Richard Burton owns a place of honour among the true giants of stage and screen history. After coming from the most humble of beginnings, his unmistakable talent saw him rise to the upper echelons of British theatre, before making a move to Hollywood. From there, Burton would walk the fine line between being one of the most revered thespians of his generation, and being one of the most talked-about celebrities in the tabloid gossip columns, largely thanks to his tempestuous romance with Elizabeth Taylor.
Sadly, Burton also embodied the stereotype of how great success as an artist often translates to an enormously troubled private life, as the actor struggled with personal demons which would play a large part in sending him to an early grave aged just 58. He may have left us too soon, but he lived a life well worth remembering, and left us with many great works on film which audiences will continue to enjoy for generations to come. Join us now as we look back on the most notable events in the life of Richard Burton.
1. He was born Richard Jenkins Jr., the twelfth of 13 children
The man we know as Richard Burton was born under the name of Richard Walter Jenkins Jr. on 10th November 1925 in Pontrhydyfen, a small village in West Glamorgan, Wales. As can be discerned from the name, he was the son of Richard Walter Jenkins Sr. and his wife Edith.
Richard Jr. was the twelfth child of Richard Sr. and Edith. The father was referred to as ‘Daddy Ni’ and worked as a coal miner; he was also a heavy drinker and compulsive gambler, and would often be absent from home for weeks at a time on binges.
2. Raised by his sister
Richard’s mother Edith, a barmaid at the local pub, died a week after giving birth to her thirteenth child, Richard’s younger brother Graham. Her death was a result of postpartum infections. Richard was two years old at the time.
Due to the unreliability of their father, Richard’s married elder sister Cecilia – known affectionately as Cis – took in her younger brother and raised him alongside her own two daughters. He grew up as one of the family in a terraced house in the suburban district of Taibach, Port Talbot.
- Credit: Alamy
3. A rugby pro?
With his father all but absent, Richard was primarily raised by his sister, whom he held in great affection his entire life. His elder brother Ifor, 19 years Richard’s senior, also had a formative influence on the young man.
Ifor played rugby union, and Richard followed his big brother into the sport, for which he developed a great aptitude and passion. Wales rugby union centre Bleddyn Williams believed there were “distinct possibilities” that Richard could have gone far as a rugby player.
- Credit: Richard Burton Archives
4. He was the first member of his family to attend secondary school
Richard’s family were determined that the promising young man should have the best education possible. After taking and passing a scholarship exam for Port Talbot Secondary School, he became the first member of the Jenkins family to have a secondary education.
Still, as a child in a lower working-class family in the 1930s, Richard had to pull his weight to get by. On top of his school work, he held numerous part-time jobs to earn pocket money, including delivering newspapers and carting piles of horse manure.
- Credit: Richard Burton Museum
5. Prize soprano
In adulthood, Richard Burton found fame for his strong and distinctive voice. This was first remarked upon in his school days, when the young Richard Jenkins Jr. was commended for his skill as both a speaker and a singer.
Richard’s singing voice brought the young man particular acclaim. He was awarded a prize as a boy soprano for performing at an Eisteddfod (a traditional Welsh music and arts festival). Richard hoped to repeat this success, and sought the help of a teacher who would come to be a key figure in his life: Philip Burton.
6. Taken under the wing of schoolmaster Philip Burton
Philip Burton taught English and ran the drama department at Port Talbot Secondary School. Having long harboured dreams of acting success himself, Burton saw a potential protege in young Richard Jenkins Jr. and set out to help develop the boy’s talents.
Philip worked with Richard on a challenging vocal piece with which they hoped he would win a second Eisteddfod prize, although this proved unsuccessful. Outside of school they crossed paths again when Richard joined the local Air Training Corps, where Philip was squadron commander.
7. The ‘most painful period’ of his life
As Philip Burton was in charge of all dramatic activities at Port Talbot Secondary School, Richard would tread the boards for the first time with Philip as his director. His first role was a supporting part in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s play The Apple Cart.
Richard abandoned his education for a time, until Philip cast him in a BBC radio play he was directing. Under Philip’s guidance, Richard returned to complete his education and develop his acting; he would later declare this “the most hardworking and painful period” of his life, and said of Philip, “I owe him everything.”
8. He changed his name to Richard Burton at 18
Years later, Richard and Philip Burton would be interviewed together, and when Philip was asked “how did you come to adopt him?”, Richard interjected, “He didn’t adopt me; I adopted him.” Philip remarked, “there was much truth in that.”
Philip came to consider Richard “my son to all intents and purposes,” and planned to adopt him, but was legally unable to do so as he was just under 21 years Richard’s senior. Instead, Richard became Philip’s ward in late 1943, and changed his name by deed poll to Richard Burton.
9. He landed his first professional acting role that same year
Around the same time, Richard appeared as Henry Higgins in a school production of Pygmalion, again directed by Philip. Richard’s performance caught the eye of playwright Emlyn Williams, who offered the young actor a small role in his new play, The Druid’s Rest.
The play was staged in Liverpool and then London, and though Burton wasn’t too impressed with his part, he was paid £10 a week (the equivalent of £444 today), which was more than the miners in his family ever made. Reviews also singled out the young actor as one to watch.
