1925 – 1942
Richard Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins on 10 November 1925. He was the twelfth child of 13 children born to Richard ‘Dic’ Walter and Edith Jenkins. The Jenkins clan lived in the mining village of Pontrhydyfen set high in the valley of the River Afan in South Wales. It was a tight community, forged together on the heaving copper works and shallow coal mines.
Edith had 13 children in 26 years but at the age of 44 she gave birth to her last child before dying of puerperal fever. At two years' old, Richard was scooped up by his sister Cecilia or ‘Cis’, and taken to live with her and her husband, Elfed, and their two daughters Marian and Rhianon, in Port Talbort. He remained forever grateful to Cis throughout his varied and colourful life.
While Cis more than filled Richard’s need for a mother, he idolized Ifor, his brother who was 19 years senior. As the third Jenkins child, Ifor could turn his hand to anything: coal mining, ruby football, building, plumbing, mechanics and poetry. Ifor became Richard’s rock and protector throughout his life and leaving the Welsh valleys behind to join Richard as his personal assistant.
At school the Welsh boy made good progress by passing a scholarship to Port Talbot Secondary School in 1937 at the age of 11. While Richard had an appetite to learn and later would find great pleasure in writing, it was the sports field that got his undivided attention at school. Rugby football (which he reached international standard) and cricket (of which he became team captain) were his obsessions.
Just when he should have been studying for his School Certificate he left school to work as a haberdasher's assistant and hated it. At 15 he was an independent boy who like smoking, drinking and girls – not folding shirts and selling socks. He exhausted his frustrations at a local youth centre founded by Meredith Jones – Richard’s schoolmaster – and came face to face with the trade that took him away from the edge of poverty.
He played the role of a Count and was in a radio documentary about the Air Training Corps (ATC) of which he was a member. During this period, Meredith Jones persuaded the Glamorgan Education Committee to readmit Richard to grammar school. Eighteen months after leaving school, he was back with the new teacher, Philip Burton, to keep an eye on him.
Philip, who was also Richard’s commanding officer in the ATC, saw the energetic promise that Jones had seen. Richard was a thirsty reader, particularly of poetry. Throughout his life he would quote and write in his Notebooks chunks of John Donne, Edward Jones, John Betjeman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Dunbar, Shakespeare and his greatest read Dylan Thomas. Dylan became his hero. Sweetly, their paths would later cross and a good friendship would grow.
Burton drilled schooling into Richard: Richard rewarded Burton by gaining his school certificate despite missing 18 months of term time. Richard was given every chance to act before an audience at school and the local YMCA. Years later, on being interviewed together, Philip Burton was asked: ‘How did you come to adopt him?’ Richard replied: ‘He didn’t adopt me; I adopted him.’
1943 – 1956
At 17, Richard was fed up with family tension at home and, on Philip's suggestion, thought about leaving. He eventually moved into 6 Connaught Street, Port Talbot on 1 March 1943 – St. David’s day. Cis let him go but said, ‘nobody knows how much I cried.’
Philip worked on Richard, in particular his voice. He took Richard to the top of Welsh mountains and made him speak parts of Henry V. Philip walked further away, insisting that Richard did not shout but make his voice heard. Richard realized that distinctness mattered, not volume. The practise paid off – he had one of the most distinctive and memorable voices of all time.
Six months before joining the RAF, Richard gained admittance to Exeter College, Oxford. For him to become an undergraduate after he was demobilized, Philip was advised that Richard was more likely to be accepted if he adopted the teenager. When it was deemed legally impossible, Richard became Philip’s legal ward and Richard’s surname was changed by deed poll to Burton.
In 1944, before going to Oxford, Richard appeared in The Druid’s Rest, a play by Emlyn Williams, the Welsh actor and writer. When the production moved to a London theatre, a critic wrote in the New Statesman magazine, that Burton showed, ‘exceptional ability’. Richard said later that these two words changed his life.
At Oxford he played Angelo in Measure for Measure. It was his first big Shakespeare role, and was to be performed in front of important people such as John Gielgud, Terence Rattigan and Binkie Beamount. After the play, Richard received his first professional offer from Binkie, who asked him to look him up after the war if he wanted to be an actor.
