Richard Walter Burton, Welsh actor. 1925 - 1984
"I rather like my reputation, actually, that of a spoiled genius from the Welsh gutter, a drunk, a womaniser; it's rather an attractive image."
Richard Burton became a household name as an actor, womaniser, bon viveur and veteran of many marriages. His good looks, rich voice and strong, charming personality kept him popular on stage, screen and radio for three decades. His is another rags to riches story, rising to the heights of life and plunging to the depths.
Born Richard Walter Jenkins on 19th November, 1925, he was the twelfth of thirteen children born to a mining family in Pontrhydyfen, South Wales. His childhood was a struggle. His father, Dick Bach was a hard-working coal miner who was partial to drink, his mother Edith was cheerful and hard-working. As a child, he was very close to his mother, following her everywhere. It must have been an enormous wrench to lose her two weeks before his second birthday, as she died soon after giving birth to his younger brother. His father, unable to cope with his large family, packed young Richard off to stay with his (Dick's) sister in Port Talbot.
By the age of eight, Richard had developed a taste for beer, cigarettes and rebellion. Sitting in cinemas and smoking was his idea of heaven, and he became an accomplished fibber, as his foster parents did not hold with his habits. As time went on, he was often punished, not just for his behaviour, but for lying. This may have been the start of his acting career, as he and his siblings needed to be both creative and consistent in their stories. Richard had a gift for spinning yarns from an early age.
His schooling began in the local Infants School, where he quickly learned to read and write. Although his first language was Welsh, he was soon fluent in English, much to the delight of Meredith Jones, one of his teachers. Jones had founded a youth club in Taibach, where Richard was to take his first steps on the stage. He was also instrumental in getting Richard into the local grammar school, which was to prove a major factor in developing his love of both language and literature.
It was at the Port Talbot Secondary School that Richard began to really grow. A keen sportsman, he played rugby and cricket with equal zeal and elan, and also joined the dramatic society, where he quickly became a favourite in many school plays. It was also here that he met his second mentor, schoolmaster Philip Burton, who was an admired local actor, in addition to producing plays for BBC radio. Shortly after his fifteenth birthday, his father had him start work in a local store, which Richard hated. Imaginative and energetic, the drudge of a 9-5 day was too much for him. He started drinking with the local "rough boys", becoming even more rebellious and difficult to handle.
A New Direction
Unruly as he was, the lad recognised that he was going nowhere and decided to return to school. With the help of both Jones and Burton, he was accepted back into school, where he came under the close watchful eye of his masters. Philip Burton decided that Richard needed guidance, and suggested that the best way for his to provide this was for the boy to live under his own roof. After getting permission from his parents, Richard moved in with Philip in 1943, and began to work closely with him, being cast in a number of radio plays. Finally, Philip became Richard's ward, becoming his legal guardian. Richard Jenkins became Richard Burton.
Richard was canny enough to go along with his adopted father's plans, as he had a strong desire to get out from the narrow communities of the valleys and into the wider world outside. He took advantage of an RAF recruiting scheme, which offered a short course at Oxford or Cambridge universities. His guardian sponsored him to attend Oxford, where he joined the Oxford University Dramatic Society and met Robert Hardy and received a great deal of support and encouragement from the literary and dramatic circles.
He never stopped his rambunctious behaviour though, his capacity for drinking and mischief becoming legendary. Failing to become a pilot through poor eyesight, he left Oxford in 1944, one of twelve prize-winning cadets to receive his commission as a navigator. Posted to Norfolk at the end of the war, Burton entertained himself by drinking, poaching and sleeping with every woman he could. By the end of his RAF career in 1947, he was ready for a new move.
An Acting Career
His first role as a professional actor was in the Emlyn Williams play The Corn is Green, which was being filmed for broadcast by the BBC, followed a year later by his first film role in The Last Days of Dolwyn, another Williams production. Whilst on location in North Wales, Burton met Sybil Williams, a pretty 18-year-old Welsh actress. Charming, elegant and vivacious, she immediately appealed to Burton, and they were married shortly after their first meeting, on 5th February, 1949, in Kensington.
Marriage did not change his habits, especially with women. Burton was persistent in his womanising, having a continuing series of one-night stands, to Sybil's constant amazement. Despite his actions, she continued to be his ideal wife, ignoring his many forays into infidelity, or at least tolerating them.
Burton was by now well into film, having appeared in five Darryl F. Zanuck productions beginning with one based on the novel My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. He began to reap the rewards of his hard work, winning numerous awards, and an Oscar nomination. In 1953 he landed his first leading role in The Robe (1953). He was now in demand, both on screen and off. His tall tales, which seemed to grow with every telling, were legendary, and he fascinated American radio and TV audiences with his stories of his upbringing in deepest Wales.
