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Lancaster marched to own drum

Burt Lancaster defined "superstar" before the now-overused word was even coined and his fierce independence redefined the power of the actor in Hollywood.

Lancaster died of a heart attack Thursday night in Los Angeles. He was 80.

In one of the more memorable scenes of a memorable career that spanned 45 years, as the ruthless, vicious and thoroughly unscrupulous columnist J.J. Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Lancaster took out a cigarette and turned to obsequious press agent, Tony Curtis, for a light.

"Match me, Sidney," he ordered.

"I couldn't do that, J.J.," Curtis replied.

Nor could anyone else. Lancaster's range, versatility and the effortless command he brought to his art were not matched by the other major stars of his generation. And while most of them faded into a twilight relieved by the occasional testimonial tribute and film festival retrospective, Lancaster continued to work into his 70s at a level that rivaled and sometimes eclipsed his earlier achievements.

Maj. Asa Barker in Go Tell the Spartans (1978), an underrated early Vietnam war film that, like so many of Lancaster's movies, was ahead of its time; Felix Happer, the eccentric oil magnate in Local Hero (1982); Lou, the pathetic small-time numbers runner in Atlantic City (1980); Harry Doyle, the old con in Tough Guys (1986), and Doc Graham, the ball player-turned-physician in Field of Dreams (1989) would do any actor honor as a whole career.

For Lancaster, they were simply the final triumphs in a long life in movies that knew the sweet smell of success as soon as he stepped before Robert Siodmak's camera as Swede in The Killers (1946).

The man who started out as a circus trapeze artist (he disdained doubles and always did his own movie stunts) decided the trajectory of his career early. While other stars chafed under studio contracts and took the parts they were assigned, Lancaster took control.

Lancaster, who would fashion such an indelible study of a redeemed murderer in The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), refused to be pigeonholed in the late '40s. He set up a production company with agent-producer Harold Hecht to circumvent and _ by the example of his success _ eventually undermine the traditional lines of authority in Hollywood. The stars of today who call their own shots and command multimillion dollar salaries are much in Lancaster's debt.

His company was called Norma Productions, after his second wife, Norma Anderson, with whom he had five children before their 1969 divorce: James, William, Susan, Joanna and Sighle. Lancaster's was the first independent company in Hollywood since Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin formed United Artists in 1919.

In March 1949, he signed a deal with Warner Brothers whose significance went beyond his own destiny. It created a partnership of equals in which Lancaster agreed to make three pictures for the studio. In return, the Warners distributed and helped finance three films made by Norma Productions. Lancaster's subsequent film career became a declaration of independence that showed the way to others.

Whether he was James Scott, the mutinous general in Seven Days in May (1964) or Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Lancaster exuded a rugged, take-charge authority. By doing the same thing behind the scenes, he was able to set his own course and graduate from tough guys and costume swashbucklers in such exuberant and good humored outings as The Flame and the Arrow (1950) and The Crimson Pirate (1952) to ever tougher challenges. He was a shrewd judge of scripts and his company prospered by producing Oscar winners such as Marty (1955) and globally popular Lancaster vehicles such as Trapeze (1956).

"If we were allowed to do some of the stories we wanted to do under the studio system, we wouldn't have had to start our own company," he explained in a criticism of Hollywood that is as as true now as it was in the immediate post-war years. "But they just wanted to do the same stories over and over again, so we decided to take a chance."

The mixture of natural business acumen and a willingness to seek more demanding roles, instead of settling for the refuge of repetition, yielded four decades of filmmaking that marked a serious actor of unique stature and distinction.

His charisma was obvious. So, too, were the qualities that set him apart. Norman Mailer once said that he had never looked into eyes as chilling as Lancaster's. The gray-blue eyes had a measuring irony. His smile could be both roguish and threatening and he hardly ever raised his voice in a movie. He did not have to.

"Burt Lancaster has the strength and sensitivity to do anything a camera is capable of recording," said Richard Brooks, who directed Lancaster's Oscar-winning performance in Elmer Gantry (1960).