10. He served for three years in the Royal Air Force
After successfully completing both his secondary education and his training in the Air Training Corps, Burton attended Exeter College, Oxford as part of a six-month scholarship offered by the RAF for newly qualified cadets.
After completing this six month course, Burton was sent to Torquay to train as a pilot, but proved unfit for the role due to poor eyesight. Instead, Burton became a navigator, a job he would hold for three years, whilst continuing to pursue theatre in his spare time.
11. Film debut
Burton had already enjoyed success on stage and shot one TV role when he first ventured into the medium which would really change his career: film. The actor shot his first movie appearance in 1948, with a role in The Last Days of Dolwyn.
This drama was written and directed by the man who gave Burton his big break on stage, Emlyn Williams (who also co-stars in the film). It was Williams’ first work as a filmmaker, and it proved to be his last; although critics were kind, The Last Days of Dolwyn was not a commercial success.
12. He met his first wife Sybil whilst shooting the film
Whilst shooting The Last Days of Dolwyn, director Emlyn Williams introduced Burton to Sybil Williams (no relation), a graduate of the London Academy of Dramatic Arts from Mid Glamorgan, Wales who was an extra on the film. The two young actors hit it off.
Sybil Williams would become Richard Burton’s first wife in 1949, and the couple settled down in Hampstead, London. Of course, this would not be the last time that Burton would fall in love with an actress on a movie set.
- Credit: Associated Press
13. Enthusiastic reviews
Powerful British film producer Alexander Korda recognised Burton’s talent, and signed the actor to a contract. As the 1950s began, Burton was well paid and working steadily in such films as Now Barabbas, Waterfront and The Woman with No Name.
The critics were also quick to recognise Burton’s skill and screen presence. One particularly glowing review in The Observer hailed Burton as having “all the qualities of a leading man that the British film industry badly needs at this juncture: youth, good looks, a photogenic face, obviously alert intelligence.”
14. Meeting John Gielgud
In 1948, John Gielgud – one of the most highly regarded British actors of all time – was directing and starring in a production of Christopher Fry’s stage play The Lady’s Not for Burning. Burton auditioned, and ultimately landed a role in the play alongside Gielgud and Claire Bloom.
Gielgud initially had doubts about casting Burton, forcing him to audition twice – but later he would be full of praise for the younger actor, remarking, “He was marvellous at rehearsals. There was the true theatrical instinct.” The play would not be their last collaboration.
15. The play’s success launched Burton in America
The Lady’s Not for Burning proved a huge hit, running for a year at London’s Globe Theatre. Even with the esteemed Gielgud taking centre stage, all eyes were on the arresting newcomer Burton, who received many effusive notices for his performance.
Following its London run, The Lady’s Not for Burning was taken across the Atlantic to New York; Burton’s first time in the United States. The play was a hit on Broadway, and landed Burton his first major accolade for acting: the 1951 Theatre World Award.
16. His first Shakespeare performances saw him dubbed ‘the new Laurence Olivier’
Burton kept busy in between the London and New York runs of The Lady’s Not for Burning. He appeared in two more Christopher Fry plays, one of which was again directed by Gielgud, then landed his first Shakespeare role as Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts One and Two at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.
While the production was not that well received overall, the critics reportedly “stood agape” at Burton’s Prince Hal. Such was the power of his performance, many dubbed him the new Laurence Olivier; no small feat, as Olivier was probably the most acclaimed Shakespearean actor of them all.
- Credit: Royal Shakespeare Company
17. He won two famous fans in Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
Burton’s performance in Henry IV Parts One and Two didn’t just win him critical acclaim: it also earned him two very famous admirers in American movie stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Hollywood’s premier ‘power couple’ of the era.
Burton met Bogart and Bacall after they attended the play, and they struck up a lasting friendship. Bacall would say of Burton afterwards, “He was just marvellous. Bogie loved him, we all did.” No one knew at the time that, soon enough, Burton would be one half of a major Hollywood couple himself.
18. He made his first Hollywood movie in 1952
Having made a name for himself on Broadway, Burton’s next logical port of call was Hollywood. Heading west, the actor landed his first American film role in My Cousin Rachel, a Gothic romance based on the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name.
Though it was his first Hollywood movie, Burton was cast in the male lead. As with many of Burton’s plays, the film was only a modest success critically and commercially, but the lion’s share of the praise was for the actor’s performance, with many predicting a bright future for him.
19. Burton did not get along with My Cousin Rachel co-star Olivia de Havilland
My Cousin Rachel may have been Burton’s first Hollywood movie, but he was cast alongside a seasoned Hollywood veteran, Olivia de Havilland. The two-time Best Actress Oscar winner had over 30 film roles to her name at the time, including Gone with the Wind, then the most popular film in history.
Unfortunately, the two actors did not get along during filming. De Havilland declared Burton “a coarse-grained man with a coarse-grained charm and a talent not completely developed,” and Burton in turn was said to have been unimpressed by his more established co-star who expected special treatment.
