Richard Burton

 Richard Burton

 1925 - 1984

 born Pontrhydyfen, Wales

Richard Burton


Born Richard Walter Jenkins at 2 Dan-y-Bont, Pontrhydyfen, Neath-Port Talbot, Wales (approximately ten miles east of Swansea). Pontrhydyfen is pronounced "Pont - Reader - Ven". Richard was the second of four Hollywood stars born within ten miles of each other in the south west region of Wales - the others being Ray Milland, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta Jones. Burton, the son of a Welsh miner and the 12th born of 13 children. The Burton family's humble but respectable start in life became a struggle against adversity after Richard's mother died when he was aged only two, so older married sister, Cis, adopted the matriarchal role. Richard said, "I shone in the reflection of her green-eyed black-haired gypsy beauty". Although loyal to Richard's mother Edith even in death, his father - known as Dic Bach - hid away in alcohol consumption. When Burton attained superstardom and worldwide acclaim for his acting talent, his father spitefully refused to acknowledge the gifted star's rare achievement. Despite his father's disapproval, Burton was a typical Welshman away from home - his longing to return secured regular contact with all the people and places which mattered to him in Wales; he was devoted to his family and for all his worldwide fame, he never forgot his roots. He enjoyed a particularly close relationship with youngest brother Graham, who also posed as stand in on some of Burton's movies. Graham wrote one of the most revealing and touching posthumous biographies about "Rich", entitled "Richard Burton, My Brother".

The Miner's Arms pub, Pontrhydyfen, Wales 

Richard with his father, "Dic Bach" at The Miner's Arms pub, Pontrhydyfen, Wales

The young Richard Jenkins attended school in Port Talbot, a town which was later to spawn another great Welsh actor - Anthony Hopkins. At this time, a teacher named Phillip Burton recognised the youth's potential and spent much time coaching his protege outside schooling hours. He taught young Richard Jenkins to act, and crucially how to use and project his voice. Richard Burton's fine Welsh theatrical voice was to become his most celebrated trademark.

Meanwhile, Phillip Burton's tuition work and patronage was rewarded when Richard won a scholarship to Oxford University at just 16; he adopted his teacher's surname and made his first stage performance at Oxford as an extra scrubbing steps. Burton's extraordinary stage presence - another of his famous trademarks - was said to distract the audience from the Shakespearean play! His studies at Oxford lasted only six months, in 1943 Richard made acting a full time repast and made his professional stage debut in "Druid's Rest" in Liverpool. This early career was interrupted by a mandatory conscription to the British Royal Air Force 1944-47, where Burton served as a navigator.

Richard Burton's historic screen debut, the Welsh yarn "The Last Days of Dolwyn" was filmed in 1948. During production, he met his first wife Sybil Williams, who was a co-star in the movie. Together they had two daughters - Jessica and actress Kate Burton, who Richard co-starred with in the television mini series "Ellis Island" (1984), produced shortly before Richard's death of a brain haemorrhage in Geneva, Switzerland.

In his powerful movie debut in "The Last Days of Dolwyn" (1947) Burton speaks his native Welsh language. Written and directed by fellow Welshman Emlyn Hughes, it concerns the defiant action of women folk in a Welsh valley town threatened with artificial flooding. Twenty years later fact mirrored this fiction when the townsfolk of a lost north Wales village experienced the same fate. "Dolwyn" led Richard to his various appearances in a string of respectable British films, notably "Now Barabbas" (1949), "The Woman With No Name" (1950), "Waterfront" (1950) and "Green Grow The Rushes" (1951).

The revival of "The Lady's Not For Burning" had by this time succeeded to London and later to Broadway. One critic described the play as "an exciting night out for the brain"! Burton was singled out for particular praise.The film maker Philip Dunne (who directed the actor in "The Robe") reported that he watched in awe while a 24 year old Richard Burton eclipsed Sir John Gielgud in a 1949 London performance of the play. It later transpired that Gielgud had been instrumental in young Burton's early breaks, and paid him this tribute while directing Burton twenty years later in "Hamlet":

"He was marvellous at rehearsals. There was the true theatrical instinct. You only had to indicate - scarcely even that."

  John Gilegud discussing "Hamlet" with Richard Burton        Richard Burton during a performance of "Hamlet"

Sir John Gielgud directing Richard Burton in the 1964 stage version of "Hamlet", the longest consecutive run of the play on Broadway (17 weeks). Burton won a Tony Award (the stage equivalent of an Oscar) for his performance, which was in modern day dress.

