As one of the foremost interpreters of William Shakespeare's plays, it seemed both appropriate and ironic that the life of actor Richard Burton would, at times, seem taken from one of the writer's tragedies. Born into poverty in Wales, he took solace in classic literature and drink while still a young man; he poured that restless energy onto the stage, where critics were quick to compare him to Laurence Olivier. That level of expectation gave Burton entry into Hollywood, where he netted numerous Oscar nominations for "My Cousin Rachel" (1949), "The Robe" (1953), "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1968) and "Equus" (1976), but created a level of expectation for his talents that was nearly impossible to withstand. Punishing alcohol abuse and a tempestuous relationship with actress Elizabeth Taylor helped to undermine his health and standing in the industry; at the time of his death in 1984, he was poised for a comeback that never happened. Burton's legacy was bittersweet - he left the world with a wealth of extraordinary performances, but also with the unavoidable truth that he was capable of so much more.
He began life as Richard Walter Jenkins in Pontrhydyfen, a mining town in South Wales, on Nov. 10, 1925, the twelfth of 13 children born to Richard "Dic" Jenkins and his wife Edith, who died at the age of 44 while giving birth to the thirteenth child. Because his father was a heavy drinker and gambler whose lively personality hid a streak of violence, at age two, Burton was adopted, more or less, by his sister Cecilia and her husband, Elfed, and raised in Port Talbot. Another sibling, Ifor, who was 19 years older than Burton, became his de facto father figure, and in later years, his assistant and boon companion. Though he excelled at school, especially in English and Welsh literature, his interests were geared more toward rugby and cricket. At 15, he abandoned school to work as a haberdasher's assistant, but despised the menial work.
Already a dedicated smoker and regular drinker by his early teens, Burton was teetering on the edge of a dreary life when his schoolmaster, Meredith Jones, found him at a local youth center and persuaded the area school committee to re-admit him to grammar school. There, he began appearing in school performances, and made his radio debut in a documentary about the Air Training Corps, of which he was a member. His commanding officer at the Corps, Philip Burton, was also one of his schoolteachers, and recognized his growing fascination for poetry, particularly that of Welsh writer Dylan Thomas. Burton rigorously schooled him in both literature and acting, even sending him to Welsh mountaintops to work on voice projection. After receiving his school certificate, Richard was accepted to Exeter College at Oxford for a special term of study. In order to gain admittance as an undergraduate, Philip Burton was required to adopt the young man; after discovering that it was legally impossible to do so, he made Richard his ward, and changed his surname to Burton.
Before leaving for Exeter, Burton made his professional acting debut in the play "The Druid's Rest," in 1944. The show was successful enough to move to London, where he received his first positive review in the New Statesman magazine. Those words would solidify Burton's resolve to become an actor. While at Exeter, he appeared in his first significant Shakespearean role - Angelo in "Measure for Measure" - before an audience that included such important theatrical figures as John Gielgud and Terence Rattigan. Conscription briefly interrupted his career, but after serving in the Royal Air Force as a navigator from 1944 to 1947, he headed for London to make his way as an actor. Philip Burton briefly secured leave for his ward to appear in a BBC television production of "The Corn is Green" in 1946, which began a string of small screen appearances. The young actor also secured an acting contract for 500 pounds a year - more than his entire family had earned in their lives.
In 1949, he made his movie debut in the British drama "The Last Days of Dolwyn," about a Welshman who returned to his hometown with news of its imminent destruction. Critics took immediate notice of his commanding voice and presence; by the time he had made his second film, "Now Barabbas Was a Robber" (1950), he was earning comparisons to Sir Laurence Olivier. A stage performance in "The Lady's Not For Burning" opposite Gielgud and Claire Bloom further convinced theatergoers that Burton was the next great British actor, a notion that was cemented in 1951 when Anthony Quayle tapped him to play Prince Hal in "Henry IV" and "Henry V." Word of his talent reached Hollywood, where in 1952, he made his American feature debut in the mystery-romance "My Cousin Rachel" opposite Olivia de Havilland. The picture earned Burton his first Oscar nomination, as well as a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year. He further impressed by holding his own opposite James Mason in the wartime action-drama "The Desert Rats" (1953).
But it was "The Robe" (1953), a Biblical epic that cast him as decadent Roman whose guilt over crucifying Jesus Christ is only assuaged by converting to Christianity, which put him on the American filmgoer map. A colossal hit, it gave Burton his second Oscar nomination, and minted him as a genuine movie star. He soon fell in with the Hollywood establishment via Mason, who introduced him to such major figures as Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland and Cole Porter. All seemed to be charmed by the newcomer, save for one star - a young Elizabeth Taylor, then married to actor Michael Wilding, who found Burton somewhat self-impressed. Based on the success of "The Robe," Burton was offered a seven-year, $1 million contract by 20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck. In a move viewed as impetuous by many, Burton refused the offer to return to England for a season at the Old Vic Theatre, where he tackled one of the most demanding roles on stage - Hamlet. Critics were again agog over Burton's abilities, and between 1953 and 1956, he returned to England to give one stellar performance after another in productions of "Coriolanus," "Othello" (as Iago), and "Henry V," which won him the Evening Standard drama award. More importantly, the latter two plays spurred critic Kenneth Tynan to declare him the natural successor to Laurence Olivier.