20. My Cousin Rachel earned Burton a Golden Globe and his first Oscar nomination
After the reviews singled out Burton as the key strength of My Cousin Rachel, the actor found himself taking the spotlight during awards season. He was awarded the Golden Globe for New Star of the Year – Actor on the strength of his performance.
As if that wasn’t enough, My Cousin Rachel also landed Burton his first nomination at the most prestigious film awards show of them all, the Academy Awards. However, Burton lost out on the 1953 Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Anthony Quinn for Viva Zapata – and this would not be his last near miss at the Oscars.
21. He turned down the Julius Caesar role that went to Marlon Brando
While in production on My Cousin Rachel, Burton received an offer from the major Hollywood studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer to take the role of Mark Antony in their upcoming film production of the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar.
Due to prior commitments that clashed with the Julius Caesar shoot, Burton had to decline the role. Marlon Brando would ultimately play Mark Antony, and the performance earned Brando rave reviews and a multitude of awards nominations.
22. He befriended James Mason on the set of The Desert Rats
In 1953, Burton took a role in World War II film The Desert Rats, which cast him alongside James Mason, another esteemed British actor who had successfully made the move to Hollywood. Soon, Burton had another movie star who he could count as a close personal friend.
In fact, Burton and his wife Sybil moved into the Hollywood home of James Mason and his wife whilst The Desert Rats was in production, before the Burtons returned to the UK for Richard’s first stage appearance in perhaps the most revered Shakespeare role of them all, Hamlet.
23. The Robe landed him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination
After landing a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for My Cousin Rachel, Burton would get his first nod in the coveted Best Actor category for 1953 Biblical epic The Robe, which cast him as a Roman general left guilt-stricken by his role in the crucifixion of Christ.
A major prestige picture for studio 20th Century Fox, The Robe was notable for being the first film shot in the new format of Cinemascope, and it was a commercial success although the reviews were lukewarm. Once again, Burton left the Academy Awards ceremony empty-handed, beaten to the Oscar by William Holden for Stalag 17.
24. He met Elizabeth Taylor for the first time at a Hollywood party for The Robe
Following the release of The Robe, Burton attended a major Hollywood party with an illustrious guest list – which just happened to include the famed actress Elizabeth Taylor, who was at the time pregnant with the child of her second husband, Michael Wilding.
Taylor (who would marry two more times before working with Burton for the first time a decade later) recalled finding the actor “rather full of himself. I seem to remember that he never stopped talking, and I had given him the cold fish eye.”
25. He turned down a $1 million Hollywood contract to play Hamlet in London
As The Robe was a box office success, 20th Century Fox co-founder Darryl F. Zanuck was keen to make the most of Richard Burton as a leading man. Zanuck offered Burton $1 million to sign a seven-year/seven-picture deal with Fox.
However, Burton turned Zanuck’s offer down as he had already committed to performing Hamlet in London’s West End, for a comparatively meagre £150 a week. This move surprised many, but impressed admirers of Burton, who took it as proof that the actor cared more about art than commerce.
26. Winston Churchill praised his Hamlet
As we’ve seen already, Burton attracted no shortage of commendations from his peers, the critics and many illustrious figures in the field of stage and screen. However, his performance as Hamlet also attracted praise from the British Prime Minister of the time, Winston Churchill.
The celebrated Churchill was in his second run as Prime Minister of Great Britain, having previously served in the post during World War II. Churchill met with Burton to sing his praises, and the actor would later portray the Prime Minister – although, as we’ll see, Burton’s own feelings toward Churchill were complicated.
27. He paid tribute to Dylan Thomas following the poet’s death
Despite his success in London and America, Burton remained proud of his Welsh heritage. Part of that heritage was the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, of whom Burton had always been an admirer. The actor was one among the many affected by Thomas’ death in 1953.
Burton paid tribute to Thomas, first by writing an essay about the poet, then by performing in a 1954 BBC radio play about Thomas entitled Under Milk Wood. Burton headed a cast of exclusively Welsh actors, all of whom – Burton included – gave their services free of charge.
28. His next three Hollywood movies flopped
Burton may have turned down 20th Century Fox’s $1 million contract for seven pictures, but the studio still had him on contract for further films. Unfortunately, the next movies Burton made for Fox didn’t prove to be great success stories.
The actor appeared in Prince of Players, biopic of stage actor Edwin Booth; then Fox loaned Burton to United Artists to cast him in the title role of historical epic Alexander the Great. Next came The Rains of Ranchipur, which (in a move that would be controversial today) cast Burton as a Hindi doctor. All three films were badly reviewed commercial failures.
29. He made a triumphant return to the London stage with Henry V
After a disappointing year in Hollywood, Burton was badly in need of a return to form, and so he ventured back to London’s Old Vic Theatre (the site of his Hamlet success) to take the title role in another Shakespeare classic, Henry V.
Happily for Burton, this was again a great success. Henry V earned high box office returns, great reviews, and saw Burton awarded the Theatre Award for Best Actor in January 1956. He was now being variously referred to as ‘the next Olivier’ and ‘the Welsh wizard.’
- Credit: Royal Shakespeare Company
30. 1957 film Sea Wife was another disappointment
Whilst performing Henry V, Burton was approached by the esteemed Italian director Roberto Rossellini, who lured the actor to sign on for desert island drama Sea Wife alongside Joan Collins. However, creative disagreements with the studio saw Rossellini quit the film before the shoot began.
