by Len Lear
I have been cleaning out my basement for the past few months and throwing out articles, notebooks, photos, newspapers, magazines, etc., from almost 50 years of many thousands of interviews. One photo I found last week is the one you see accompanying this article as well as notes from my interview with Richard Burton in the early 1980s.
Burton was in Philly because he had been hired to narrate an excellent 60-minute TV documentary entitled “Broken Rhythms” about the rehabilitation of victims of brain injury. The documentary was distributed nationally. Burton’s voice was recorded by Sigma Sound Studios, which was located at 212 N. 12th St. from 1968 until April of this year, when their building was sold with the intention of turning it into apartments or office space. Many soul music hits were recorded there over the years.
In the early 1980s I was a full-time freelance writer and editor, and when I heard that Richard Burton was in town, I just had to interview him, if only because he had the greatest speaking voice I ever heard (along with Orson Welles), a coffee-rich mellifluous baritone which could have made a cereal commercial sound like a monologue from “Hamlet.”
It took a while, but I did set up the interview, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and then contacted several entertainment publications to “pitch” the article to them. None was interested. They told me Burton was “over the hill” or that they had already published interviews with him somewhere along the line. Eventually I gave up and did not even write the article, but when I found my notes in the basement last week, more than 30 years later, I figured “better late than never.”
So here it is: Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins in the village of Pontrhydyfen, Neath Port Talbot, Wales. He grew up in a dirt-poor household, the 12th of 13 children, and was proud of his “up from poverty” journey. His father, also named Richard Walter Jenkins, was a coal miner, “a very heavy drinker” who sometimes went off on drinking and gambling binges for weeks. Burton said that he and his father looked alike.
He also said that like his father, Richard became a heavy smoker and drinker as a teenager. He admitted that throughout most of his life he would smoke three or four packs of cigarettes a day and that it was not unusual for him to drink a couple of bottles of whiskey or vodka in a 24-hour period. “My dad told me that anyone who didn’t drink could not be trusted … When I played drunks on stage, though, I had to remain sober because I didn’t know how to play them when I was drunk.”
Although he and his father had these vices in common, his father “was always jealous of what I was able to accomplish as an actor, and he would never, ever say he was proud of me. I must say that when he died (of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 81 in January, 1957), I did not go to the funeral…”
Burton said that as a kid he made money hauling horse manure. He said he had been a very good boxer, cricket and rugby player and if he could have made a living at it, would have preferred sports over acting. He also won competitions as a boy soprano.
He said he only tried acting at first because of the encouragement of his schoolmaster, whose name was Philip Burton, who was impressed by Richard’s marvelous singing and speaking voice. Burton (the schoolmaster) got young Richard into several school plays and even tried to adopt the boy but was not allowed to do so, even though Richard, who left school at age 16, basically hated his own father. “Eventually, I took his last name, though,” said Richard, “because Mr. Burton was like a real father to me. He encouraged me to read Shakespeare and the other English classics, and he taught me a lot about acting. He also worked with my voice to be able to express different emotions and to be able to project to the last row of any balcony. I owe whatever I have achieved to him.”
Richard later served in the Royal Air Force as a navigator from 1944 and 1947 and flew on combat missions but was never wounded. After his discharge from the military, Burton went to London, signed up with a theatrical agency and began going on auditions. Almost immediately he won a role in a film called “The Last Days of Dolwyn,” set in a Welsh village about to be destroyed to create a reservoir. His reviews praised him for his “acting fire, manly bearing and good looks.”
“I am the son of a Welsh miner,” Burton told me, “so you might think that I would be more comfortable playing humble, working class people like the ones I grew up with, but I actually enjoy much more playing kings and princes like Hamlet, Marcellus (‘The Robe’), Prince Hal, Othello and King Arthur (all of whom he played).
“A psychologist could probably make something of this. I guess the kingly roles take me to a fantasy land, but the working class roles carry too many painful memories of my childhood. My favorite role was Mark Antony because it combines some of the best dialogue Shakespeare ever wrote along with action; Antony was certainly a man of action.”
Burton’s role of Mark Antony in the movie “Cleopatra” (1963) made Burton and his co-star, Elizabeth Taylor, world-famous and the objects of gossip fan magazines and paparazzi for the rest of their lives. Twentieth Century Fox’s future appeared to hinge on what became the most expensive movie ever made until then, reaching almost $40 million.
The film proved to be the start of Burton’s most successful period in Hollywood; he would remain among the top 10 box-office earners for the next four years. During the filming, Burton met and fell in love with Elizabeth Taylor, who was married to Eddie Fisher. The two would not be free to marry until 1964 when their respective divorces were complete. (Burton’s first wife was actress Sybil Williams.)
There was so much publicity worldwide about the Burton-Taylor affair that Burton said the legendary Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier once asked him, “Make up your mind, Richard. Do you want to be a great actor or a household word?” Burton said he replied, “Both.” Burton’s and Taylor’s private lives turned out to be a non-stop source of stories for the media. They were the Kardashians of their day — but with real talent!
Burton told me that he signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox for $1 million over seven years — pocket change for a movie star today but huge at the time. Nevertheless, because of Burton’s and Taylor’s extravagant spending and his support of 12 siblings and dozens of other relatives and hangers-on, Burton agreed to take roles in atrocious movies like “Bluebeard” (1972), “Hammersmith” (1972), “The Klansman” (1974) and “Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977),” which brought him a tsunami of criticism.
“I’ve done the most awful rubbish,” he told me, “in order to take care of people who relied on me. But I kind of like my reputation, that of a spoiled genius from a gutter in Wales who should be playing Shakespeare all the time but who has become a rogue, a drunk and a womanizer. At least everyone knows who I am.
“It is my cross to bear, which I do not mind. I have achieved a kind of negative fame that has nothing to do with my talents as an actor. The public is not interested much in me as actor. It is interested in the diabolically famous Richard Burton. But I do believe that God put me on this earth to raise sheer hell.”
Burton was married five times and had four children. He was nominated six times for an Academy Award for Best Actor and once for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but he never won. He told me he believed he was denied an Oscar because of his bitter, outspoken opposition to the Hollywood Blacklisting of the 1950s. (Burton was a Socialist.) However, Burton was a recipient of BAFTA, Golden Globe and Tony Awards for Best Actor. He died Aug. 5, 1984, at the age of 58 from heart failure, brought on no doubt by a lifetime of heavy drinking, smoking and other unhealthy habits.