Nationality: British. Born: Richard Walter Jenkins Jr. in Pontrhydyfen, Wales, 10 November 1925. Education: Attended Exeter College, Oxford. Military Service: Royal Air Force, 1944–47. Family: Married 1) the actress Sybil Williams, 1949 (divorced), daughters: Kate and Jessica; 2) the actress Elizabeth Taylor, 1964 (divorced 1974; remarried 1975, divorced 1976), child: adopted daughter Maria; 3) Susan Hunt, 1976 (divorced 1982); 4) Sally Hay, 1983. Career: 1943—changed name to Richard Burton, after schoolmaster Philip Burton who encouraged his acting career; stage debut in Liverpool in Druid's Rest ; 1948—following military service, returned to stage in London; film debut in The Last Days of Dolwyn ;
The Last Days of Dolwyn ( Dolwyn ) (Williams) (as Gareth)
Now Barabbas Was a Robber . . . ( Which Will You Have? ) (Parry) (as Paddy)
Waterfront ( Waterfront Women ) (Anderson) (as Ben Satterthwaite); The Woman with No Name ( Her Panelled Door ) (Vajda and O'Ferrall) (as Nick Chamerd)
Green Grow the Rushes ( Brandy Ashore ) (Twist) (as Robert "Bob" Hammond)
My Cousin Rachel (Koster) (as Philip Ashley)
The Desert Rats (Wise) (as Capt. MacRoberts); The Robe (Koster) (as Marcellus Gallio); Thursday's Children (Anderson and Brenton) (as narrator)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (Daves) (in film clip from The Robe ); Prince of Players (Dunne) (as Edwin Booth)
The Rains of Ranchipur (Negulesco) (as Dr. Safti); Alexander the Great (Rossen) (title role)
Sea Wyf and Biscuit ( Sea Wyf ) (McNaught) (as Biscuit); Amère victoire ( Bitter Victory ) (Nicholas Ray) (as Capt. Leith)
March to Aldermaston (as narrator)
Look Back in Anger (Richardson) (as Jimmy Porter)
The Bramble Bush (Petrie) (as Guy); Ice Palace (Vincent Sherman) (as Zeb Kennedy)
Dylan Thomas (Howells—short); A Midsummer Night's Dream (Sackler); Sen noci svatojánské (Jiří Trnka) (as narrator of English-language version)
The Longest Day (Annakin, Marton, Wicki, and Oswald) (as RAF pilot)
Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) (as Mark Antony); The V.I.P.s (Asquith) (as Paul Andros); Zulu (Endfield) (as narrator); Inheritance (Irvin—short) (as narrator)
Becket (Glenville) (title role); The Night of the Iguana (Huston) (as the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon); Hamlet (Colleran—for TV, filmed record of Gielgud's New York theater production) (title role)
The Sandpiper (Minnelli) (as Dr. Edward Hewitt); What's New, Pussycat? (Clive Donner) (as man in bar); The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Ritt) (as Alec Leamas); Eulogy to 5.02 (Herschensohn—short) (as narrator); The Days of Wilfred Owen (produced by Lewine and Bach) (as narrator)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols) (as George); La Bisbetica Domata ( The Taming of the Shrew ) (Zeffirelli) (as Petruchio, + co-pr)
The Comedians (Glenville) (as Brown); The Comedians in Africa (short)
Boom! (Losey) (as Chris Flanders); Candy (Marquand) (as McPhisto); Where Eagles Dare (Hutton) (as John Smith); The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Queenan) (as narrator)
Anne of the Thousand Days (Jarrott) (as King Henry VIII); Staircase (Donen) (as Harry Leeds)
Villain (Tuchner) (as Vic Dakin); Raid on Rommel (Hathaway) (as Capt. Alec Foster)
The Assassination of Trotsky (Losey) (title role); Hammersmith Is Out (Ustinov) (title role); Barbe-Bleue ( Bluebeard ) (Dmytryk) (as Baron Von Sepper/title role); A Wall in Jerusalem (Knobler and Rossif—English-language version of Un Mur à Jérusalem ) (as narrator); Sutjeska ( The Fifth Offensive ) (Delic) (as Josip Broz Tito)
Il viaggio ( The Voyage ; The Journey ) (de Sica) (as Cesar Braggi); Under Milk Wood (Sinclair) (as narrator); Divorce: His/Divorce: Hers ( Divorce ) (Hussein—for TV); Rappresaglia ( Massacre in Rome ) (Cosmatos) (as Col. Kappler)
The Klansman (Terence Young) (as Breck Stancill); Gathering Storm (Wise) (as Winston Churchill); Brief Encounter (Alan Bridges—for TV)
Volcano (Brittain) (as narrator); Resistance (McMullen)
Exorcist II: The Heretic (Boorman) (as Father Lamont); Equus (Lumet) (as Dr. Martin Dysart)
The Wild Geese (McLaglen) (as Col. Allen Faulkner); Stars' War: The Flight of the Wild Geese (Johnstone—short); The Medusa Touch (Gold) (as John Morlar)
Breakthrough ( Sergeant Steiner ) (McLaglen) (as Sgt. Steiner); Love Spell (Donovan)
Circle of Two (Dassin) (as Ashley St. Clair)
Absolution (Anthony Page) (as Fr. Goddard)
Wagner (Palmer—for TV) (title role)
1984 (Radford) (as O'Brien)
Doctor Faustus (co-d with Nevill Coghill, + title role, co-pr)
A Christmas Story (novel), New York, 1964.
