Richard Burton

~Richard Burton, CBE (10 November 1925 – 5 August 1984) was a Welsh stage and cinema actor[1] noted for his smooth, flowing baritone voice and his great acting talent.[2] Establishing himself as a formidable Shakespearean actor in the 1950s and the performer of a memorable Hamlet in 1964, Burton was called "the natural successor to Olivier" by critic and dramaturg Kenneth Tynan. Burton's turning his back on the stage disappointed some critics.[3]

Burton was nominated seven times for an Academy Award without ever winning. He was a recipient of BAFTA, Golden Globe and Tony Awards for Best Actor. In the mid-1960s, Burton ascended into the ranks of the top box office stars[4] and by the late 1960s, was the highest-paid actor in the world, receiving fees of $1 million or more plus a share of the gross receipts.[5]

Burton remains closely associated in the public consciousness with his second wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor. The couple's turbulent relationship was rarely out of the news.[6]


Contents  [hide]
1 Childhood and education
2 Early acting career
3 Hollywood and later career 3.1 Stage career
3.2 Hollywood career in the 1950s and 1960s
3.3 Later career
3.4 Oscars
3.5 Television
3.6 Books and articles

4 Personal life and views 4.1 Health issues
4.2 Death

5 Awards and nominations
6 Filmography
7 Stage productions
8 Further reading
9 Bibliography
10 References
11 External links

Childhood and education

Richard Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins in the village of Pontrhydyfen, Neath Port Talbot, Wales. He grew up in a working class, Welsh-speaking household, the twelfth of thirteen children.[7] His father, also named Richard Walter Jenkins, was a short, robust coal miner, a "twelve-pints-a-day man" who sometimes went off on drinking and gambling sprees for weeks. Burton later claimed, by family telling, that "He looked very much like me ... That is, he was pockmarked, devious, and smiled a great deal when he was in trouble. He was, also, a man of extraordinary eloquence, tremendous passion, great violence."[8]:23

Burton was less than two years old in 1927 when his mother, Edith Maude (née Thomas), died at age 43[9]:2 after giving birth to her 13th child.[10] His sister Cecilia and her husband Elfed took him into their Presbyterian mining family in nearby Port Talbot (an English-speaking steel town).[7][11] Burton said later that his sister became "more mother to me than any mother could have ever been ... I was immensely proud of her ... she felt all tragedies except her own". Burton's father would occasionally visit the homes of his grown daughters but was otherwise absent.[12]:7, 10 Also important in young Burton's life was Ifor (Ivor), his brother, 19 years his senior. A miner and rugby player, Ifor "ruled the household with the proverbial firm hand".[9]:7

Burton showed a talent for English and Welsh literature at grammar school, demonstrating an excellent memory, though his consuming interest was sports – rugby (in fact famous Welsh centre Bleddyn Williams said in his autobiography that Burton could have gone far as a player[13]), cricket, and table tennis[14] He later said, "I would rather have played for Wales at Cardiff Arms Park than Hamlet at the Old Vic."[12]:17 He earned pocket money by running messages, hauling horse manure, and delivering newspapers. He started to smoke at the age of eight and drink regularly at twelve.[8]:25–26

Inspired by his schoolmaster, Philip H. Burton, he excelled in school productions, his first being The Apple Cart.[8]:29 Philip Burton could not legally adopt young Richard due to their age difference; Burton was one year short of the minimum twenty years required.[15]:47 Richard Jenkins (as the young man was still known) displayed early-on an excellent speaking and singing voice, winning an Eisteddfod prize as a boy soprano. He left school at age 16 for full-time work. He worked for the local wartime Co-operative committee, handing out supplies in exchange for coupons, but then considered other professions for his future, including boxing, religion and singing.[8]:27

When he joined the Port Talbot Squadron of the Air Training Corps as a cadet, he re-encountered Burton, his former teacher, who was the commander. He joined a youth drama group led by Leo Lloyd, a steel worker and avid amateur thespian, who taught him the fundamentals of acting. Burton, who recognised the youth's talent, then adopted him as his ward and Richard returned to school. Being older than most of the other boys, he was very attractive to some of the girls.[8]:30–31 Philip Burton later said, "Richard was my son to all intents and purposes. I was committed to him."[8]:34 Philip Burton tutored his charge intensely in school subjects, and also worked at developing the youth's acting voice, including outdoor voice drills which improved his projection.[12]:38

