A New York City slum kid, short and pudgy, turns into an acrobat, then a meat-cooler inspector and finally a movie star: Burt Lancaster. He was the personification of beefcake masculinity in the 1950s and '60s—rugged features, sculptured physique, Chiclets teeth. Yet, as National Public Radio commentator Buford details in this definitive biography, Lancaster expanded his range with such morally nuanced roles as the imprisoned murderer in Birdman of Alcatraz, the dutiful soldier who cuckolds his commander in From Here to Eternity and the shady evangelist in Elmer Gantry, for which he won an Oscar in 1960.
Offscreen he was married to Norma Anderson, a radio executive's secretary who served as Lancaster's entrée to Hollywood. Though they were married nearly 25 years, he was a compulsive womanizer who was trailed by rumors of homosexuality throughout his life. Buford deftly traces the rise of this often underrated actor as well as his fall—a stroke and then a fatal heart attack in 1994 at age 80, his sharp physical decline mocking the athletic god he had been. (Knopf, $27.50)