Ever the ladies' man, he charmed and wooed them into beds, sheds and alleys whenever he could, even after the birth of his first child, Kate, in 1957. He left mother and child in Switzerland and flew back to the States to film Sea Wife, where he met Susan Strasberg, then a 19-year-old aspiring actress. He moved in with her briefly, raising her hopes of a glorious future with a young star, only to drop her like a hot rock a few months later.
Burton was not renowned for emotional attachments (his father had died in early 1957 - Burton declined to attend the funeral. "My father was a very unsentimental person. He would be shocked if he knew I had travelled more than seven hundred miles to go to his funeral", he said). Nevertheless, he was no fool, and was suitably discreet whenever Sybil was around. After all, he did not want to test her patience too much.
In 1960 he returned to Britain to film Look Back In Anger, and his second child, Jessica was born.
In 1961, he was offered the role of Mark Anthony in Cleopatra, opposite the young Elizabeth Taylor. He had met her previously, and had failed to attract her attention (the story goes that she would not leave the book she was reading for him). One afternoon he went to watch her filming a nude scene, and was once again struck with her beauty "like a man possessed". Elizabeth, then married to Eddie Fisher, was looking for another man. This time, Richard caught her eye, and they began an affair.
His close friends were not happy, and could see that this new relationship posed a threat to him, his career and his family. His friend Laurence Olivier sent him a telegram, asking him "Make up your mind, dear heart. Do you want to be a great actor or a household word?" Burton replied, "Both."
To begin with, it seemed that this was just another affair, and Sybil put up with it as she had all his others, but this was to prove a very different kettle of fish indeed. Jessica had been diagnosed with autism, and Burton, despite his attraction to Elizabeth, left the affair to be with his own family. His action drove Taylor into despair, and she took an overdose of sleeping pills and was rushed into hospital. For once, Burton was moved emotionally, and decided that he wanted to marry Elizabeth. Sybil returned to Rome, determined that despite everything, she would not end their marriage. It was all up to Richard. The whole world seemed against him. Many of his friends and family were opposed to his new relationship, and his treatment of Sybil and their daughters.
The new couple arrived in London, very much in the spotlight. The public was outraged at Burton's behaviour, and Taylor too, had to work very hard to be accepted by the public, and Burton's friends and family. Sybil had started drinking heavily, but was determined that she would start a new life, away from Burton and all he represented. They were divorced in 1963, with a generous financial settlement. Burton and Taylor were married the same year.
Where Sybil was forgiving, Elizabeth was not. Her jealousy was total - Richard could barely look at another woman without Elizabeth scolding him. Equally, he became possessive about Elizabeth, but his insecurity was such that he needed more attention than his new wife could give. His escape could not be to other women, he knew that by now. Instead, he turned to another old friend - the booze. Fuelled by a spirit of competition, both began drinking more and more, and they began fighting, first privately, then publicly.
Ironically, the final straw was the film Divorce His - Divorce Hers. In 1973, Elizabeth announced that they were separated. "I am convinced it would be a good and constructive idea if Burton and I separated for a while." Perhaps to try and recoup some self-esteem, and rescue their relationship, Burton stopped drinking, but to no avail. They were divorced in 1974
The Gathering Storm
Burton began drinking again, almost continually, daily. For six months he wandered in and out of depression until he was finally admitted to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, where he finally realised that he was putting his life at risk. Over the next month he gradually dried out, and vowed never to drink again.
All this came undone with a new affair, this time with Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, a cousin of the Duke of Kent. He began drinking again, and within six months the affair was over. He had never quite been out of touch with Elizabeth Taylor, and they remarried in Botswana in 1975.
Again, it was doomed to failure. Nothing had changed, either in themselves, or between one another. Burton continued to drink, and was a regular patient at the Wellington Clinic. His health was declining, he was not as popular as he had been, and his marriage was again on the rocks. Whilst rehearsing his role in Equus he met Susan Hunt (who had recently separated from her racing-driver husband James. Once again, Richard was smitten, and he divorced Elizabeth for the second time, in 1976 to marry Susan.
Again, although Susan tried to keep him "dry", Richard had never overcome his alcoholism, and they were divorced in 1982. Later that year, he took the title role in Wagner, where he met production assistant Sally Hay, who impressed him with her organisation and professionalism. "She can do everything…there’s nothing she can’t do…she looks after me so well. Thank God I’ve found her".
In 1984 the couple took a five-month break in Haiti. Richard seemed to be both fit and happy on his return to work, and finished the film Nineteen Eighty-Four, and began preparing to finish Wild Geese II. Sadly, he was not to finish it. On 5th August, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage in Geneva, at the age of just 58. He was laid to rest in Céligny. Fittingly, for a patriotic Welshman, he was buried with a copy of the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas.
I remember Richard Burton more for his voice than anything. I heard him reading Under Milk Wood on the radio at school. It thrilled me, these rich tones, his careful rhythm, his Welsh pride evident in every syllable. Thirty years on, it still sends a shiver through me when I think of that day.
Nothing to do with the adventurer and translator Richard Francis Burton