Executive producer Bob McNaught took over as director, and although Burton made the film, his heart wasn’t in it; Joan Collins later said her co-star had a “take the money and run” attitude. Sea Wife proved to be another Burton movie which underperformed critically and commercially.
31. He told Joan Collins, “I’ve slept with all my leading ladies”
Burton was still married to Sybil when he shot Sea Wife with Joan Collins – but this did not stop the actor from trying to woo his co-star, who was 24 at the time, and sadly already accustomed to older men in the film industry trying to force themselves on her.
Collins recalls, “Richard told me that if I didn’t go to bed with him, I would ‘break his record’… ‘I’ve slept with all my leading ladies,’ he bragged.” Collins says she turned him down flat, and afterwards Burton “barely spoke to me for the rest of filming.”
32. He left the UK in 1957 as a tax exile
While Burton earned large sums of money for his film work, the British tax rates for high earners at the time left him with comparatively little to show for it. Reportedly he was paid £82,000 in 1957, but was left with only £6,000 after tax. (This still equates to well over $100,000 in today’s money.)
Under the advice of his lawyers, Burton left the UK and relocated with his wife Sybil to Céligny, Switzerland purely to avoid further huge tax bills; more celebrities would follow suit in the years ahead. Burton said later, “I believe that everyone should pay [taxes], except actors.”
33. He refused to return to the UK for his father’s funeral
The same month that Burton emigrated to Switzerland, his biological father Richard ‘Daddy Ni’ Jenkins Sr. passed away of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 81. Burton opted not to return to Britain for the funeral.
On being told that his father had died, Burton is said to have asked, “which one?” He thought of Philip Burton as his true father, and considered Richard Sr. (pictured below centre, with Richard and his brother Ifor) to be almost a stranger by comparison.
34. He left to start a play on Broadway the day after his first child was born
Sadly, though Burton knew all too well the personal cost of an absent parent, he showed no signs of avoiding his father’s mistakes when his first child was born. Sybil gave birth to their daughter Kate Burton in Geneva on 10th September 1957.
The very next day, Burton left his wife and newborn daughter and travelled to New York, to start work on the play Time Remembered on Broadway. The show proved successful: it ran for six months, and landed Burton his first Tony Award nomination (although, as with the Oscars, he didn’t win).
35. He played Heathcliff in a TV production of Wuthering Heights
With the bulk of his work divided between the cinema and the stage, Burton has comparatively few TV credits, but he made an impact in that medium as well. 1958 saw the actor take the role of Heathcliff in a production of Wuthering Heights, for the CBS Network’s Du Pont Show of the Month.
Burton was joined by his fellow esteemed British stage veterans Rosemary Harris and Denholm Elliot. (Harris replaced the originally cast Yvonne Furneaux, pictured with Burton in the promotional image below.) The widely-praised production was broadcast live, and was thought lost for many years before it was screened by TCM in 2019.
36. He returned to the UK to shoot Look Back in Anger
Tax exile Burton was finally lured back to the UK in 1959 to play the lead role in the film adaptation of Look Back in Anger, playwright John Osborne’s groundbreaking ‘kitchen sink’ drama which is considered a major turning point for British theatre.
While Burton’s performance in the film earned him a Golden Globe nomination, it was widely agreed that at 33 he was far too old to play the young lead Jimmy Porter. Look Back in Anger was not a great success on release, although its reputation has grown with time.
37. He originated the role of King Arthur in stage musical Camelot
1960 saw Burton once again head to Broadway, this time to play the mythic hero King Arthur in the inaugural run of the musical Camelot. Julie Andrews, who had not long since shot to Broadway superstardom in My Fair Lady, was cast alongside Burton as Guinevere.
Though Burton had sung in his youth, this was his first stage musical as a professional, and it proved a troubled production which opened to mixed reviews. Despite this, Camelot wound up a huge hit, and it has been widely performed in the decades since, as well as being adapted to film in 1967.
38. Burton unsuccessfully tried to woo Julie Andrews as well
Once again, Burton was still married to Sybil when he started working with Julie Andrews on Camelot, but this didn’t deter him from attempting to woo another of his leading ladies. Like Joan Collins before her, Andrews also spurned her co-star’s advances.
Burton didn’t take this rejection well; Andrews recalls he even displayed his sudden disdain for her on stage in front of the audience. Their troubled relationship is part of why neither actor returned for the eventual Camelot movie, in which the leads were taken by Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave.
39. He joined an all-star cast in The Longest Day
Following the success of Camelot (which earned Burton praise from no less than US President John F. Kennedy), Burton was one among many big name actors cast in 1962’s The Longest Day, a World War II epic based around the historic events of D-Day.
The other megastars to appear in The Longest Day include John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum and Sean Connery, plus a slew of international actors. The film was a big critical and commercial success, and would receive several Oscar nominations (although none for acting).
40. He was paid $250,000 for Cleopatra
Just as his six-month run on Camelot was coming to an end, Burton was approached by producer Walter Wagner and asked to play Mark Antony (the role he’d previously turned down in Julius Caesar) in 20th Century Fox’s historical epic Cleopatra.
