Born November 10, 1925 in Pontrhydyfen, Wales to Welsh speaking parents, Richard Walker Jenkins, Jr. was the twelfth of thirteen children. His mother died shortly after giving birth to his younger brother when Richard was just two years old. His father, a coal miner soon abandoned the family and he was raised by his older sister, Cecilia. An avid fan of Shakespeare, poetry and reading, he once said “home is where the books are”. He received a scholarship to Oxford University to study acting where he was mentored by his teacher, Philip Burton, who made the young actor his ward.
Having legally changed his name to Richard Burton, the young actor made his stage debut in 1944 and his film debut in 1949 in Woman of Dolwyn third billed behind Edith Evans and Emlyn Williams, the year he married first wife Sybil Williams. His first Hollywood film was 1952’s My Cousin Rachel opposite Olivia de Havilland for which he received the first of his seven Oscar nominations. The following year he received his second nomination for The Robe in which he starred opposite Jean Simmons. Other successes followed including 1955’s Prince of Players as Edwin Booth and The Rains of Ranchipur opposite Lana Turner, 1956’s Alexander the Great in the title role supported by Fredric March and Claire Bloom and 1957’s The Sea Wife opposite Joan Collins.
In 1959, Burton starred in the first British kitchen sink drama, Look Back in Anger opposite Bloom and Mary Ure and in 1960 starred in Broadway’s Camelot opposite Julie Andrews for which he won a Tony. In 1962, he was part of the ensemble cast of The Longest Day and in 1963 starred in both Cleopatra and The V.I.P.s opposite Elizabeth Taylor with whom he had a widely publicized affair during the making of Cleopatra. He would divorce his first wife in 1963 and marry her in 1964. 1964 was also the year that he starred in both Becket opposite Peter O’Toole and The Night of the Iguana opposite Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr, earning his third Oscar nomination for Becket.
1965’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold brought Burton his fourth Oscar nomination and 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? brought him his fifth and Taylor her second win. 1967’s The Taming of the Shrew, Doctor Faustus and The Comedians were all opposite Taylor as was 1968’s Boom! . 1969 saw him in three films without Taylor, Where Eagles Dare opposite Clint Eastwood, Staircase opposite Rex Harrison and Anne of the Thousand Days for which he received his sixth Oscar nomination opposite Genevive Bujold.
Burton’s films of the early 1970s were largely undistinguished. He and Taylor divorced in 1974 and remarried in 1975, divorcing again in 1976. He married model Suzy Miller that year and starred in his first successful film since the 1960s with 1977’s Equus for which he received his seventh and final Oscar nomination. Divorced from Miller in 1982, he married makeup artist Sally Hay in 1983. His last film was 1984’s 1984. He died on August 5, 1984 at his home in Geneva, Switzerland. He was 58.
BECKET (1964), directed by Peter Glenville
Burton wanted to play Henry II, but Peter O’Toole was already cast so he agreed to play Thomas Becket even though he thought the public would be aghast at his playing a saint. Both actors were nominated for Oscars though the film only won one of its 12 nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay even though the screenplay had more inaccuracies in it than the play it was taken from. It is tied with The Turning Point and The Color Purple with the most losses ever at 11 each. The stellar supporting cast includes John Gielgud, Donald Wolfit, Martita Hunt, Pamela Brown, Sian Phillips and Felix Aylmer.
THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964), directed by John Huston
This was the last adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play to be given a major Hollywood production. Burton as a defrocked priest frolicking with hotel owner landlady Ava Gardner in Puerto Vallarta put that now famed resort destination on the map. Critics hailed both their performances as well as those of Deborah Kerr as an itinerant artist and Cyril Delevanti as her 98-year-old grandfather, but the only player to receive an Oscar nomination was Grayson Hall as a repressed lesbian tour guide with the hots for nymphet Sue Lyon. The film was nominated for three other Oscars, winning for Best Costume Design, Black-and-White.
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965), directed by Martin Ritt
Burton’s unflashy low-key portrayal of John le Carré’s tired spy is easily one of his best. The first adaptation of a le Carré, and the only one filmed entirely in black-and-white benefits from the on-set tension between Burton and director Ritt. Burton wanted Elizabeth Taylor to play the female lead, an innocent 19-year-old librarian. Le Carré wanted Rita Tushingham, but Ritt wanted and got Claire Bloom who at 34 was like Taylor, too old for the part, but nevertheless is quite convincing as are Oskar Werner, Sam Wanamaker, George Voskovec, Rupert Davies, Peter Van Eyck, Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern and Robert Hardy in support.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), directed by Mike Nichols
The film version of Edward Albee’s play won five Oscars including one for Ernest Lehman’s screenplay in which only two lines of Lehman’s revised dialogue are used. Elizabeth Taylor won her second Oscar as the foul-mouthed middle-aged professor’s wife and Burton received his fifth nomination as her wimp of a husband losing to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons directed by Fred Zinnemann who also won as Best Director over Mike Nichols. Ironically, Zinnemann was the original choice for director of Woolf, but when he bowed out it was Burton who suggested his friend Nichols for the job.
EQUUS (1977), directed by Sidney Lumet
Burton replaced vacationing Anthony Perkins during the Broadway run of Equus in 1976, bolstering the box-office receipts of the play. He was eager to do the film version thinking it would return him to screen glory after a long series of film flops. Instead, the film was a box-office failure despite earning him a seventh Oscar nomination as the psychiatrist who helps Oscar nominated Peter Firth get over his fear of horses. Burton’s 1978 film, Absolution, another psychological thriller, in which he played a priest was an even bigger flop. It wasn’t released in the U.S. until ten years later, four years after his death.
RICHARD BURTON AND OSCAR
- My Cousin Rachel (1952) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor
- The Robe (1953) – nominated – Best Actor
- Becket (1964) – nominated – Best Actor
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) – nominated – Best Actor
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) – nominated – Best Actor
- Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) – nominated – Best Actor
- Equus (1977) – nominated – Best Actor