In 1946 Philip secured Richard leave from the RAF to play Morgan Evans The Corn is Green, for television. However, it was his next role that truly set his mind on acting as a career. In 1948 Douglas Cleverdon produced In Parenthesis for the BBC with parts for Richard Burton, Philip Burton and Dylan Thomas. Richard thought it was the finest thing he ever did.
After he was demobilized Richard ‘looked up’ Binkie and secured a contract for £500 per year whether he worked or not. It was more money than his family earned in their lives – he was getting further away from the poverty of the coal mining towns he had grown up in.
In 1948 Richard made his screen debut as Gareth in The Last Days of Dolwyn, a part specially written for him by Emlyn Williams. With ‘the startling looks, fearless green eyes set widely in a dramatic face’, Williams knew the boy was going to be famous. His second British film Now Barabbas Was a Robber had critics comparing him to Olivier.
By now Richard was enjoying habits that remained unbroken for the rest of his life – drinking, smoking, reading and doing crosswords. It was on the set of Dolwyn that he met Sybil Williams. They married a few months later – he was 23. She adored him: he thought she was wonderful.
In 1950 he earned £1,000 for ten days work in The Woman With No Name. His next role was in a play written in verse called The Lady’s Not For Burning, directed by John Gielgud. In it he worked alongside some of the best stage actors of the time.
His love for words and language was obvious through his work with BBC radio. Burton began narrating for radio in the early days of his career and would continue to do so for the rest of his life. His radio recordings included poetry, plays and school programmes – all for a fraction of the fees he could command in his film work.
During the years 1949 to 1951 he completed four films Now Barabbas Was a Robber, Waterfront, Green Grow the Rushes and The Woman With No Name. He was also in the play, Phoenix too Frequent. By now he was signed to Alexander Korda for a seven-year contract.
A major turning point in his career came when he played the lead role in the play, The Boy with a Cart. Anthony Quayle, a leading actor and director saw Richard in the role. He was so impressed that he cast him as Prince Hal in Henry IV and the King in Henry V in the 1951 Shakespeare season at Stratford-upon-Avon as part of the Festival of Britain.
He received impressive reviews. Kenneth Tynan a noted critic of British theatre said of him: ‘a brimming pool running disturbingly deep…Burton’s voice is urgent and keen... He turned interested speculation into awe as soon as he started to speak.’ News soon reached Hollywood of this arrogant young talent and a year later he was starring opposite Olivia D’Havilland in My Cousin Rachel.
In the next four to five years he made three films under Fox: My Cousin Rachel, Desert Rat, and The Robe. On receiving £80,000 for the work, Burton was making it big. In 1953 Daryl Zanuck offered him a seven-picture deal for $1 million. With a commitment to do Hamlet at The Old Vic (for £45 a week), Richard turned down the offer. Money was nice but it was not everything to the actor whose greatest joys were words, words, and words.
The Old Vic 39-week season in which he played Coriolanus; Toby Belch in Twelfth Night; Caliban in The Tempest; and the bastard in King John, was a critical success. However, while he should have been proud of himself, he was devastated by the death of Dylan – his hero and friend – who died from alcoholic poisoning on 9 November 1953. Dylan was 39.
The young poet had just finished writing a new play, Under Milk Wood. Douglas Cleverdon at the BBC put together the first radio performance of the play. Everyone taking part did it for free with royalties and fees going to Dylan’s young widow and children. Richard played the part Dylan had written for himself. Later Richard would play the same role on film.
In the next three years he completed three more films in America: The Rains of Ranchipur, The Prince of Players, and Alexander the Great. In 1955 he jetted back to London to play in Henry V and Othello. It was these performances that caused Kenneth Tynan to say that Burton ‘was now the natural successor to Olivier.’ In 1956 Richard was awarded the Evening Standard drama award for his Henry V.
1957 – 1970
By 1957, with a third of his earnings going to the taxman, the Burtons moved to Céligny, Switzerland. The British press criticized his move, but it made financial sense – in 1957 he earned £82,000 but only kept £6,000. In September that year, Sybil gave birth to a baby daughter – Kate. Jessica, Richard and Sybil’s second daughter, was born in 1960.
While he continued to make films in Hollywood, some regarded as mediocre, Richard reminded the public of his outstanding talent when he returned to England to play George Holyoake in A Subject of Scandal. Back in America he completed the narration of 26 episodes of The Valiant Years, and Camelot, a Broadway musical. His next project shaped the course of his life beyond prediction.