The Broadway version of "The Lady's Not For Burning" led Burton to his American screen debut in "My Cousin Rachel" (1952). This debut resulted in the first of a career achievement of seven Academy Award nominations.

Such was the success of "My Cousin Rachel", 20th Century Fox offered Richard Burton a contract, confident that he would reach his potential as the critics' "new Olivier"; the vehicles he produced as a result were perhaps not appropriate to match this expectation. However, over the successive years of the 1950's, Burton's acting reputation was nevertheless enhanced by a second consecutive Oscar nomination in "The Robe", followed by starring roles in "Prince of Players" (1955) and "Alexander the Great" (1956). In between playing in acclaimed British movies such as "The Desert Rats" (1953), "Look Back In Anger" (1958) and television versions of "Wuthering Heights" (1958)(TV debut) and "The Tempest" (1960), Burton also starred on Broadway in "Time Remembered" (1957) and won the prestigious Tony Award for his role as King Arthur in the Lerner & Loewe musical version of "Camelot" (1960). The actor never made a secret of his preference for playing on stage over the movies - Burton once said, "In a film you're a puppet, on a stage you're the boss". However, another film roles followed in "The Longest Day" (1962) and an opportunity to test his versatility further in the British television production, "Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years" and provided the voice of the war leader.

Richard Burton's fate was sealed when in 1963 he was cast to replace Stephen Boyd in "Cleopatra". At the time it was the most expensive film in movie history, and it got Burton universally recognised if only for his sensationalised affair with co-star Elizabeth Taylor. From then, Richard Burton's career was inextricably linked with Taylor, and in time, the classical roles which were his tour de force began to be superseded by projects which required less acting finesse than he was capable of, their chief attraction for Burton being the large paychecks!

However, there was still time for many notable roles. He won his second Tony Award in 1964 for the Broadway rendition of Hamlet. It was the longest run of the play on stage, a sell-out show for 17 consecutive weeks (136 performances). A film was made of the show, the cameras rolling in the theatre over two nights. This film was screened for only a few days before Burton ordered the reels be destroyed (he didn't want the film of the play to keep the crowds from the show itself). However in 1996 Burton's widow, Sally, found the reels in their Swiss home.

One of his most acclaimed movie roles came in 1966 with the film of the Edward Albee play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" At first it was thought that Elizabeth Taylor would star but when she watched a rehearsal of Frank Zeffirelli's stage version in Paris, she was uncertain of the effect on her image and career after playing a fat, foul mouthed, middle-aged woman. Richard was confident that a great performance in such an outstanding play, and to act against type, would be good for her. Elizabeth's response was to dare Richard to play George, which had the additional benefit that they did not have to spend months apart on separate projects. George is a tired, defeated teacher, married for twenty years to the daughter of the president of the college. "Martha and I are merely exercising ... that's all, we're merely walking what's left of our wits. Don't pay any attention to it". Graham Jenkins (Richard's brother) notes that playing the warring couple on screen created the illusion that Elizabeth and Richard could argue acrimoniously without getting hurt. Famously, their relationship developed along the same bitter-sweet lines as the character's they portrayed. The rest of the Woolf story is movie making history - five Academy Awards from a nominated thirteen, including Best Actress for Taylor. Although Burton was nominated as Best Actor, he lost out to Paul Scofield for his part in Thomas Moore's "A Man For All Seasons". 

Richard Burton was to be a profound influence on fellow Port Talbot-born Welsh compatriot - Anthony Hopkins.



RICHARD BURTON's Academy Award Nominations :

My Cousin Rachel (1952), The Robe (1953), Becket (1964), The Spy Who Came
In From the Cold
(1965), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Anne of the
Thousand Days
(1969), Equus (1977)

                            Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?        As Marc Anthony in "Cleopatra"

Two of Richard Burton's best remembered movie roles - playing George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"(1966) &  Burton as Marc Anthony in "Cleopatra" (1963) (right), the role which propelled him to international superstardom.

