By the age of 25, Welsh-born actor Richard Burton (1925-1984) was hailed as the new Laurence Olivier. At 36, his role as King Arthur in Moss Hart’s musical Camelot (1960) saw him acclaimed as “the King of Broadway”. In 1961, while filming Cleopatra, he and Elizabeth Taylor became the most celebrated Hollywood lovers of all time. When Olivier cautioned his friend by telegram: “Make up your mind, dear heart. Do you want to be a great actor or a household name?”, Burton cabled back “Both!” But when the actor died in 1984, his unfulfilled potential was blamed on compromising bad film choices for fees, alcoholism and the soap opera surrounding his jet-set life with Taylor.
The son of a Welsh miner and a barmaid, Richard Jenkins was the twelfth of 13 children and was brought-up by his sister Cecilia (Cis) after his mother died and his “twelve-pints-a-day-man” father absented himself on gambling and drinking sprees. He would later say: “I am so much my father’s son that I give myself the occasional creeps.” The actor would also admit: “I would rather have played for Wales at Cardiff Arms Park than Hamlet at the Old Vic.” Schoolmaster Philip Burton nurtured the young man’s interest in drama and helped to develop the mellifluous baritone voice once it had broken. Changing his name by deed poll, Richard Burton became his schoolmaster’s legal ward.
As an RAF cadet scholar at Exeter College, Oxford, Burton performed in Measure for Measure in front of an audience that included actor Sir John Gielgud, playwright Terence Rattigan and West End Producer Binkie Beaumont. After three years as an RAF navigator, Burton was discharged in 1947 and moved to London where Beaumont put him under contract. While filming his first role in 1949 The Last Days of Dolwyn, Burton met Sybil Williams who he married. Under the patronage of British film legend Alexander Korda, Burton was judged by The Observer as “having all the qualities of a leading man that the British film industry needs at this juncture: youth, good looks, a photogenic face, obviously alert intelligence and a trick of getting the maximum of effort with the minimum of fuss.”
An actor’s life
Comparisons with the great Olivier were made when Gielgud directed Burton in The Lady’s Not for Burning co-starring Claire Bloom in the West End and on Broadway. As Bloom wryly put it: “He was recognisably a star… a fact he didn’t question.” Performances as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1 and 2 at the Festival of Britain seemed to confirm Burton as a great Shakespearean actor. But, just as Olivier had found limited success in Hollywood and was eclipsed by his wife Vivien Leigh, so Burton would be eclipsed by Taylor.
His first American film was a starring role in George Cukor’s My Cousin Rachel with Olivia de Havilland but his breakthrough was in the Biblical epic The Robe (1953) – the first film shot in CinemaScope – of which Burton would say: “The Robe was lousy but an almighty hit. I was dulled as ditch water and an almighty flop.”
Burton was caught between the lure of Hollywood money and the legitimacy of the stage. Humphrey Bogart told him: “I never knew a man who played Hamlet who didn’t die broke.” Twentieth Century Fox chief Daryl F. Zanuck offered him a seven-year, seven-picture, $1 million contract. Burton decided to play Hamlet and Coriolanus at the Old Vic before returning to LA to make a series of flops including Alexander the Great, The Rains of Ranchipur and an execrable romantic comedy with Joan Collins called Sea Wife. A film version of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1959 co-starring Claire Bloom was a success, as was Burton’s triumph on Broadway with Julie Andrews in Camelot.
Taylor and Burton had met before he was cast as Antony in the 1961 epic Cleopatra that Twentieth Century Fox was hoping would save the ailing studio. She had thought him arrogant. Despite both being married (he to Sybil and she to Eddie Fisher), Taylor and Burton began an all-consuming, very public affair that would be played out in purchases of fabulous jewels through two marriages and two divorces finally ending in 1976. While still making Cleopatra, Taylor gifted Burton a yellow-gold, automatic Patek Philippe watch with a woven gold bracelet and champagne-coloured dial. It is inscribed on the back with the words “Rwy’n dy garu di” – “I love you” in Welsh – and was sold at Christie’s South Kensington in 2002 for £10,000.
The Taylor-Burton scandal ensured the over-long Cleopatra would be a hit at the box office when it was released in 1963 and for the next five years Burton was one of the top ten box office draws co-starring with his wife in The VIPs (1963), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and Boom! (1968). Burton and Taylor were said to have made $88 million in the mid-1960s while spending $65 million on villas, jewels, private jets and extravagant entertaining. As Burton said of their wealth: “I’ve made more millions than I can count. But you know it’s faerie gold – the tax people take most of it and the rest goes to people you need to stay alive, places to live, conveyances to get from here to there.”
Both Burton and Taylor were known as hell-raisers prone to the drinking that the former blamed on their twice-failed marriage. Many saw parallels in the characters of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The crucial difference off-screen was that Taylor won an Oscar for her performance while Burton was overlooked. Burton did enjoy success in films such as Where Eagles Dare (1969) and Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and was awarded a CBE in 1970. For this Taylor presented him with a yellow-gold Omega Constellation while they were living at his villa in Gstaad. It was auctioned for £9,635 after Burton’s death.
By 1974, Burton admitted to Taylor: “I’m afraid we are temporarily out in the cold and fallen stars. What’s remarkable is that we have stayed up there for so long.” When Taylor and Burton divorced for the first time in 1974 he was said to be drinking three bottles of vodka a day and smoking up to 100 cigarettes. As he said, he used alcohol “to burn up the flatness, the stale, empty, dull deadness that one feels when one goes off-stage”. Burton dried-out in California having admitted to being “fairly sloshed for five years”. The couple would remarry in 1975 only to divorce less than a year later. Burton would subsequently marry model Suzy Miller and make-up artist Sally Hay.
Richard Burton died in Geneva in 1984 aged 58, having been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and kidney disease three years previously. He had made a welcome comeback in the 1978 film The Wild Geese and was preparing to film a sequel but was replaced by Edward Fox. In Burton’s final analysis, “an actor is something less than a man, while an actress is something more than a woman”. But together Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were pure gold both on screen and off: one of the 20th century’s most glamorous and alluring couples.