Richard Burton (1925-1984) was known for his outstanding abilities as a Shakespearean actor, his commanding presence on Broadway, and his compelling screen portrayals. He was almost as famous for his romance with actress Elizabeth Taylor, to whom he was twice married.
Richard Burton was born on November 10, 1925, in the Welsh coal-mining town of Pontrhydfen. One of 13 children in the family of Thomas and Edith Jenkins, he was born Richard Jenkins. As a child, he was permitted a "normal" life, which included swimming and rugby. His father, a coal miner, wanted one of his sons to "live in sunshine," so he was sent to school rather than to the mines. He changed his last name upon becoming a professional actor to honor Philip Burton, his high school drama coach and mentor, who became his guardian. The young man spoke no English until the age of ten. His mentor taught him to speak English without a Welsh accent, to read the classics, and to hold a knife and fork.
Burton entered Exeter College, Oxford, on scholarship and, after one year, joined the Royal Air Force in 1944. Training as a navigator in Canada, he was discharged in 1947, after which he accepted a $30 weekly salary with a London theater company. In May 1949 Burton played at London's Globe Theatre in The Lady's Not For Burning. On February 5, 1949, he married actress Sybil Williams, and the couple subsequently had two daughters, Kate and Jessica.
Burton went to New York City in November 1950 to play in the Broadway production of The Lady's Not For Burning. He then went to Hollywood in 1952 and starred in My Cousin Rachel opposite Olivia de Havilland. For this film he received an Oscar nomination.
Between 1950 and 1960 Burton appeared in many stage productions, playing most of the great Shakespearean roles. In 1960 Burton's role of King Arthur in Camelot, then on Broadway, landed him a Twentieth Century Fox contract to play opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.
After divorcing his wife in April 1963, Richard Burton married Taylor on March 15, 1964. She had divorced actor Eddie Fisher, and so great was the scandal surrounding the Burton-Taylor romance that the U.S. State Department was requested to revoke Burton's visa on grounds that he was "detrimental to the morals of the youth of our nation."
Liz and Dick, as they were known, lived on a grand scale. He bought her jewels, including the 69-carat Cartier diamond. They bought a yacht for $500,000. On a more conventional note, they adopted a daughter, Maria.
Partly because Burton was a tempestuous alcoholic, he and Taylor divorced in 1974. So great was the pull between them, however, that on October 10, 1975, they remarried. Burton once said of Taylor, "Our love is so furious we burn each other out." As if to prove the point, the couple once more divorced, in July 1976. Burton then married former model Suzy Hunt.
Burton and Taylor appeared in almost a dozen films between 1962 and 1972. She won several Oscars. He never received any although he was nominated seven times, most notably for his role in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966.
Troubled by a drinking problem that he kept under control for brief periods of time, Burton also suffered acute spinal pain. In 1980 he underwent neck surgery to alleviate the discomfort. In 1983 he and Taylor appeared together on Broadway in Noel Coward's Private Lives. Burton, divorced from Hunt, was married by then to Sally Hay.
On August 5, 1984, Richard Burton died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage in Geneva, Switzerland.
Several biographies about Richard Burton have appeared. They include Richard Burton: A Biography (1971) by John Cottrell, and Richard Burton (1981) by Paul Ferris. There is also a substantial amount of information about Burton's life in Kitty Kelley's Elizabeth Taylor, The Last Star (1981) and in David Lester's Richard and Elizabeth (1977). A later, gossipy biography was Hollis Alpert's Burton (1986). □