LOS ANGELES, Oct. 21 -- Actor Burt Lancaster, a one-time former circus acrobat who went on to become the Academy Award winning star of acclaimed films such as 'Elmer Gantry,' has died of a heart attack at his home in Los Angeles, it was announced Friday. He was 81. Lancaster died at 9:20 p.m. local time on Thursday at his condominium, his longtime agent Jack Gilardi said. Lancasters' wife Susie was with him when he suffered a sudden heart attack. A natural athlete, Lancaster enjoyed good health until his late 60s when he began having heart problems. In January 1980, he was operated on for abdominal problems. In 1983, he underwent a seven-hour quadruple heart bypass surgery. Born Burton Stephen Lancaster in New York City Nov. 2, 1912, the handsome, muscular Lancaster stumbled into his acting career while riding in a New York City elevator. A stage producer mistook him for an actor and invited him to read for a role in a Broadway play. That chance encounter led Lancaster to a part in the 1945 play 'The Sound of Hunting,' which ran for three weeks, just long enough for him to be noticed by Hollywood scouts. Lancaster then rose from swashbuckling roles in B-movies to win the Oscar for best actor in 1960 for his portrayal of an unscrupulous tent preacher in 'Elmer Gantry.' From the first, he relied on his forceful presence, dismissing critics who said he played all parts the same way.
'The most important contribution I have to make in a film is my own personality,' he said. 'It has nothing to do with acting. And it's not ego. An actor must use the impact of his being and use his own ideas.' Flashing the toothy grin and exuding the aggressive enthusiasm that were his screen trademarks, Lancaster played the tough sergeant who seduced his captain's wife in 'From Here to Eternity,' the charming prairie rogue in 'The Rainmaker' and the unprincipled gossip columnist in 'Sweet Smell of Success.' Offscreen he was a voracious reader and self-educated intellectual who steered his career into heavy drama such as 'The Rose Tattoo' and 'Come Back Little Sheba,' and social message films such as 'Judgment at Nuremberg,' 'Birdman of Alcatraz' and 'A Child is Waiting.' 'Pictures are like any art form,' Lancaster said. 'They must make a comment on the social, political and moral problems of the time -- and they must entertain at the same time.' He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1953 for his role in 'From Here to Eternity,' which also earned him the New Yo