Cleopatra was the most expensive film of its time and Twentieth Century Fox needed the film to be a financial success. So, with Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra, the studio was happy to attract publicity regarding her hairstyles, jewels, acting, figure and temper. It was not so happy when the publicity turned to gossip about her adulterous affair with her co-star Richard Burton who was playing Anthony.
The affair seemed to set the world press on fire, the Vatican spoke out and the American Congress sought to prevent them from entering America again. Initially the studio was anxious and angry with the couple, however, it soon became apparent that their pairing would increase box office sales – the couple was currency.
Their relationship continued throughout their next film, The VIPs, with Richard eventually divorcing Sybil in 1963. In 1964 Elizabeth got her divorce from Eddie Fisher, Richard began rehearsals for Hamlet in Canada and New York, and then they married.
His life changed by being with Elizabeth. Paparazzi followed them continually. Soon they owned houses in Mexico and Switzerland. Cooks, secretaries, hairdressers, bodyguards and dogs travelled with them everywhere. Their pay role also included a merry band of trusted agents, lawyers, accountants and doctors.
Their most successful picture together was Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He persuaded her to play the part of Martha to stop anyone else doing it – she earned an Oscar. She cornered him into co-starring as George – he should have won an Oscar. In the film their hair-raising domestic slanging matches were performed with uncomfortable realism.
Richard continued to make films, at least two or three a year. These included The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedians, Doctor Faustus, Boom, Candy and Where Eagles Dare. He was charging $1 million per picture although he had written into all his contracts since he began acting that he did not work on 1 March – St David’s Day.
Richard lived life at full throttle. He had smoked since the age of eight, later puffing 100 a day. He also enjoyed drinking. Both habits were like old friends to him. As his career took off so did his drinking. Even though he knew he was an alcoholic, he couldn’t and wouldn’t say ‘no’ forever.
In 1970 he was awarded a CBE and took Cis and Elizabeth with him to Buckingham Palace to receive his honors. For Raid on Rommel in 1970 he remained sober throughout the filming. The abstinence was sometimes self inflicted and at other times doctor’s orders.
1971 – 1984
When Ifor died in 1972 Richard’s will buckled and he began to drink heavily with little regard for his health or for the effect it was to have on his relationship with Elizabeth. Ifor’s death had a profound affect on Richard. He questioned everything and became unimpressed with his achievements. When the Taylor-Burton relationship began to falter, they separated in 1973.
With the separation and then divorce in 1974, he entered a period of calm. Elizabeth, however, never ruled herself out of his life and in 1975 they were re-married in Botswana, Africa. She, with passion and energy, behaved as if they were marrying for the first time. Richard was more cautious.
During theatre rehearsals for Equus he found support in a woman other than Elizabeth. Susan Hunt had separated from her racing-driver husband James Hunt, and Richard was besotted with her. In 1976, Richard divorced Elizabeth for the second time and married Susan. However, the marriage did not last and they were divorced in 1982. Although Susan was credited with keeping him dry from drink, Richard had never really kicked his addiction to alcohol.
In 1982 he took the title role in the film epic Wagner. On the set he met Sally Hay who was working as a freelance production assistant. Sally was a successful, independent, career woman and Richard was impressed. ‘She can do everything…there’s nothing she can’t do…she looks after me so well. Thank God I’ve found her,’ he said proudly to his close friend Brook Williams.
In 1983 he began rehearsals for Private Lives, a play by Noël Coward. His co-star was Elizabeth Taylor and with the New York Times announcing ‘Together again!’ the box office was soon busy with ticket pre-sales. During the seven-month tour, Richard and Sally got married in Las Vegas. At the time, Richard talked to Sally about returning to the London stage.
In 1984 Richard and Sally went to Haiti for a well-earned rest for four or five months. In spring, they returned to Céligny in good shape – Richard was fitter and happier. In July, he completed the film adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 and an American mini-series Ellis Island. He also began preparing for Wild Geese II.
On 5 August 1984 Richard died of a cerebral haemorrhage in Geneva, Switzerland. He was 58. At his funeral four days later in Céligny, he was buried with a copy of the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas.