Burt Lancaster

From “Passing Thru”

Within a few days of graduation from High School in Nebraska I was on a Trailways bus heading west to California, arriving there with less than ten dollars in my pocket. Hungry and homeless, I accepted a job at Sears in Santa Monica working on the loading dock. After just two days painful back and leg spasms sidelined me and Sears suggested I take some time off while they searched for an opening in another department of the store. That opening would be several weeks later, so I spent a few nights sleeping on a bench in the palisades overlooking the beach and washing up each morning at a Texaco station. I landed a job at a pet store on Pico Boulevard where each evening I was to feed and clean animal cages.

The owner, a portly Hispanic gentleman, would pay me five dollars a day and as partial payment would allow me to spent the night on a cot in the back room of the pet shop.

On my second month in California, I decided to take a run on the beach to exercise my legs and in doing so, watched in amazement when a portion of the palisades broke off and come crashing down on the nearby coast highway slamming into a home on the beach side of the road. I ran as fast as I could to where the residents were attempting to escape the cascading rocks and dirt.

Forgetting all about my back injury, I grabbed a shovel from the garage and immediately pitched in to help the occupant remove some of the debris that lodged against the home. Within a few minutes the realization hit, I was one of the worlds biggest movie stars…Burt Lancaster who introduced me to his wife Norma, a blonde lady who distributed some welcome relief with a pitcher of cold lemonade and a tray with ice filled glasses.

Shortly, road maintenance help arrived replacing us, suggesting we move further back from the area. Toweling sweat from his face, my new friend motioned to an outdoor patio on the beach side of the house, were we sat down to watch the activity and the continuation of large chunks of dirt still cascading down from the palisades.

His inquiry as to my whereabouts allowed me to explain I had been raised in the ranch country of Nebraska and while I was employed at the nearby Sears store, I was interested in an acting career. My experience with horses and my drama classes in high school intrigued him as he suggested I continue studying drama at Santa Monica City College.

He mentioned several of their students used SMCC as a stepping stone to acceptance at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse. “Chase your dreams while you’re young” he said, explaining he was a “late bloomer”. He explained the many avenues to explore in the motion picture field.

Soon the sun chased us inside where I was invited to wash up and have a sandwich along with another cold drink. As I sat there across the table from one of the worlds most recognized actors, I couldn’t help but be glued to anything he said but tried not to show it making him uncomfortable.

In the two or three hours we were together, he never did introduce himself. It was obvious who he was as he left his kitchen chair to return with a pencil, tearing a scrape of paper from a telephone padap and a scrape of paper that he paused to write on.

Saying, “use me as an introduction to this guy, he might be able to give you some guidance with your career, it can’t hurt”. As the telephone rang and he answered it, I reached out to shake his hand and thanked him for his help.

As he shook his head yes, I turned saying goodbye to Mrs. Lancaster, thanking her for the lunch and hospitality and departed.

I never saw or talked to Burt Lancaster again. I had little to offer in appreciation of his friendly gesture. He opened my mind to a career in the entertainment industry. I do visit Santa Monica’s Palisades, each time looking down and remembering that day in the fall of 1955 when a freak of nature served to introduce me to Burt Lancaster.

Considered very shocking by 1953 standards was the on the beach scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in “From Here To Eternity.” The block buster movie also starred Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift and Ernest Borgnine.

Burt Lancaster won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1961 for “Elmer Gantry,” and in 1980 he was nominated for his performance in “Atlantic City.” He died in 1994.

All Content on this Web site © 2007 John H. Rook

All Rights Reserved