgh, having a press party, he asked if he might bring some friends in. I said sure — and he brought in four old beat-up acrobats.

He paid little attention to the press that day; just sat around and gabbed with his former pals. We didn’t get much newspaper space, but I guess I’m lucky at that. Suppose he and his acrobatic friends had suddenly decided to try out the old act with several buxom ladies of the press?

Well, no sense of me rambling along like this. You must have gathered by now that I’m plenty fond of Lancaster. I’ve been around this world several times the hard way and I’ve met a great many people. But I’ve never shaken hands with anyone quite like this man.

He’s individual in everything he does. He’s a superb diagnostician of character. He knows the right guys — and the dames— from the phonies.

He’ll probably hurt a lot of people be- fore he’s through, because he’s blunt to the point of harshness. But come what may, Lancaster will be himself. Always.

He’s quite a guy, my friends. Quite a guy...

The End

Source: Photoplay, March 1947