After posting yesterday about Ava Gardner in this movie, I couldn’t possibly neglect the other half of that stunning screen couple.
According to Gary Fishgall’s biography of Burt Lancaster, producer Mark Hellinger originally wanted cowboy star and real-life war hero Wayne Morris to play The Swede in The Killers (1946), but Warner Bros. wanted too much money to loan Morris out (Warners basically benched Morris for a year after the war and he didn’t work until 1947). Next, Hellinger thought of Sonny Tufts, but concluded that Tufts lacked the necessary screen presence. Hellinger then followed up on some studio gossip about a new kid at Warners named Burt Lancaster, and set up a meeting with him.
While talking to Hellinger about the role, Lancaster spilled his coffee and came across as so clumsy, rumpled and awkward that Hellinger found him exactly right for the role. Turns out that Lancaster knew what Hellinger was looking for, and used his talent for acrobatics to act the part for Hellinger the whole time.
When Hellinger showed the screen test to his wife, she said Burt was OK, not too handsome, but that women might go for him in a big way, so he got the part (and I hope she got her glasses soon after).
One matter that caused some heavy thinking was Burt’s screen name. Warner head Hal Wallis wanted to call him Stuart Chase, but there was already a prominent economist by that name, one of FDR’s leading thinkers and planners, and the man who coined the phrase New Deal. So Wallis and Hellinger were still busy mulling over all manner of possible monikers when Hellinger’s secretary came up with a brilliant idea: why not just use his real name, Burt Lancaster. Burt sure owed a lot to those two women in Hellinger’s life.