Richard Burton was one of the finest actors of his generation, despite a private life and drinking problems that eventually garnered more publicity than his acting career. He was nominated for an Academy Award seven times, with six nods in the lead actor category.
Born Richard Walter Jenkins on Nov. 10, 1925, in Pontrhydyfen, Wales, he was the 12th of 13 children of a hard-drinking Welsh coal miner and his wife. It is said that he began to smoke at age 8 and drink at 12, and eventually he was taken under the wing of his schoolmaster and tutor Philip H. Burton, who recognized the young man's acting talent. Burton attempted to adopt the 17-year-old as his son but was too young under the law to do so. But Richard considered him to be his adoptive father and took his surname.
Handsome, brooding, with haunting blue eyes and a sonorous voice, Burton made his first stage appearance in the early 1940s. After appearing in such films as 1951's "Green Grow the Rushes," he took Hollywood by storm, earning his first supporting actor nomination for the 1952 romantic mystery "My Cousin Rachel" and receiving a lead actor Oscar nod the following year for the blockbuster religious epic "The Robe." On stage, he received a Tony nomination for the 1958 play "Time Remembered" and then won the Tony for the one of his signature roles, King Arthur, in the classic musical "Camelot" with Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet.
Then, Burton's life changed course when he was cast as Mark Antony opposite Elizabeth Taylor in the big-budget 1963 epic "Cleopatra." Though Taylor was married to Eddie Fisher at the time and Burton had been married to actress Sybil Williams since 1949 — their daughter Kate Burton became a respected actress —Taylor and Burton began a highly publicized affair during the disastrous production in Rome. Liz and Dick, as they were dubbed, married in 1964 and adopted a daughter, Maria.
The high-living couple appeared in several films, most notably 1966's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," for which Burton received an Oscar nomination and Taylor her second lead actress Oscar. During their marriage, Burton picked up Oscar nominations for 1965's "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" and 1969's "Anne of the Thousand Days." However, their lifestyle caught up with them, and Burton took roles beneath him to pay for their opulent existence, including 1971's "Raid on Rommel" and 1974's "Klansman." The two divorced in 1974 and briefly remarried in 1975.
Burton's career went on an upswing when he received his seventh Oscar nomination for Sidney Lumet's 1977 drama "Equus."
Burton remarried two more times — first Susan Hunt and then Sally Hay — and continued to act in less-than-spectacular films as his health declined. He returned Broadway in 1980 in a revival of "Camelot" and embarked on a national tour but pulled out of the production in Los Angeles when he was afflicted by bursitis. Then he and Taylor reunited for the 1983 Broadway and national tour of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," but the production was poorly received.
After appearing with his daughter in the 1984 CBS miniseries "Ellis Island" and the feature film "1984," based on George Orwell's classic novel, Burton died at age 58 of a cerebral hemorrhage Aug. 5, 1984, in Geneva, Switzerland.
Points of interest
|1952||Best Supporting Actor||My Cousin Rachel||Nomination|
|1953||Best Actor||The Robe||Nomination|
|1965||Best Actor||The Spy Who Came in from the Cold||Nomination|
|1966||Best Actor||Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?||Nomination|
|1969||Best Actor||Anne of the Thousand Days||Nomination|