In 1943, at age 18, Richard Burton (who had taken his teacher's surname but would not change it by deed poll for several years[9]:41), was allowed into Exeter College, Oxford, for a special term of six months study, made possible because he was an air force cadet obligated to later military service. He subsequently served in the RAF (1944–1947) as a navigator. Burton's eyesight was too poor for him to be considered pilot-material.[14]

Early acting career

In the 1940s and early 1950s Burton worked on stage and in cinema in the United Kingdom. Before his war service with the Royal Air Force, he starred as Professor Higgins in a YMCA production of Pygmalion. He earned his first professional acting fees with radio parts for the BBC.[8]:35 He had made his professional acting debut in Liverpool and London, appearing in Druid's Rest, a play by Emlyn Williams (who also became a guru), but his career was interrupted by conscription in 1944.[12]:44 Early on as an actor, he developed the habit of carrying around a book-bag filled with novels, dictionaries, a complete Shakespeare, and books of quotations, history, and biography, and he enjoyed solving crossword puzzles. Burton could, given any line from Shakespeare's works, recite from memory the next several minutes of lines.[16] His love of language was paramount, as he famously stated years later, with a tearful Elizabeth Taylor at his side, "The only thing in life is language. Not love. Not anything else."[12]:43

In 1947, after his discharge from the RAF, Burton went to London to seek his fortune. He immediately signed up with a theatrical agency to make himself available for casting calls.[8]:45 His first film was The Last Days of Dolwyn, set in a Welsh village about to be drowned to provide a reservoir. His reviews praised him for his "acting fire, manly bearing, and good looks."[8]:48

Burton met his future wife, the young actress Sybil Williams, on the set, and they married in February 1949. They had two daughters, but divorced in 1963 after Burton's widely reported affair with Elizabeth Taylor. In the years of his marriage to Sybil, Burton appeared in the West End in a highly successful production of The Lady's Not for Burning, alongside Sir John Gielgud and Claire Bloom, in both the London and New York productions. He had small parts in various British films: Now Barabbas Was A Robber; Waterfront (1950) with Robert Newton; The Woman with No Name (1951); and a bigger part as a smuggler in Green Grow the Rushes, a B-movie.[12]:70–71

Reviewers took notice of Burton: "He has all the qualifications of a leading man that the British film industry so badly needs at this juncture: youth, good looks, a photogenic face, obviously alert intelligence, and a trick of getting the maximum of attention with a minimum of fuss."[8]:51 In the 1951 season at Stratford, he gave a critically acclaimed performance and achieved stardom as Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 opposite Anthony Quayle's Falstaff. Philip Burton arrived at Stratford to help coach his former charge, noting in his memoir that Quayle and Richard Burton had their differences about the interpretation of the Prince Hal role. Richard Burton was already demonstrating the same independence and competitiveness as an actor that he displayed off-stage in drinking, sport, or story-telling.[12]:73

Kenneth Tynan said of Burton's performance, "His playing of Prince Hal turned interested speculation to awe almost as soon as he started to speak; in the first intermission local critics stood agape in the lobbies."[8]:51 Suddenly, Richard Burton had fulfilled his guardian's wildest hopes and was admitted to the post-War British acting circle which included Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Hugh Griffith and Paul Scofield. He even met Humphrey Bogart, a fellow hard drinker, who sang his praises back in Hollywood.[8]:56 Lauren Bacall recalled, "Bogie loved him. We all did. You had no alternative." Burton bought the first of many cars and celebrated by increasing his drinking.[12]:73–74 The following year, Burton signed a five-year contract with Alexander Korda at £100 a week, launching his Hollywood career.

Hollywood and later career


 Richard Burton in the film Cleopatra (1963)
In 1952, Burton successfully made the transition to a Hollywood star; on the recommendation of Daphne du Maurier, he was given the leading role in My Cousin Rachel opposite Olivia de Havilland.[8]:59 Burton arrived on the Hollywood scene at a time when the studios were struggling. Television's rise was drawing away viewers and the studios looked to new stars and new film technology to staunch the bleeding. 20th Century Fox negotiated with Korda to borrow him for this film and a further two at $50,000 a film. The film was a critical success. It established Burton as a Hollywood leading man and earned him his first Academy Award nomination and the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year – Actor. In Desert Rats (1953), Burton plays a young English captain in the North African campaign during World War II who takes charge of a hopelessly out-numbered Australian unit against the indomitable Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (James Mason). Mason, another actor known for his distinctive voice and excellent elocution, became a friend of Burton's and introduced the new actor to the Hollywood crowd. In short order, he met Judy Garland, Greta Garbo, Stewart Granger, Jean Simmons, Deborah Kerr, and Cole Porter, and Burton met up again with Humphrey Bogart.[12]:82 At a party, he met a pregnant Elizabeth Taylor (then married to Michael Wilding) whose first impression of Burton was that "he was rather full of himself. I seem to remember that he never stopped talking, and I had given him the cold fish eye."[8]:60