Burton signed on for a fee of $250,000, and the film proved to be a major turning point in his life. Not only would it endure one of the most notoriously troubled and expensive productions ever, it would also be Burton’s first collaboration with the woman who would change his world, Elizabeth Taylor.
41. Burton replaced another actor who’d already been working on the film for four months
Not for nothing is Cleopatra known as one of the most troubled film productions ever. When Burton was cast, the production was on hiatus; they’d already been shooting for 16 weeks with director Rouben Mamoulia, but astonishingly this had only produced 10 minutes worth of usable footage.
In that time, Ben-Hur actor Stephen Boyd had been playing Mark Antony, but when the time came to start re-shooting Boyd was no longer available, hence Burton was hired in his stead. The same went for Rex Harrison, who replaced Peter Finch as Julius Caesar.
42. Burton flirted with Taylor at their first photo shoot together
Burton, as we’ve established, was a very persistent womaniser despite his ongoing marriage to Sybil, so it’s hardly surprising that he wasted no time in working his charms on Elizabeth Taylor as soon as they started working together.
Taylor recalls that on their first day they did a photo shoot, at which he remarked, “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?” Taylor said of this later, “I said to myself, Oy gevalt, here’s the great lover, the great wit, the great intellectual of Wales, and he comes out with a line like that.”
43. They bonded when Taylor eased Burton’s nerves on set
Reportedly there was some tension between the Cleopatra lead actors, with the elder, more critically revered Burton not taking the younger tabloid favourite Taylor as seriously as an actress. However, this changed when Taylor and Burton shot their first scene together.
Burton is reported to have grown flustered after forgetting his lines, but Taylor was able to calm him down so they could complete the scene. Taylor said afterwards that she believed this was the moment he fell in love with her.
44. The Taylor affair ended Burton’s marriage to Sybil
Burton and Taylor quickly launched into an intense affair, and it seems to have been apparent early on that it was more than another of Burton’s flings. It was at this point that Sybil finally left him; soon thereafter she would divorce him, citing “abandonment and cruel and inhumane treatment.”
Burton would ultimately pay Sybil $1 million in the divorce settlement, and grant her custody of their children; by this point they had a second daughter, Jessica. The affair also destroyed Taylor’s marriage – her fourth – with Eddie Fisher (ex-husband of Debbie Reynolds and father of Carrie Fisher).
45. The scandal shocked Burton’s old friends in the theatre
The affair with Elizabeth Taylor promptly made Richard Burton the toast of the gossip columns. The couple were soon nicknamed ‘Liz and Dick,’ and the everyday comings-and-goings of their relationship were regular tabloid news fodder.
As Burton had always been considered a serious actor, many were taken aback at this development. His old friend Laurence Olivier sent him a telegram asking, “Make up your mind, dear heart. Do you want to be a great actor or a household word?” To which Burton replied, “Both.”
46. Cleopatra was a big hit, but still lost money because of high production and marketing costs
As we’ve established, the Burton/Taylor affair was just one of the notorious behind-the-scenes issues on Cleopatra. At the time, it was the most expensive film production ever, costing over $31 million (almost $266 million in today’s money), and running in at just over four hours in length.
Even though the film made almost $100 million at the global box office, the high costs plus the additional money spent on marketing and distribution meant that it made a huge loss, almost bankrupting 20th Century Fox. 34 years later, Fox would suffer another similarly troubled production in 1997’s Titanic (although that film proved a considerably bigger money-maker).
47. Burton went on to make many more films opposite Taylor – and married her in 1964
Cleopatra proved to be the first of many big screen collaborations for Hollywood’s hot new couple Liz and Dick. The duo reunited on their very next film, drama The V.I.P.s, which opened in September 1963, three months after Cleopatra first hit screens.
Barely six months after that, Burton and Taylor well and truly cemented their partnership by marrying on the 15th of March 1964 in Montreal, Canada (a mere nine days after Taylor’s divorce from her fourth husband Eddie Fisher was finalised).
48. Burton says Taylor made him choosier in his film roles
Burton admitted at the time that he and Taylor were first married that, up to that point, he’d been quite happy to take roles in films he didn’t believe in simply because it was an easy way for him “to get rich.” His new wife changed that.
Burton said that Taylor “made me see what kind of rubbish I was doing,” and from that point on he became a lot more selective in the film roles that he said yes to. Of course, the fact that Burton’s new wife already had a sizeable fortune of her own probably made this easier.
49. He earned his third Academy Award nomination for Becket
In 1964, Burton gave another of his most highly regarded film performances in Becket. Adapted from the play of the same name, the fact-based film tells the story of Thomas Becket and his relationship with King Henry II, portrayed by Burton’s equally esteemed contemporary Peter O’Toole.
Becket was a modest hit, but earned plenty of critical plaudits, and twelve Academy Award nominations including Best Actor for Burton (his second nomination in that category, and third overall). However, the film would ultimately win only one Oscar, for Best Adapted Screenplay.