Historic figures RICHARD BURTON  played on film :
Richard Wagner,  "Wagner" (1983)
Winston Churchill, "The Gathering Storm" (1974) & "Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years" (1960)
Leon Trotsky, "The Assassination of Trotsky" (1972)
Marc Anthony,  "Cleopatra" (1963)
King Henry VIII,   "Anne of a Thousand Days" (1969)
Thomas a Becket, "Becket" (1964)
Alexander the Great,   "Alexander the Great" (1956)

                                 Richard Burton with daughter Kate in "Ellis Island"          

Burton's last role shortly before his death in the mini series "Ellis Island" (1984) - (pictured with daughter Kate Burton, who co-starred).

  LITERARY works transferred to screen in which RICHARD BURTON starred :

Ellis Island (1984), Senator Phipps Ogden   (novel - Fred Mustard Stewart)
Nineteen Eighty Four (1984), O'Brien   (novel - George Orwell)
Alice In Wonderland (1983), White Knight    (novel - Lewis Carroll)
Circle of Two (1980), Ashley St Clair   (novel - Marie-Terese Baird)
The Medussa Touch  (1978), John Molar   (novel - Peter Van Greenaway)
The Wild Geese   (1978), Colnel Allen Faulkner   (novel - Daniel Carney)
Equus  (1977), Martin Dysart   (play - Peter Shaffer)
The Klansman (1974), Breck Stancill   (novel - William Bradford Huie)
The Gathering Storm  (1974), Winston Churchill    (autobiography - Winston Churchill)
Brief Encounter (1974), Alec Harvey   (play - Noel Coward, "Still Life")
Il Viaggio (The Voyage)  (1974), Cesare Braggi   (novel - Luigi Pirandello)
Under Milk Wood  (1973), First Voice  (play for voices - Dylan Thomas)
Villain (1971), Vic Dakin   (novel - James Barlow)
Anne of a Thousand Days (1969), King Henry VIII (play - Maxwell Anderson)
Staircase (1969), Harry Leeds   (play - Charles Dyer)
Where Eagles Dare (1969), Major John Smith   (novel - Alastair MacLean)
Candy  (1968), McPhisto   (novel - Terry Southern)
Boom! (1968), Chris Flanders   (play - Tennessee Williams)
The Comedians (1967), Brown   (novel - Graham Greene)
Doctor Faustus (1967), Dr Faustus   (classical play - Christopher Marlowe)
The Taming of the Shrew  (1967), Petruchio   (Shakespearan play)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966), George   (play - Edward Albee)
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965), Alec Leamas   (novel - John Le Carre)
Hamlet (1964), Hamlet (film of a Broadway stage production)    (Shakespearan play)
The Night of the Iguana  (1964), Rev T. Lawrence Shannon   (play - Tennessee Williams)
Becket (1964), Thomas a Becket   (play - Jean Anouilh)
Cleopatra (1963), Marc Anthony   (novel - C.M. Franzero)
The Longest Day (1962), Flight Officer David Campbell   (novel - Cornelius Ryan)
Ice Palace (1960), Zeb Kennedy   (novel - Edna Ferber)
The Tempest (1960), Caliban   (Shakespearan play)
The Bramble Bush (1960), Guy   (novel - Charles Mergendahl)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1959), Narrator (Shakespearan play)
Look Back In Anger (1958), Jimmy Porter  (play - John Osborne II)
Wuthering Heights (1958), Heathcliff   (novel - Emily Bronte)
Bitter Victory (1957), Captain Leith   (novel - Rene Hardy)
Sea Wife (1957), Biscuit   (novel - JM Scott, "Sea Wife and Biscuit")
Prince of Players (1955), Edwin Booth   (novel - Eleanor Ruggles)
The Rains of Ranchipur (1955), Dr Safti   (novel - Louis Bromfield)
The Robe (1953), Marcellus Gallio   (novel - Lloyd C Douglas)
My Cousin Rachel  (1952), Philip Ashley    (novel - Daphne du Maurier)
Green Grow The Rushes  (1951), Robert Hammond   (novel - Howard Clewes)
Waterfront (1950), Ben Satterthwaite   (novel - John Brophy)
The Woman With No Name (1950), Nick Chamerd    (novel - Theresa Charles)
Now Barabbas (1949), Paddy (play - William Douglas Home)


Richard Burton's short story

The cover of Burton's autobiographical "A Christmas Story", in which he fondly recounts his childhood in Wales. The cover photograph pictures his Welsh home town, Pontrhydyfen near Port Talbot and Swansea. Right, Burton's gravestone in Geneva, Switzerland.

   Burton's grave in Switzerland


For a wealth of Richard Burton resources, you can visit the excellent

Richard Burton Experience

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