The following year he created a sensation by starring in The Robe, the first film to premiere in the wide-screen process CinemaScope, winning another Oscar nomination. He replaced Tyrone Power, who was originally cast in the role of Marcellus, a noble but decadent Roman in command of the detachment of Roman soldiers that crucified Jesus Christ. Haunted by his guilt from this act, he is eventually led to his own conversion. Marcellus' Greek slave (played by Victor Mature) guides him as a spiritual teacher, and his wife (played by Jean Simmons) follows his lead, although it will mean both their deaths. The film marked a resurgence in Biblical blockbusters.[12]:85 Burton was offered a seven-year, $1 million contract by Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox, but he turned it down, though later the contract was revived and he agreed to it.[12]:87 It has been suggested that remarks Burton made about blacklisting Hollywood while filming The Robe may have explained his failure to ever win an Oscar, despite receiving seven nominations.

In 1954, Burton took his most famous radio role, as the narrator in the original production of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, a role he would reprise in the film version twenty years later. He was also the narrator, as Winston Churchill, in the highly successful 1960 television documentary series The Valiant Years.[8]:90

Stage career


 Burton as King Arthur with Roddy McDowall in the Broadway presentation of Camelot
Burton was still juggling theatre with film, playing Hamlet and Coriolanus at the Old Vic theatre in 1953 and alternating the roles of Iago and Othello with the Old Vic's other rising matinee idol John Neville. Hamlet was a challenge that both terrified and attracted him, as it was a role many of his peers in the British theatre had undertaken, including John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier.[12]:93 Bogart, on the other hand, warned him as Burton left Hollywood, "I never knew a man who played Hamlet who didn't die broke."[8]:67 Once again, Philip Burton provided expert coaching. Claire Bloom played Ophelia, and their work together led to a turbulent affair.[12]:94 His reviews in Hamlet were good but he received stronger praise for Coriolanus. His fellow actor Robert Hardy said, "His Coriolanus is quite easily the best I've ever seen" but Hamlet was "too strong".[12]:93

Burton appeared on Broadway, receiving a Tony Award nomination for Time Remembered (1958) and winning the award for playing King Arthur in the musical Camelot (1960), directed by Moss Hart and written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.[8]:67 Julie Andrews, fresh from her triumph in My Fair Lady, played Guenevere to Burton's King Arthur, with Robert Goulet as Lancelot completing the love triangle. The production was troubled, with both Loewe and Hart falling ill, numerous revisions upsetting the schedule and the actors, and the pressure- building due to great expectations and huge advance sales. The show's running time was nearly five hours. Burton took it all in his stride and calmed people down with statements like "Don't worry, love." Burton's intense preparation and competitive desire served him well. He was generous and supportive to others who were suffering in the maelstrom. According to Lerner, "he kept the boat from rocking, and Camelot might never have reached New York if it hadn't been for him."[8]:93 As in the play, both male stars were enamoured of their leading lady, newly married Andrews. When Goulet turned to Burton for advice, Burton had none to offer, but later he admitted, "I tried everything on her myself. I couldn't get anywhere either."[8]:94 Burton's reviews were excellent, Time magazine stated that Burton "gives Arthur the skilful and vastly appealing performance that might be expected from one of England's finest young actors." The show's album was a major seller. The Kennedys, newly in the White House, also enjoyed the play and invited Burton for a visit, establishing the link of the idealistic young Kennedy administration with Camelot.