50. He reunited with John Gielgud for a Broadway revival of Hamlet
After finishing work on Becket, Burton accepted an offer from Broadway producer Alexander H. Cohen to once again perform Hamlet, this time on the New York stage. Burton lured John Gielgud back to direct, and both men decided to take a more experimental approach this time around.
As Burton did not enjoy wearing period clothing, Gielgud agreed that this Hamlet would be performed in ‘rehearsal’ style, with only a partial set and the actors wearing their own clothes. However, once the show was up and running the director decided the cast needed capes to “add colour.”
51. Burton’s ex-wife Sybil became a pioneer of New York’s disco scene
After their divorce, Burton’s first wife Sybil – who hadn’t worked during their marriage – made an unexpected splash on the New York nightclub scene. In 1965 she opened Arthur, an upmarket discotheque which soon attracted a major celebrity crowd. Many have credited the club for setting the tone for the city’s disco scene in the 70s.
Sybil also remarried, tying the knot with Jordan Christopher, lead singer in Arthur’s house band. However, following Christopher’s death in 1966, she would ultimately sell the club in 1969.
52. Burton’s adoptive father Philip also relocated to America
Burton’s adoptive father Philip also accompanied the actor in his move across the Atlantic. After leaving Port Talbot Secondary School, Philip Burton worked for BBC radio before relocating to Key West, Florida and officially becoming a US citizen in 1964.
Richard and Philip had briefly fallen out for the first time when the actor divorced Sybil. However, they were ultimately able to patch things up and Philip became friends with Taylor, a friendship which continued even after Richard’s death.
53. Burton was Oscar-nominated a fourth time for The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
In 1965 Burton took the lead in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, an adaption of John le Carré’s spy thriller novel. Released at the peak of James Bond’s popularity, the film won widespread praise for its far more realistic take on espionage, Burton’s performance included.
The performance was enough to earn Burton his fourth Academy Award nomination. Alas, in what was by now seeming like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the actor once again walked away empty-handed, missing out on the Best Actor Oscar to Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou.
54. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became Burton and Taylor’s most successful collaboration
In 1966, Burton and Taylor made their third film together in the big screen adaptation of Edward Albee’s stage play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The dark comedy was also notable for being the first film of established theatre director Mike Nichols.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? proved to be the most successful ‘Liz and Dick’ movie. The reviews were almost unanimously positive, and with box office takings of almost $34 million it was one of the most profitable films of the year.
55. It earned Burton and Taylor Oscar nominations – but only Taylor won
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? earned a very rare accolade: it sported a cast of only four, every one of whom was nominated for an Academy Award: Best Actor for Burton, Best Actress for Taylor, Best Supporting Actor for George Segal and Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis.
Ultimately, Taylor and Dennis won in their respective categories (the film also won in three technical categories). This was a second Oscar for Taylor, after 1960’s BUtterfield 8 – but a fifth time as an Oscar loser for Burton.
56. He made his first and only film as director with 1967’s Doctor Faustus
After shooting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Burton and Taylor performed in an Oxford theatre production of Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. The staging was then filmed for theatrical release in 1967, co-directed by Burton and theatre director Nevill Coghill.
This marked the first time that Burton had directed a film himself – and it would be the last. Doctor Faustus received negative reviews and flopped at the box office, and neither Burton nor Coghill would direct a motion picture again.
57. Burton blamed himself when his brother was seriously injured after a night of heavy drinking
Burton had long been a prodigious drinker, and in 1968 this was the cause of a personal tragedy. He was out drinking in Céligny with his beloved elder brother Ifor, when Ifor suffered a fall and broke his neck. He survived, but was left paralysed.
Those close to Burton say that he blamed himself for what happened to Ifor; but rather than shocking the actor into amending his hard-drinking ways, the guilt only served to make him an even more compulsive alcoholic.
58. He made Where Eagles Dare for his children
1968 saw Burton star in one of his most enduringly popular films, the World War II action-adventure Where Eagles Dare, alongside Clint Eastwood. Burton admitted to making the film primarily for his children (including his own two daughters, and Taylor’s two sons), who wanted to see him act in something fun.
Where Eagles Dare proved a hit, earning over $21 million at the box office. Burton did very well out of the film financially: on top of a $1.2 million salary, he took a cut of the profits and the TV rights.
59. Burton and Clint Eastwood had a wager over bedding Ingrid Pitt
Burton got along well with younger co-star Clint Eastwood. Both actors were notorious for their womanising ways, and clearly Burton’s marriage to Elizabeth Taylor hadn’t put a stop to this, as he and Eastwood made a bet over which of them would be the first to seduce co-star Ingrid Pitt.
Pitt (who later found fame in a number of Hammer horror films) recounted this story years later, stressing that she didn’t sleep with either actor. On learning about the wager from Eastwood himself, Pitt, wryly asked, “who won?”
60. Burton was drinking up to four bottles of vodka a day on the Where Eagles Dare set
Where Eagles Dare may have been a career triumph for Burton, but the man himself was not at a high point personally. Still reeling with guilt over his brother Ifor’s injury, Burton’s alcohol consumption had reached shocking levels: as much as four bottles of vodka per day.
