Vintage Hunk: Richard Burton

By: Mike McCrann

Richard Burton's life and career can be divided into two parts: before Elizabeth Taylor and after Elizabeth Taylor. Once these two stars collided on the set of Cleopatra in Rome, nothing would ever be the same for either of them.

Richard Walter Jenkins was born in Wales in 1925, one of 13 children. A tough early childhood that included the death of his mother and family poverty led to him excelling at sports and dramatics in school. His school master Philip Burton was an inspirational figure in the young man's life, recognizing not only Jenkin's great voice but his inherent talent. Burton would eventually adopt the young Jenkins and help set him on his future path to stardom; in turn, Jenkins took Burton as his last name when he became an actor.

After a stint in the Royal Air Force, Burton began his theatrical journey appearing on stage in numerous productions. His first film The Last Days of Dolwyn, and during this period Burton met and married Sybil Williams in 1949. They had two daughters.

Burton became a blazing comet on the English stage with his star making 1951 season at Stratford, playing opposite such greats as John Gielgud and Claire Bloom. In 1952 he traveled to Hollywood to play opposite Olivia de Havilland in the film version of Daphne du Maurier's famous novel My Cousin Rachel. The film was a hit and Burton received the first of his seven Academy Award nominations. He lost the Best Supporting Oscar to Anthony Quinn but he won the Golden Globe Award as New Star of the Year. His next project, The Robe, was the first film released in CinemaScope, was a smash hit, made a fortune and earned Burton a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Now a movie star, things went south quickly with a bunch of flop movies, including the ludicrous Rains of Ranchipur where he played the Hindu Dr. Safti opposite Lana Turner. However, Burton fared better on Broadway, winning a Best Actor Tony for King Arthur in the landmark musical Camelot.

By the end of the 1960s Burton's movie career was pretty much over until a little gem called Cleopatra came his way. Originally Stephen Boyd was cast as Mark Antony but a disastrous attempt to film in England and the near death of star Elizabeth Taylor caused the movie to be recast and moved to Rome. The saga of Cleopatra would take a book to document—and has—so to paraphrase: It was the most expensive film ever made to date and the love affair between  Taylor and Burton would be the biggest scandal... well... since Taylor's previous scandal of running off with Eddie Fisher who was then married to America's sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. The Taylor/Burton story was front page news for years. They finally did finish the film, eventually divorced their respective spouses, and got married. But neither career would ever be the same again.

For the next few years everything went right for Burton. His performance in Cleopatra was derided but he followed this with the The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Becket, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Anne of the Thousand Days. Burton received Best Actor Oscar nominations for every one of these films and he was brilliant in each. He also starred in the great hits Night of the Iguana and the glorious The Taming of the Shrew. But the Taylor/Burton circus started to self destruct due to heavy drinking, a life lived in the spotlight, and their combustible relationship. Suddenly the duo started making terrible films. Burton would have one last Oscar chance with Equus in 1977, but a different Richard (Dreyfus) would win that year. Seven times a nominee, never a winner.

Burton and Taylor divorced, remarried and divorced again. His career descended into horribly camp movies, none worse (or funnier) than Exorcist II. Burton still had the voice but drink and other excesses made his performances empty shells. It was heartbreaking to see this truly gifted actor stagger into mediocrity.

Burton would marry two more times but he would die in 1984, only 58-years-old.

Looking back at the gorgeous young man in My Cousin Rachel, seeing him in his brilliant mid '60s career, and then watching his fatal decline is pretty difficult. I choose to remember Burton as Becket, that glorious voice coming from that sexy Welshman made him one of the cinematic icons of his era. Burton never won an Academy Award— a true travesty when you think of some who have— but he has left us with great performances to cherish forever. If you want to see Richard Burton at the zenith of his career, check out Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. He is quite simply magnificent. Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis won the Oscars, but Burton is the heart and soul of this classic film.