He then put his stage career on hold to concentrate on film, although he received a third Tony Award nomination when he reprised his Hamlet under John Gielgud's direction in 1964 in a production that holds the record for the longest run of the play in Broadway history (136 performances).[8]:148 The performance was immortalised both on record and in a film, which played in US theatres for a week in 1964, as well as being the subject of books written by cast members William Redfield and Richard L. Sterne. Burton took the role on just after his marriage to Taylor. Since Burton disliked wearing period clothing, Gielgud conceived a production in a "rehearsal" setting with a half-finished set and actors wearing their street clothes (carefully selected while the production really was in rehearsal). Burton's basic reading of Hamlet, which displeased some theatre-goers, was of a complex manic-depressive personality, though during the long run he varied his performance considerably, as a self-challenge and to keep his acting fresh. On the whole, Burton had good reviews. Time said that Burton "put his passion into Hamlet's language rather than the character. His acting is a technician's marvel. His voice has gem-cutting precision."[8]:144 The opening night party was a lavish affair, attended by six hundred celebrities who paid homage to the couple. The most successful aspect of the production was generally considered to be Hume Cronyn's performance as Polonius, winning Cronyn the only Tony Award he would ever receive in a competitive category.

After his Hamlet, Burton did not return to the stage for twelve years, until 1976 in Equus. (He did accept the role of Humbert Humbert in Alan Jay Lerner's musical adaptation of Lolita entitled Lolita, My Love; however, he withdrew and was replaced by his friend and fellow Welshman John Neville.) His performance as psychiatrist Martin Dysart in Equus won him a special Tony Award for his appearance, but he had to make Exorcist II: The Heretic – a film he hated – before Hollywood producers would allow him to repeat his role in the 1977 film version. His final starring stage performance was in a critically reviled 1983 production of Noël Coward's Private Lives, opposite his ex-wife Elizabeth Taylor. Most reviewers dismissed the production as a transparent attempt to capitalise on the couple's celebrity, although they grudgingly praised Burton as having the closest connection to Coward's play of anyone in the cast.

Hollywood career in the 1950s and 1960s

In terms of critical success, Burton's Hollywood roles throughout the 1950s did not live up to the early promise of his debut. Burton returned to Hollywood to star in Prince of Players, another historical Cinemascope film, this time concerning Edwin Booth, the famous American actor and brother of Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. A weak script undermined a valiant effort by Burton, although the view of director Philip Dunne was that "The fire and intensity were there, but that was all. He hadn't yet mastered the tricks of the great movie stars, such as Gary Cooper."[8]:71 Next came Alexander the Great (1956), written, directed, and produced by Robert Rossen, with Burton in the title role, on loan to United Artists, again with Claire Bloom co-starring. Contrary to Burton's expectations, the "intelligent epic" was a wooden, slow-paced flop.[8]:75

In The Rains of Ranchipur, Burton plays a noble Hindu doctor who attempts the spiritual recovery of an adulteress (Lana Turner). Critics felt that the film lacked star chemistry, with Burton having difficulty with the accent, and relied too heavily on Cinemascope special effects including an earthquake and a collapsing dam. Burton returned to the theatre in Henry V and Othello, alternating the roles of Iago and Othello. He and Sybil then moved to Switzerland to avoid high British taxes and to try to build a nest-egg, for themselves and for Burton's family.[8]:75 He returned to film again in Sea Wife, shot in Jamaica and directed by Roberto Rossellini. A young Joan Collins (then called by the tabloids "Britain's bad girl") plays a nun shipwrecked on an island with three men. But Rossellini was let go after disagreements with Zanuck. According to Collins, Burton had a "take-the-money-and-run attitude" toward the film.[8]:75–77

Then in 1958, he was offered the part of Jimmy Porter, "an angry young man" role, in the film version of John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, a gritty drama about middle-class life in the British Midlands, directed by Tony Richardson, again with Claire Bloom as co-star. Though it didn't do well commercially (many critics felt Burton, at 33, looked too old for the part) and Burton's Hollywood box-office aura seemed to be diminishing, Burton was proud of the effort and wrote to his mentor Philip Burton, "I promise you that there isn't a shred of self-pity in my performance. I am for the first time ever looking forward to seeing a film in which I play".[12]:125 Next came The Bramble Bush and Ice Palace in 1960, neither important to Burton's career.

After playing King Arthur in Camelot on Broadway for six months, Burton replaced Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony in the troubled production Cleopatra (1963). Twentieth Century-Fox's future appeared to hinge on what became the most expensive movie ever made until then, reaching almost $40 million.[8]:97 The film proved to be the start of Burton's most successful period in Hollywood; he would remain among the top 10 box-office earners for the next four years. During the filming, Burton met and fell in love with Elizabeth Taylor, who was married to Eddie Fisher. The two would not be free to marry until 1964 when their respective divorces were complete. On their first meeting on the set, Burton said "Has anyone ever told you that you're a very pretty girl?" Taylor later recalled, "I said to myself, Oy gevalt, here's the great lover, the great wit, the great intellectual of Wales, and he comes out with a line like that."[8]:103 In their first scenes together, he was shaky and missing his lines, and she soothed and coached him. Soon the affair began in earnest and Sybil, seeing this as more than a passing fling with a leading lady, was unable to bear it. She fled the set, first for Switzerland, then for London.