Interview in Playboy (Chicago), September 1963.
Cottrell, John, and Fergis Cashin, Richard Burton, Very Close Up , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972.
Ferris, Paul, Richard Burton , New York, 1981.
Junor, Penny, Burton: The Man behind the Myth , London, 1985.
Alpert, Hollis, Burton , New York, 1986.
Bragg, Melvyn, Rich: A Biography of Richard Burton , London, 1988; as Richard Burton: A Life , New York, 1989.
Jenkins, Graham, with Barry Turner, Richard Burton: My Brother , London, 1988.
Bradanyi, Ivan, Richard es Elizabeth: Richard Burton es Elizabeth Taylor elete , Budapest, 1992.
Steverson, Tyrone, Richard Burton: A Bio-Bibliography , Westport, Connecticut, 1992.
Brinson, P., "Prince from Wales," in Films and Filming (London), May 1955.
Current Biography 1960 , New York, 1960.
Dunne, Philip, "Richard Burton: A True Prince of Players," in Close-Up: The Movie Star Book , edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
"Richard Burton," in Ecran (Paris), February 1978.
Obituary in New York Times , 6 August 1984.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 8 August 1984.
Baxter, Brian, "Richard Burton," in Films and Filming (London), October 1984.
Guérif, F., "Richard Burton," in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), November 1984.
Merkin, D., obituary in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1984.
Denby, David, "Requiem for a Heavyweight," in Premiere (New York), February 1991.
"Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor," in People Weekly (New York), 12 February 1996.
Diamond, Suzanne, "Who's Afraid of George and Martha's Parlour?," Literature/Film Quarterly, (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 24, no. 4, October 1996.
* * *
Richard Burton's turbulent life overwhelmed the public perception of his vast talent. Born Richard Jenkins, the twelfth child of a hard-drinking Welsh miner, he was raised from the age of two by his eldest sister following the death of their mother. Love of language (exclusively Welsh until the age of five) and gift of gab influenced an early plan to enter the ministry, a notion extinguished in his teens when, anticipating his role as the minister defrocked for dallying with his underage parishioners in The Night of the Iguana , he realized he lacked all religious feeling. He turned instead to acting under the eventual tutelage of a secondary school teacher, Philip Henry Burton, who coached him to develop his remarkably resonant voice and, equally, to erase traces of his rough-hewn upbringing; he became Burton's ward at 18 and permanently assumed his name. Richard Burton made his film debut in The Last Days of Dolwyn opposite fellow Welshman Emlyn Williams, whose early life, as fictionalized in Williams's The Corn Is Green , remarkably mirrored Burton's own.
English stage and screen roles in the late 1940s and early 1950s led to plum Shakespearean parts with the Old Vic, most notably Hamlet in 1953, and a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, for whom he played the brooding hero of Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel , his American film debut; the Roman officer Marcellus in The Robe , the first CinemaScope film; actor Edwin Booth in Prince of Players ; and—forever changing his life and career—Mark Antony, opposite Elizabeth Taylor, in Cleopatra .
Burton and Taylor: each married to another when they co-starred in Cleopatra in 1963, their names became permanently linked, from initial banner-headlined scandal, through marriage, divorce, remarriage, and redivorce, to photographs of a grieving, feebly disguised Taylor retreating from the press near Burton's Swiss gravesite a week after his death in 1984. On the screen as well as off they wooed each other in a series of films usually featuring warring but emotionally bonded couples, roles calculated to obliterate any separation between life and art in the mind of the viewer. Of the 11 films they made together, 2 will stand the test of time—the superb Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which the staged-trained Burton delivered one of his best film performances (though Taylor took home the Oscar), and Franco Zeffirelli's colorfully raucous adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew .
It is commonplace to maintain that Burton squandered his talent, that he chose, in words attributed to Laurence Olivier, to become a "household word" instead of the great Shakespearean actor he promised to become. His unfulfilled plan to return to the theater as King Lear following a successful Broadway run in Equus was thwarted by intermittent bouts with the bottle and a serious spinal ailment that forced him out of a praised Camelot revival in 1980. His final stage appearance occurred in a Broadway revival of Private Lives , Nöel Coward's stylish comedy of divorce and reassignation, an attempt to resurrect the glitter of past associations with Elizabeth Taylor, who co-starred.
As revealed in Melvyn Bragg's 1988 biography Rich , cobbled together largely from Burton's own private diaries and letters, Burton was a highly intelligent, articulate man. He was at his best on screen capturing dispirited men at the end of their tether, cynical world-weary men such as Leamas in John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and George in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ; burnt-out, self-destructive men such as the defrocked minister at war with his lack of faith, T. Lawrence Shannon, in John Huston's now-legendary adaptation of Tennessee Williams's Night of the Iguana ; angry young men such as John Osborne's Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger ; and—still overwhelmingly—Shakespeare's tortured Danish prince in the 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet (directed by John Gielgud), which was photographed for posterity in a now elusive film transcription, and recorded on vinyl, as well.
—Mark W. Estrin, updated by John McCarty