A Vintage View

Hollywood royalty: My chat with Sir Richard Burton

by Len Lear
Posted 3/14/24

When I found out in 1984 that Richard Burton was in Philadelphia, I felt I just had to interview him.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in
A Vintage View

Hollywood royalty: My chat with Sir Richard Burton


From 1982 to 1986, I was the editor of a newspaper called Advertising Communications Times (ACT), which was a “trade paper” that covered the advertising industry in the Delaware Valley. We routinely had interviews with advertising agency owners talking about their accounts and the TV, radio and newspaper ads they produced.

In 1984 I found out that movie star Richard Burton, who probably achieved just as much fame for his stormy marriage to Elizabeth Taylor as for his many starring movie roles, was in Philadelphia 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, the birthplace of the famous “Philly Sound,” which was located at 212 N. 12th St., just north of where the convention center is now. Many soul music hits were recorded there, from its 1968 founding until 2014, when the building was sold to a developer who was interested in turning it into apartments.

I felt I just had to interview Burton, if only because he had the greatest speaking voice I ever heard (along with Orson Welles), a coffee-rich mellifluous baritone that 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. Interestingly, the publisher of ACT, the late Joe Ball, decided not to run my article for reasons having to do with advertising. But I never throw away notes, even though it may take me hours or even days to locate the notes from a 40-year-old interview.

Burton told me that when he was young, he no more expected to be a movie star than to be King of England. He was born Richard Walter Jenkins in the village of Pontrhydyfen, Neath Port Talbot, in Wales. He grew up in a 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 and “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, he 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,” he told me. “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, Burton said, 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 also told me 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 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 in World War II 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,” which was set in a Welsh village that was 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 brutal childhood.”

Burton's role as 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.

“I've also done a lot of rubbish,” said Burton, “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. 

“It is my cross to bear, which I do not mind,” he continued. “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 an 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 the 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.

Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com