The gigantic scale of the troubled production, Taylor's bouts of illness and fluctuating weight, the off-screen turbulence—all generated enormous publicity, which by-and-large the studio embraced. Zanuck stated, "I think the Taylor-Burton association is quite constructive for our organization."[8]:118But not necessarily for Burton. "Make up your mind, dear heart", cabled Laurence Olivier to him at this time. "Do you want to be a great actor or a household word?" Burton replied "Both".[17] The six-hour film was cut to under four, eliminating many of Burton's scenes, but the result was viewed the same—a film long on spectacle dominated by the two hottest stars in Hollywood. Their private lives turned out to be an endless source of curiosity for the media, and their marriage was also the start of a series of on-screen collaborations. Eventually, the film did well enough to recoup its great cost.


 Burton and Ava Gardner in The Night of the Iguana (1964)
Burton played Taylor's tycoon husband in The V.I.P.s, an all-star film set in the VIP lounge of London Airport which proved to be a box-office hit. Then Burton portrayed the archbishop martyred by Henry II in the title role of Becket, turning in an effective, restrained performance, contrasting with Peter O'Toole's manic portrayal of Henry.[8]:130

In 1964, Burton triumphed as defrocked Episcopal priest Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon in Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana directed by John Huston, a film which became another critical and box-office success. Richard Burton's performance in The Night of the Iguana may be his finest hour on the screen, and in the process helped put the town of Puerto Vallarta on the map (the Burtons later bought a house there). Part of Burton's success was due to how well he varied his acting with the three female characters, each of whom he tries to seduce differently: Ava Gardner (the randy hotel owner), Sue Lyon (the nubile American tourist), and Deborah Kerr (the poor, repressed artist).[8]:135

Against his family's advice, Burton married Elizabeth Taylor on Sunday 15 March 1964, in Montreal. Ever optimistic, Taylor proclaimed, "I'm so happy you can't believe it. This marriage will last forever".[8]:140 At the hotel in Boston, the rabid crowd clawed at the newlyweds, Burton's coat was ripped and Taylor's ear was bloodied when someone tried to steal one of her earrings.[8]:142

After an interruption playing Hamlet on Broadway, Burton returned to film as British spy Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Burton and Taylor continued making films together though the next one The Sandpiper (1965) was poorly received. Following that, he and Taylor had great success in Mike Nichols's film (1966) of the Edward Albee play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which a bitter erudite couple spend the evening trading vicious barbs in front of their horrified and fascinated guests, played by George Segal and Sandy Dennis. Burton was not the first choice for the role of Taylor's husband. Jack Lemmon was offered the role first, but when he backed off, Jack Warner, with Taylor's insistence, agreed on Burton and paid him his price. Albee preferred Bette Davis and James Mason, fearing that the Burtons' strong screen presence would dominate the film.[8]:155, 163 Nichols, in his directorial debut, managed the Burtons brilliantly. The script, adapted from Albee's play by Hollywood veteran Ernest Lehman, broke new ground for its raw language and harsh depiction of marriage. Although all four actors received Oscar nominations for their roles in the film (the film received a total of thirteen), only Taylor and Dennis went on to win. So immersed had the Burtons become in the roles of George and Martha over the months of shooting that, after the wrap, Richard Burton said, "I feel rather lost."[8]:142 Later the couple would state that the film took its toll on their relationship, and that Taylor was "tired of playing Martha" in real-life.[12]:206

Their lively version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1967), directed by Franco Zeffirelli, was a notable success. Later collaborations, however, The Comedians (1967), Boom! (1968), and the Burton-directed Doctor Faustus (1967) (which had its genesis from a theatre production he staged and starred in at the Oxford University Dramatic Society) were critical and commercial failures. Another box office failure was the 1969 movie Staircase, in which he and his "Cleopatra" co-star Rex Harrison appeared as a bickering homosexual couple. His fee for Staircase, $1.25 million (equivalent to approximately $8,477,273 in today's funds[18]) plus a share of the gross,[19] made him the highest-paid actor in the world.

