is one of my favourite actors – and yes I know he made a few duff
films – but didn’t they all? It really seemed like he was
either very on or very off form – which in fact he was... Films
like ‘The spy who cam in from the cold’ (1965) and ‘Virginia
Woolf’ (1966) were true testaments of his ability, but sometimes
he just didn’t have the vehicles or maybe he was just drunk....
Richard Walter Jenkins Jr. was born in Pontrhydyfen, South Wales on
the 10 November 1925 to Edith and Richard Jenkins. He was the twelfth
of thirteen children. In 1943, his schoolmaster, Philip Burton, adopted
him and became his legal ward. He took his schoolmaster name and started
on stage in 1943 and went to Oxford in 1944. As a RAF cadet, he gained
admission to Exeter College, Oxford to take the "University Short
Course" for six months before commissioning in the RAF. He left
Oxford in 1944 - as one of 12 prize winning cadets, and was commissioned
as a navigator; his inadequate eyesight having disqualified him from
being a pilot. He then served with the Royal Air Force from 1944-47.
Blessed with a thrillingly theatrical voice, Burton took to the stage,
and, by 1949, had been tagged as one of Britain's most promising newcomers.
Director Philip Dunne, who later helmed several of Burton's Hollywood
films, would recall viewing a 1949 London staging of ‘The Lady's
Not for Burning’ and watching in awe as star John Gielgud was
eclipsed by juvenile lead Richard Burton,
‘He took the stage and kept a firm grip on it during every one
of his brief appearances.’
A few years after his film debut in The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949),
the actor was signed by 20th Century Fox, which had hopes of turning
him into the new Laurence Olivier, although Burton was not quite able
to grip films as well as he did the stage. Richards films were a real
mixture – there were clearly highlights but some low lights as
well. One of his excellent movies was as the tortured praetorian officer
in ‘The Robe’ (1953), he played a Roman Officer who undergoes
a conversion experience after Jesus’ death. A few years later
the handsome and self-assured Burton was permitted a standard-issue
1950s spectacle, Alexander the Great (1956).
His own film greatness would not manifest itself until he played the
dirt-under-the-nails role of Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger (1959).
In this, he spoke the vernacular of regular human beings, rather than
that of high-priced, affected Hollywood screenwriters -- and delivered
a jolting performance as a working-class man trapped by the system and
his own personal demons.
Following a well-received Broadway run in the musical Camelot, Burton
was signed in 1961 to replace Stephen Boyd on the benighted film spectacular
‘Cleopatra’ (1963). It probably isn't necessary to elaborate
on what happened next, but the result was that Burton suddenly found
himself an international celebrity, not for his acting, but for his
tempestuous romance with co-star Elizabeth Taylor.
A hot property at last, Burton apparently signed every long-term contract
thrust in front of him, while television networks found themselves besieged
with requests for screenings of such earlier Burton film "triumphs"
as ‘Prince of Players’ (1955) and ‘The Rains of Ranchipur’
(1956). In the midst of the initial wave of notoriety, Burton appeared
in a Broadway modern-dress version of Hamlet directed by John Gielgud,
which played to standing-room-only crowds who were less interested in
the melancholy Dane than in possibly catching a glimpse of the Lovely
Liz. Amidst choice film work like ‘Becket’ (1964) and ‘The
Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ (1966), Burton was also contractually
obligated to appear with Taylor in such high-priced kitsch as ‘The
V.I.P.s’, (1963) ‘The Sandpiper’ (1965), and ‘Boom!’
A few of the Burton/Taylor vehicles were excellent most notably ‘Who's
Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ (1966). She won an Oscar for it and
Burton didn't, but really should have. However his dramatic lifestyle
outside of acting was beginning to erode the public's ability to take
Burton seriously. Shortly after this film Burton was involved with Clint
Eastwoood (in his first serious non western) in ‘Where Eagles
Dare’ (1968) – a classic boys own film also with Sir Michael
Hordern and Mary Ure. This did very well at the box office and reasonably
well with the critics. But life became even harder for Burton when the
couple divorced, remarried, and broke up again.