One day whilst shooting, Burton was so drunk he accidentally knocked himself out and had to be replaced by his stand-in. Burton wrote in his diary around this time, “I am fundamentally so bored with my job that only drink is capable of killing the pain.”
61. A drunk Burton was threatened at gunpoint during filming
Where Eagles Dare has a high body count and a lot of gunfire – but alarmingly, Burton came close to getting shot for real during production. After a night’s shooting (and still dressed in his Third Reich officer uniform), Burton was cornered at a hotel bar at 2am by a troubled fan armed with a revolver.
Reportedly the heavily intoxicated actor roared, “Don’t mess with me, baby,” in a Chicago mobster accent, whilst he and several crew members were held at gunpoint. The gunman only relented when Elizabeth Taylor came rushing into the bar in a pink chiffon nightdress, having heard her husband’s voice booming from upstairs.
62. He was made a CBE on his 45th birthday
10th November 1970 saw Burton turn 45 – and on that very same day he was made a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, London. His wife Elizabeth Taylor and sister Cecilia were his guests at the ceremony.
One would have hoped this honour boded well for Burton (who reportedly believed he would have been knighted were it not for his years as a tax exile). Unfortunately, the decade that followed would see his life unravel in many ways, as years of drink and misbehaviour caught up with him.
63. His alcoholism hit its peak with the death of his brother Ifor
Under doctor’s orders, Burton made efforts to cut back on alcohol. Whilst shooting Raid in Rommell in 1970, Burton abstained from drinking for the entirety of the shoot. Sadly, these efforts toward long-term sobriety would not last.
Burton’s elder brother Ifor died in 1972, four years after the fall that paralysed him whilst the brothers were out drinking. The actor is said to have been overwhelmed with grief and guilt, and began to hit the bottle even more heavily than before.
64. He almost drank himself to death whilst shooting The Klansman
According to producer Bill Schiffrin, Burton was drinking so heavily on the set of 1974 drama The Klansman that he “didn’t know what town he was in, let alone what film.” Scenes often had to be staged with Burton seated or lying down as he was literally unable to stand.
Burton’s co-star Lee Marvin was also drinking heavily: reportedly when the men met at a party a few years later, neither recalled working together. After The Klansman finished shooting, Burton went to a rehab facility in Santa Monica, California in order to dry out.
65. Burton and Taylor divorced (for the first time) in 1974
After just over a decade of marriage, Elizabeth Taylor filed for divorce from Richard Burton in June 1974. The actress told the court in Switzerland, “There were too many differences. I have tried everything.”
Burton is said to have pined desperately for Taylor, repeatedly pleading for her to take him back – but at the same time embarking on a number of affairs. One of his lovers was Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, to whom he was briefly engaged.
66. By 1975 he had reportedly slept with over 2,500 women
While Joan Collins, Julie Andrews and Ingrid Pitt are all said to have spurned Burton’s advances, it seems the actor’s boasts about his prowess with the opposite sex were not all talk. It has been claimed that at the height of his fame, Burton slept with as many as three new women each week.
This is said to have added up to approximately 2,500 women by 1975. Many of these are said to have been Burton’s co-stars, among them Claire Bloom, Jean Simmons, Lana Turner, Mary Ure and Geneviève Bujold (pictured below with Burton on the set of Anne of the Thousand Days).
67. He once declared himself to be a Communist
In some of his later interviews, Burton tendencies towards the provocative got a bit more pronounced. Whilst portraying Yugoslav Communist leader Josip Broz Tito in The Battle of Sutjeska, Burton declared that he himself was a Communist.
Naturally some questioned the veracity of this claim given the personal fortune Burton amassed as an actor, but Burton refuted this, arguing that “unlike capitalists, I don’t exploit other people.”
68. He was banned by the BBC after criticising Winston Churchill
1974 was the centenary of revered British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had been an admirer of Burton. That year, the actor appeared as Churchill in TV movie The Gathering Storm, in what was praised as a sympathetic portrayal.
However, Burton proceeded to shock many by penning two opinion pieces for British newspapers in which he professed to “virulently” hating Churchill and other World War II-era leaders, citing their threat to wipe out the Japanese. Burton was promptly banned from ever appearing in another BBC production.
69. He once admitted he had ‘tried’ homosexuality
In one 1975 interview, Burton confessed to having experimented with homosexuality, whilst also suggesting that all straight actors harbour secret gay impulses and “cover it up with drink.” This has been taken by some as confirmation that Burton was a closeted homosexual.
A 2000 biography of Elizabeth Taylor declared outright that Burton was gay, claiming he attempted to seduce Taylor’s ex-husband Eddie Fisher, and had an affair with Laurence Olivier. These claims were laughed off by Burton’s surviving relatives: his brother Graham Jenkins said, “if Rich was a homosexual, then I’m a nun.”
70. A reunion with Taylor in 1975 resulted in an impulsive re-marriage
Burton had not stopped pining for Elizabeth Taylor since their divorce, and the two still felt affection for one another. When Taylor had a lung cancer scare in 1975, she called for Burton to be with her whilst she awaited the results.
Happily, the tests showed Taylor did not have cancer after all, and in the resulting jubilation she and Burton professed their renewed love for one another. They subsequently got married for the second time on the 10th of October 1975.
