Richard Burton: The Welsh Wizard

Like many of my favorite actors (George C. Scott, William Holden), Richard Burton (Richard Walter Jenkins Jr, 1925-1984) radiated a rare combination of intelligence and macho charisma. He was athletic (a serious rugby player); when he donned Roman armor, it looked like it belonged on him, which is hardly the case with most actors. Yet when he recited poetry and classical drama, he understood and sold the meaning of it, an equal rarity. This mixture was something Laurence Olivier also possessed, one of the reasons Burton was often spoken of as Olivier’s successor, for a time. And yet there was another aspect to him that resonated with his times. The crystal diction and the celebrated voice were acquired through hard work. Burton had risen up from the lower depths. He was one of the People.

Burton was the 12th of 13 children, born to a Welsh coal miner. His mother, a barmaid, had died when he was two, so he was raised mostly by older siblings. When he was a teenager his schoolmaster, Philip Burton, seeing his potential took him on as his ward, trained him, cultivated him. School plays led to professional plays (including a well received turn as Prince Hal in Anthony Quayle’s adaptation of the two parts of Henry IV) which then led to movies.

Burton is often spoken of in terms of squandered talent, but that is only really true of his last years, and exaggerated, at that. The 1950s and ’60s were years of great accomplishment for him. His first Hollywood movie was the 1952 adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, which cast him opposite Olivia de Havilland. He was moody and sort of charmless in the role, but the following year he starred in the first Cinemascope Biblical/Roman blockbuster The Robe. During the 1953-54 season he took a break from Hollywood to play Shakespeare at the Old Vic, famously turning down a $1 million contract in order to tackle classics, taking on Hamlet, Coriolanus, Twelfth Night, and King John. His next movie was Prince of Players (1955) in which he played Edwin Booth. The title role in Alexander the Great followed in 1956. He was well received the 1957 Broadway adaptation of Jean Anoulih’s Time Remembered. This was followed by a turn as Heathcliff in a television production of Wuthering Heights (1958), and his iconic performances as the “angry young man” in Look Back in Anger (1959). 1960 to 1963 came his star turn in the original Broadway production of Camelot.

In 1963 he starred opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and The V.I.P.s, beginning the tumultuous relationship that would result in their famously quarrelsome marriage (1964-74, 75-76). Next came Becket (1964), The Night of the Iguana (1964), a Broadway production of Hamlet (1964), then The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), and several more films with Taylor: The Sandpiper (1965), Who’s Afraid Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Doctor Faustus (1967), The Comedians (1967), and Tennessee Williams’ notorious Boom! (1968). These are just a few notable productions out of scores of other credits. 

Burton worked steadily and constantly after this but rarely with the same amount of critical acclaim or success. Highlights included Anne of a Thousand Days (1969), the stage and screen versions of Equus (1974-77), The Wild Geese (1978), the tv series Wagner (1983) and the 1984 adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. The lowpoint, many might agree, was the incomprehensible Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). The downturn in Burton’s career (as well as his break with Taylor) date to the time of a radical increase in his drinking, which reached epic levels and took a massive toll on his health throughout the ’70s and ’80s. He was only 58 when a brain hemorrhage took him in 1984.