Despite his increasingly busy schedule, Burton remained dedicated to poetry and literature, and gave frequent readings of classic works on BBC Radio. One of the most significant of these was a 1954 radio production of "Under Milk Wood," by his close friend, the Welsh writer Dylan Thomas, who had completed the script shortly before dying at the age of 39 from alcohol poisoning. Burton was devastated by the loss, and like the rest of the cast, performed for free, with all royalties donated to Thomas' family. Even with this ominous warning against an alcohol-fueled life, Burton was earning a reputation as a heavy drinker and womanizer, despite his 1949 marriage to actress Sybil Williams, whom he had met on the set of "The Last Days of Dolywn."
Burton returned to Hollywood filmmaking in 1955, playing an Indian doctor who falls under the sway of Lana Turner in "The Rains of Ranchipur" (1955); Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, whose brother John was Abraham Lincoln's assassin, in "The Prince of Players" (1955); and the title role in "Alexander the Great" (1956). None were successful with ticket buyers, and critics began to note that even at this early stage in his career, Burton was not living up to the initial promise of his first features. His work on stage, however, remained nothing less than stellar, with a Tony Award nomination for 1958's "Time Remembered" adding to the praise heaped on his Iago and Henry performances in England. In 1957, Burton and Sybil Williams moved to Switzerland to avoid the heavy tax penalties in England; their first daughter, Kate, who would later follow her father into the acting business, was born that same year.
Burton showed that he had lost none of his fire with a powerful turn as John Osbourne's angry young man in Tony Richardson's "Look Back in Anger" (1959). Though not a box office success, he was proud of his performance. The same could not be said, however, of "The Sea Wife" (1957), a turgid melodrama with Joan Collins as a disguised nun riling up Burton and other survivors of a cargo ship sunk by the Japanese, or "The Bramble Bush" (1960) or "Ice Palace" (1960). Many pundits noted that Burton appeared to be taking these roles for the paycheck - a charge that would be levied against him throughout the remainder of his life.
And then came "Camelot," Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's musical about King Arthur and the romance between Lady Guenevere and Sir Lancelot. The production was a challenge almost from its inception; Lerner and Loewe were under pressure to produce a musical that would match the success of their predecessor, "My Fair Lady," and months of work produced a show that, despite its star power - Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet and Roddy McDowall supported Burton's Arthur - ran five hours in length. "Camelot" eventually overcame its obstacles, thanks in no small part to Burton, who was acclaimed by nearly all participants as a calming presence. The show went on to run for over 800 performances, and netted four Tony Awards, including one for Burton as Best Actor. A favorite of then President John F. Kennedy, it also came to symbolize his administration, which was dubbed in the press as "Camelot."
After returning to feature work as one of the "42 international stars" that appeared in the massive World War II epic "The Longest Day" (1962), Burton was signed to play Marc Antony in "Cleopatra" (1963), the project that would, for better or worse, change the course of his life and career. A massively over-budgeted epic - at $44 million, the most expensive made then to that date - that put 20th Century Fox into near-financial ruin, the film, which chronicled the forbidden romance between Antony and Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) was overshadowed in the press by news that Burton and Taylor had begun a very public affair. It soon became the scandal of the day - Burton was still married to Williams, while Taylor was married to singer Eddie Fisher - and earned them the scorn and rebuke of both the Vatican and the U.S. Congress, which voted to prevent them from returning to the United States after filming in Rome was completed. The tidal wave of press only helped to bring curious moviegoers to theaters, which made it the highest grossing film of the year - though still a financial disaster, since its $26 million in ticket sales could never cover its price tag. The impact on Burton and Taylor's career, however, was immeasurable.
After divorcing Williams in 1963, with Taylor following suit in 1964, the couple finally married in March of that year, and settled into a routine of Hollywood glamour and excess, with every action covered in detail by the paparazzi. Crowds clamored for a glimpse of them at public events; in Boston, a throng of adoring fans physically assaulted the pair. For a time, they were the entertainment world's golden couple, appearing in no less than seven films together. The most successful of these was "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1967), a searing film adaptation of Edward Albee's play about a battling couple (Taylor and Burton) whose marriage troubles erupt before the horrified eyes of their guests (George Segal and Sandy Dennis). The picture earned Oscar nominations for all four stars, with Taylor and Dennis taking home the trophies. Also popular was the glossy drama "The VIPs" (1963), with Burton as a tycoon who takes advantage of a grounded flight to prevent his wife (Taylor) from leaving to join her lover (Louis Jordan), and "The Taming of the Shrew" (1967), a lush and rollicking adaptation of the Shakespeare play produced in part by the stars themselves.