He did enjoy a final commercial blockbuster with Clint Eastwood in the 1968 World War II picture Where Eagles Dare, a major hit in 1969,[20] for which he received a $1 million fee plus a share of the gross.[5] His last film of the decade, Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), was a commercial and critical disappointment. In spite of those failures, it performed remarkably well at that year's Academy awards (receiving ten nominations, including one for Burton's performance as Henry VIII), which many thought to be largely the result of an expensive advertising campaign by Universal Studios.[21]

Later career

Because of Burton and Taylor's extravagant spending and his support of his family and others (42 people at one point), Burton agreed to work in mediocre films, which hurt his career. He recognised his financial need to do so, and that in the New Hollywood era of cinema, neither he nor Taylor would be paid as well as at the height of their stardom.[20] Films he made during this period included Bluebeard (1972), Hammersmith Is Out (1972), The Klansman (1974), and Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). He did enjoy one major critical success in the 1970s in the film version of his stage hit Equus, winning the Golden Globe Award as well as an Academy Award nomination. Public sentiment towards his perennial frustration at not winning an Oscar made many pundits consider him the favourite to finally win the award, but on Oscar Night he lost to Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl.

In 1976 Burton received a Grammy in the category of Best Recording for Children for his narration of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He also found success in 1978, when he narrated Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. His distinctive performance became a necessary part of the concept album – so much so that a hologram of Burton was used to narrate the live stage show (touring in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010) of the musical. In 2011, however, Liam Neeson was cast in the part for a "next generation" rerecording, and subsequently also replaced Burton as the hologram character in the stage show.

Burton had an international box-office hit with The Wild Geese (1978), an adventure tale about mercenaries in Africa. The film was a success in the UK and Europe but had only limited distribution in the U.S. owing to the collapse of the studio that funded it and the lack of an American star in the movie. He returned to films with The Medusa Touch (1978), Circle of Two (1980), and the title role in Wagner (1983),[22] a role he said he was born to play, after his success in Equus. His last film performance, as O'Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four, was critically acclaimed,[20] though he was not the first choice for the part. According to the films director, Michael Radford, Paul Scofield was originally contracted to play the part, but had to withdraw due to a broken leg, then Sean Connery, Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger were all approached before Burton was cast. He had "heard stories" about Burtons heavy drinking, which had concerned the producers.[23]

At the time of his death, Burton was preparing to film Wild Geese II, the sequel to The Wild Geese, which was eventually released in 1985. Burton was to reprise the role of Colonel Faulkner, while his friend Sir Laurence Olivier was cast as Rudolf Hess. After his death, Burton was replaced by Edward Fox, and the character changed to Faulkner's younger brother.


He was nominated six times for an Academy Award for Best Actor and once for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – but he never won. His first nomination, for My Cousin Rachel (1952), was for Best Supporting Actor. His subsequent nominations all came in the Best Actor category.

He was nominated as Best Actor for The Robe in 1954, but did not receive another nomination until 1965, for Becket, at which time he was one of the most famous actors in the world, due to his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. Considered a favorite in the 1966 and '67 contests for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), he lost to Lee Marvin and Paul Scofield, respectively. His performance in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) was bested by John Wayne in True Grit and his comeback performance in Equus (1977) was topped by Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl.

In contrast to the Oscars, where he was an also-ran, Burton was a recipient of BAFTA, Golden Globe and Tony Awards for Best Actor.

From 1982, he and Becket co-star Peter O'Toole shared the record for the male actor with the most nominations (7) for a competitive acting Oscar without ever winning. In 2007, O'Toole was nominated for an eighth time (and subsequently lost), for Venus (however, O'Toole received an Academy Honorary Award in 2003).


Burton rarely appeared on television, although he gave a memorable performance as Caliban in a televised production of The Tempest for The Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1960. Later appearances included the television film Divorce His – Divorce Hers (1973) opposite then-wife Elizabeth Taylor (a prophetic title, since their first marriage would be dissolved less than a year later), a remake of the classic film Brief Encounter (1974) that was considered vastly inferior to the 1945 original, and a critically applauded performance as Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm (1974). Wagner, a film he made about the life of Richard Wagner (noted for having the only onscreen teaming of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in the same scenes) was shown as a television miniseries in 1983 after failing to achieve a theatrical release in most countries due to its nine-hour running time. Burton enjoyed a personal triumph in the American television miniseries Ellis Island in 1984, receiving a posthumous Emmy Award nomination for his final television performance.