71. Burton and Taylor’s second marriage was over in less than ten months
It shouldn’t come as any great surprise that the initially blissful reunion of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor was not to last. The couple divorced once again in July 1976, less than ten months after they tied the knot a second time.
It hadn’t taken long for both parties to realise that nothing had changed between them. Burton was still a compulsive drinker and womaniser, and Taylor had no shortage of problems of her own, not least her dependence on prescription painkillers.
72. Burton married third wife Suzy Miller within weeks of his second divorce from Taylor
One catalyst behind the second and final divorce of Burton and Taylor was the actor’s affair with Suzy Miller, the British model, dancer and actress who was in the process of divorcing Formula 1 driver James Hunt at the time.
In August 1976, mere weeks after his divorce from Taylor was made legal, Burton made Suzy Miller his third wife. She was 26 at the time, whilst Burton was close to turning 51.
73. He made Exorcist II: The Heretic as a quid pro quo for the lead in Equus
Keen to get his film career back on track, Burton set his sights on playing the role of Dr Martin Dysart in the film adaptation of Anthony Schaffer’s play Equus; he had already played this role on stage in 1975, to widespread acclaim.
It’s been claimed that this was the main reason Burton agreed to star in Exorcist II: The Heretic, follow-up to the notorious but hugely successful 1973 horror film. On release in June 1977, Exorcist II was widely declared a disaster, and it flopped at the box office.
74. Equus earned Burton his last Oscar nomination – but he lost again
While Exorcist II may have proved an ignominious return to the Hollywood spotlight, it did pave the way for Burton to make Equus, which proved to be a far better career move in artistic terms. Burton’s performance was admired enough for him to once again be nominated at the Academy Awards.
This marked Burton’s seventh Oscar nomination (he’d also been nominated for Anne of the Thousand Days in 1970) – but alas, Burton once again went home empty-handed, beaten to the gold by Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl. This proved to be his last Oscar nomination.
75. He won a Grammy for a 1976 children’s record
Burton might not have been able to nab himself an Oscar, but he did pick up another prestigious award for a perhaps unexpected work. In 1976, Burton won the Grammy in the Best Recording for Children category, for his narration on a record of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s children’s book The Little Prince.
Burton shared the Grammy with Mort Garson who provided the music for the recording, which was released as an LP and audio cassette. British actor and singer-songwriter Anthony Newley accepted the award on behalf of the absent Burton.
76. He narrated The War of the Worlds, which became one of Britain’s best-loved albums
On top of The Little Prince, another audio recording proved to be a great success for Burton in his final years. The actor provided the narration on Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, a progressive rock concept album based around the classic science fiction novel by H.G. Wells.
Wayne spent over a year recording the album, with guest vocalists including David Essex, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues. Released in 1978, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds was a massive success; to date it has sold over 15 million copies, and is one of the 40 biggest selling albums in UK history.
77. A chance encounter with Burton encouraged Kevin Costner to pursue acting
In 1978, Burton was on a flight from Mexico to the US when he was approached by a fellow passenger, an unknown young man named Kevin Costner, who was with his new wife on their way back home from their honeymoon.
The two men bonded over drinks (unsurprisingly), and Costner confessed to Burton that he wanted to pursue acting but had his doubts. Costner says Burton replied, “You have blue eyes, I have blue eyes. I think you’ll be fine.” Encouraged, Costner went on to become one of the biggest stars of his generation – and, unlike Burton, an Oscar winner.
78. Burton divorced Suzy Miller in 1982 and married Sally Hay in 1983
Burton’s third (or technically fourth) attempt at nuptial bliss also proved unsuccessful. His marriage with Suzy Miller was not a happy one, with his most recent bride not unreasonably suspecting that her husband still held a torch for old flame Elizabeth Taylor.
Burton and Miller were divorced in 1982 – and within a year, the actor would tie the knot with wife number four (or technically five). Burton’s last wife was Sally Hay, who he met when she was a production assistant on TV mini-series Wagner. This would be Burton’s only marriage not to end in divorce, although it would still prove sadly short-lived.
79. Burton is said to have professed his love for Taylor on his death bed
Burton’s years of heavy drinking, not to mention smoking (reportedly around three packs of cigarettes daily), finally caught up with him on the 5th of August 1984, when at the age of 58, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage; the same thing that had killed his biological father, who was also an alcoholic and smoker.
It has long been said that Burton penned a final love letter to Elizabeth Taylor on his death bed, and that the day before he died he quietly told John Hurt (with whom Burton co-starred in his final film 1984), “she still fascinates, you know.” It is also widely reported that Taylor, who died in 2011 after two more failed marriages, never stopped loving Burton either.
80. He lived on as a hologram in the War of the Worlds live show
In 2006, Burton was revived in a virtual capacity to delight audiences once more. Jeff Wayne launched a live stage show of The War of the Worlds, and one of the key selling points was a 3D holographic simulation of Richard Burton reciting the dialogue recorded for the LP decades earlier.
This hologram of Richard Burton remained a key part of the popular touring show until 2011, when Burton was replaced by a more sophisticated hologram of the still-living actor Liam Neeson.