As a solo performer, Burton made the history books by starring in a 1964 production of "Hamlet" that ran for 136 Broadway performances - the longest ever for that play. Directed by John Gielgud and staged with the actors in street clothes, it won Burton his third Tony Award, and was preserved on film by Bill Colleran that same year. He followed this with an Oscar nomination as Thomas Becket opposite Peter O'Toole in "Becket" (1964); John Huston's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana" (1964) as a defrocked priest tempted on all sides by Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon; and then with "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" (1965), a gritty Cold War drama about a burnt-out British spy targeted for defection by the East Germans. The latter earned him critical acclaim and another Oscar nomination. During this period, Burton was among the highest paid and most successful actors in the business, earning over $1 million per picture.
But by the mid-1960s, Burton and Taylor's onscreen fortunes began to decline. A series of flops, beginning with "The Sandpiper" (1965) and continuing through "The Comedians" (1967), the baffling "Boom!" (1967) and "Dr. Faustus" (1967), cast a pall on the relationship, both publicly and privately. Burton was stumbling without Taylor as well. "The Staircase" (1969), with Burton and Rex Harrison as gay lovers, was met with total bewilderment, as was the sex farce "Candy" (1968). Only "Where Eagles Dare" (1969), a WWII action drama with Clint Eastwood, saw a positive response from audiences; his turn as Henry VIII in "Anne of a Thousand Days" (1969) earned him an Oscar nomination, though the film itself was critically panned. Offscreen, life was no better. Burton's health was in steady decline due to round-the-clock smoking and drinking. By the time he commenced shooting "Raid on Rommel" in 1970, he was required to remain sober by physician's orders.
Burton's film career continued to decline in the 1970s. He gave enervated performances in a number of pictures, with only "Villain" (1971), an offbeat drama which cast him as a gay British gangster, and a film version of Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood" (1971), which he narrated, showing some sign of his former power. The 1972 death of his brother Ifor cast him into a deep depression that brought his marriage to Taylor - once the gold standard for Hollywood unions - to an end in 1974. The first half of the decade was a seemingly endless list of film disasters, with "The Klansman" (1974), a wrongheaded potboiler with Burton as a farmer pitted against Klan members, and "Exorcist II: The Heretic" (1977), an astonishing foolish semi-sequel to William Friedkin's horror classic, with Burton attempting to exorcise a teenaged Linda Blair, among the low points. But a return to Broadway in 1976 with "Equus," about a psychiatrist dealing with a young, sexually troubled patient, was a critical success, as was Sidney Lumet's 1977 film version, which earned Burton a Golden Globe and his final Oscar nomination. On the personal front, Burton reconciled with Taylor, whom he re-married in Botswana in 1975. The press was divided on whether the move was a positive one or not, as the two actors battled just as fiercely as they loved.
The union, like Burton's return to the spotlight, was short-lived. While rehearsing for "Equus," he fell in love with Susan Hunt, former wife of Formula 1 racing champion James Hunt. He divorced Taylor in 1975 and married Hunt. Meanwhile, the attention generated by "Equus" soon fell away as Burton returned to a string of unqualified failures, including "The Medusa Touch" (1978) and "Lovespell" (1979). Only "The Wild Geese" (1978), a rowdy, action-packed adventure with Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris and Stewart Granger as mercenaries hired to rescue an African leader, made any impact with moviegoers.
In 1980, Burton returned to theaters with a revival of "Camelot," but his tenure in the show was short-lived. Chronic back pain, along with cirrhosis of the liver and kidneys, forced him to abandon the show and undergo life-saving surgery. In "Wagner" (1983), Burton historically co-starred with fellow legendary thespians Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, but the film was another disaster; scathing critical reviews forced its producers to withdraw it from screenings and re-edit the project into a television miniseries. That same year, Burton undertook a national tour of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" opposite his famous ex-wife that was lambasted by critics. Adding insult to injury was the failure of his marriage to Susan Hunt, which ended in divorce in 1982.
While working on "Wagner," Burton met production assistant Sally Hay. Charmed by her independence and work ethic, he fell in love with her, and they married while on tour with "Private Lives" in 1983. After giving a heartfelt performance as the White Knight opposite his daughter as "Alice in Wonderland" (PBS, 1983), his first film project since "Wagner" was Michael Radford's adaptation of George Orwell's "1984," with Burton as O'Brien, a sinister member of a totalitarian government who tortured John Hurt's low-ranking office worker for the crime of free thought. Though nearly incapacitated by chronic neck and back pain throughout the film, his work was considered among the best he had delivered in decades.
After completing the American miniseries, "Ellis Island" (CBS, 1984), Burton returned to Switzerland and began preparing to work on "Wild Geese II." On August 5 of that year, Burton suffered a brain hemorrhage and died at his home in Celigny. He was buried with a copy of Dylan Thomas' poems. Amidst the flood of tributes that followed in his wake was a posthumous Emmy nomination for "Ellis Island" and the film "Wild Geese II" (1985) being dedicated to his memory after he was replaced by Edward Fox. In the years after his death, Burton remained a fixture in the one medium that had witnessed his greatest triumphs - the stage - as a hologram in the live stage show of "Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds," a concept album he had narrated in 1978.