Television played an important part in the fate of his Broadway appearance in Camelot. When the show's run was threatened by disappointing reviews, Burton and co-star Julie Andrews appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show to perform the number What Do The Simple Folk Do?. The television appearance renewed public interest in the production and extended its Broadway run.

Burton showed a subtle flair for comedy in a 1970 guest appearance with Elizabeth Taylor on the sitcom Here's Lucy, where he recited, in a plumber's uniform, a haunting excerpt of a speech from Shakespeare's Richard II. He later parodied this role in an episode of the television show The Fall Guy.

In 1997, archive footage of Burton was used in the first episode of the television series Conan.[24]

Books and articles

In 1964 Burton wrote a brief memoir of his childhood, A Christmas Story.[25] Set in a small mining town in Wales, this “smart and deeply felt”[26] story is told from the perspective of a young, motherless boy on the night before Christmas. It was published in 1968, and is written in the tradition of A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas—an author Burton refers to in his first sentence, which begins, “There were not many white Christmases in our part of Wales in my childhood...”[27]

Burton kept a written record of his experiences and thoughts in the form of a daily journal or a private diary. This began when he was 14 years old, and it continued, though he would sometimes set the project aside. It was eventually published posthumously, as The Richard Burton Diaries.[28][29]

Burton occasionally though rarely wrote magazine articles, including his article that appeared in Look Magazine in 1969, “Who Cares About Wales? I Do.”[30]

Personal life and views

Burton was married five times and he had four children. From 1949 until their divorce in 1963, he was married to Welsh actress/producer Sybil Williams, with whom he had two daughters, Katherine "Kate" Burton (born 10 September 1957) and Jessica Burton (born 1959).[31] He was married twice, consecutively, to actress Elizabeth Taylor, from 15 March 1964 to 26 June 1974 and from 10 October 1975 to 29 July 1976. Their first wedding took place in Montreal,[16] and their second wedding occurred, 16 months after their divorce, in the Chobe National Park in Botswana. In 1964, the couple adopted a daughter from Germany, Maria Burton (born 1 August 1961). Burton adopted Taylor's daughter by the late producer Mike Todd, Elizabeth Frances "Liza" Todd Burton (born 6 August 1957).[32]

The relationship Burton and Taylor portrayed in the film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was popularly likened to their real-life marriage.[33] Burton disagreed with others about Taylor's famed beauty, saying that calling her "the most beautiful woman in the world is absolute nonsense. She has wonderful eyes, but she has a double chin and an overdeveloped chest, and she's rather short in the leg."[34] In August 1976, a month after his second divorce from Taylor, Burton married model Suzy Miller, the former wife of Formula 1 Champion James Hunt;[35] the marriage ended in divorce in 1982. From 1983 until his death in 1984, Burton was married to make-up artist Sally Hay. In 1957 he became a tax exile, moving to Switzerland, where he lived until his death. In 1968 Burton's elder brother, Ifor, slipped and fell, breaking his neck, after a lengthy drinking session with Burton at the actor's second home in Céligny, Switzerland. The injury left him paralysed from the neck down.[36] His younger brother Graham Jenkins opined it may have been guilt over this that caused Burton to start drinking very heavily, particularly after Ifor died in 1973.[37]

In a February 1975 interview with his friend David Lewin he said he "tried" homosexuality. He also suggested that perhaps all actors were latent homosexuals, and "we cover it up with drink".[38] In 2000, Ellis Amburn's biography of Elizabeth Taylor suggested that Burton had an affair with Laurence Olivier and tried to seduce Eddie Fisher[page needed], although this was strongly denied by Burton's younger brother Graham Jenkins.[39]

Burton was a heavy smoker from the time he was just eight years old; and by his own admission in a December 1977 interview with Sir Ludovic Kennedy,[where?] Burton was smoking 60–100 cigarettes per day. According to his younger brother, Graham Jenkins's 1988 book Richard Burton: My Brother, he smoked at least a hundred cigarettes a day.[pages needed] His father, also a heavy drinker, refused to acknowledge his son's talents, achievements and acclaim.[11] In turn, Burton declined to attend his funeral, in 1957.[14] Burton's father died from a cerebral haemorrhage, in January 1957, at age 81.

Burton admired and was inspired by the actor and dramatist Emlyn Williams. He employed his son, Brook Williams, as his personal assistant and adviser and he was given small roles in some of the films in which Burton starred.[40]

Burton was banned permanently from BBC productions in November 1974 for writing two newspaper articles questioning the sanity of Winston Churchill and others in power during World War II – Burton reported hating them "virulently" for the alleged promise to wipe out all Japanese people on the planet.[41] The publication of these articles coincided with what would have been Churchill's centenary, and came after Burton had played him in a favourable light in A Walk with Destiny, with considerable help from the Churchill family. In one article he accused Churchill of having Welsh miners shot during strikes in the 1920s.[citation needed] However, Burton got along well with Churchill when he met him at a play in London,[citation needed] and kept a bust of him on his mantelpiece.[citation needed] Politically Burton was a lifelong socialist, although he was never as heavily involved in politics as his close friend Stanley Baker. He admired Democratic Senator Robert F. Kennedy[citation needed] and once got into a sonnet-quoting contest with him.[citation needed] In 1973 Burton agreed to play Josip Broz Tito in a film biography, since he admired the Yugoslav leader. While filming in Yugoslavia he publicly proclaimed that he was a communist, saying he felt no contradiction between earning vast sums of money for films and holding left-wing views since "unlike capitalists, I don't exploit other people."[42]

Burton courted further controversy in 1976 when he wrote an unsolicited article for The Observer about his friend and fellow Welsh thespian Stanley Baker, who had recently died from pneumonia at the age of 48; the article upset Baker's widow with its depiction of her late husband as an uncultured womaniser.[43]

Melvyn Bragg, in the notes of his Richard Burton: A Life, says that Burton told Laurence Olivier around 1970 of his own (unfulfilled) plans to make his own film of Macbeth with Elizabeth Taylor, knowing that this would hurt Olivier because he had failed to gain funding for his own cherished film version more than a decade earlier.

On his religious views, Burton was an atheist, stating, "I wish I could believe in a God of some kind but I simply cannot."[44]

Health issues


 Burton's gravestone at the Vieux Cemetery in Céligny. He is buried a few paces away from Alistair MacLean's grave.
Burton was an alcoholic who reportedly nearly died in 1974 from an excess of drinking. According to biographer Robert Sellers, "At the height of his boozing in the mid-70s he was knocking back three to four bottles of hard liquor a day."[45]

After drinking himself nearly to death during the shooting of The Klansman (1974), Burton was dried out at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Burton allegedly was so inebriated while making the picture that many of his scenes had to be filmed with him sitting or lying down due to his inability to stand. In some scenes, he appears to slur his words or speak incoherently.[46] According to his own diaries, subsequently he used Antabuse to try to stop his excessive drinking, which he blamed for wrecking his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor.[47] Burton himself said of the time leading up to his near loss of life, "I was fairly sloshed for five years. I was up there with John Barrymore and Robert Newton. The ghosts of them were looking over my shoulder."[48]

Burton said that he turned to the bottle for solace "to burn up the flatness, the stale, empty, dull deadness that one feels when one goes offstage."[45]

The 1988 biography of Burton by Melvyn Bragg[12] provides a detailed description of the many health issues that plagued Burton throughout his life. In his youth, Burton was a star athlete and well known for his athletic abilities and strength.

By the age of 41 he had declined so far in health that his arms were by his own admission thin and weak. He suffered from bursitis, possibly aggravated by faulty treatment, arthritis, dermatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, and kidney disease, as well as developing, by his mid-forties, a pronounced limp. How much of this was due to his intake of alcohol is impossible to ascertain, according to Bragg, because of Burton's reluctance to be treated for alcohol addiction; however, in 1974, Burton spent six weeks in a clinic to recuperate from a period during which he had been drinking three bottles of vodka a day. He was also a regular smoker, with an intake of between three and five packs a day for most of his adult life. Health issues continued to plague him until his death of a stroke at the age of 58.


Burton died at age 58 from a brain haemorrhage on 5 August 1984 at his home in Céligny, Switzerland, and is buried there.[49] Although his death was sudden, his health had been declining for several years, and he suffered from constant and severe neck pain. He had been warned that his liver was enlarged as early as March 1970,[36] and had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and kidney disease in April 1981. Burton was buried in a red suit, a tribute to his Welsh roots, and with a copy of Dylan Thomas' poems.[50] He and Taylor had discussed being buried together; his widow Sally purchased the plot next to Burton's and erected a large headstone across both, presumably to prevent Taylor from being buried there.



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