Richard Burton was one of Hollywood’s wildest hellraisers and a formidable acting talent. But it was his tempestuous romance with Elizabeth Taylor that provided the world with the most delicious tabloid fodder: Vicious fights, passionate displays of affection, and bitter betrayal. Still, no matter how bright he burned—Burton was always doomed to a heartbreaking end.
1. He Had Humble Beginnings
On November 10, 1925, Richard Burton was born into a troubled family destined for tragedy. Raised in Wales, his beginnings were incredibly humble, and as the twelfth of thirteen children, little Richard Jenkins Jr. was a far cry away from the glamorous heights he’d one day achieve. In fact, he did not enjoy a charmed childhood.
2. He Lost His Mother
You see, Burton’s father, Richard Jenkins Sr., was an alcoholic coal miner with a penchant for gambling, while his mother Edith was a strong and beautiful barmaid who worked at a pub. Then, sadly, when Burton was only two years old, an unforeseen disaster tore his family apart. Shortly after giving birth to her thirteenth baby, Edith passed from postpartum infections, leaving Burton motherless…
3. He Was A Natural
Luckily for Burton, his doting sister Cecilia stepped in to raise him in lieu of their father’s constant absence. Thanks to the loving support of his siblings, Burton grew into a well-rounded youth, fostering a love for rugby, poetry, literature, and above all—singing. But it was his schoolmaster, Philip Burton, who truly realized his stunning potential.
4. He Had A Special Mentor
It’s no coincidence that Richard Burton and his beloved teacher Philip Burton share the same surname. Although he didn’t know it at first, Burton’s bond with his schoolmaster would become one of the most important relationships of his life. But before he could be found, young Burton had to lose himself. By the end of 1941, this wayward teen faced some of his most challenging hurdles yet.
5. He Discovered His Vices
When his sister’s husband, Elfed, grew ill, Burton dropped out of school to work as a miner. As he toiled away, his future stretched ahead of him—the horizon blurry and unknown. He had no idea what he wanted to be. A boxer? A man of the cloth? A singer? And this wasn’t his only struggle. Around this time, Burton also picked up some of his greatest vices—smoking and drinking—dangerous habits that would plague him for the rest of his life.
6. He Put His Nose To The Grindstone
While working as a cadet in the RAF, a stroke of luck reunited Burton with his old mentor, Philip. Philip was the squadron commander, and after witnessing Burton’s acting chops firsthand, he dedicated himself to the boy’s dramatic education. But he didn’t take it easy on him. The training was strict and rigorous, and later, Burton referred to his study regimen as “the most hardworking and painful period” of his life.
Philip molded Burton into star material, and in the process, developed an unwavering love for the boy—an affection that sparked one of the most heartfelt gestures imaginable.
7. He Owed Him Everything
After pouring so much care into Burton’s tutelage, Philip wanted to adopt Burton, calling him “my son to all intents and purposes.” However, because Philip was too young to adopt Burton, he instead settled on becoming his legal ward. But that wasn’t the most touching part. Richard even took Philip’s last name, becoming a Burton in his own right.
He said that he owed everything to Philip and, considering his eventual success, he was probably right. Bolstered by his refined talents, Burton set his sights on the stage. He was going to become an actor.
8. He Fell For An Extra
Burton’s intrepid benefactor helped gain him a spot at Oxford, and in 1943, he had his very first stage performance. But it wasn’t until the end of the decade that his career really started heating up. In 1948, he snagged a role in The Last Days of Dolwyn—his film debut. But this opportunity was seductive in more ways than one.
He also met a beguiling young extra who quickly captured his heart.
9. He Had A Whirlwind Romance
When Burton met 19-year-old Sybil Williams on the set of The Last Days of Dolwyn, these two unknown actors quickly fell at each other’s feet. This was young love at its finest—a pure whirlwind that saw Sybil moving in with Burton in no time at all. Unfortunately, only one of them was destined to become a Hollywood legend.
10. He Was Her Number One
Although Sybil continued to act for a while longer, it wasn’t long before she abandoned her career in favor of becoming Richard Burton’s full-time wife. By the end of the 50s, the couple had planted roots in Switzerland and welcomed two bouncing baby girls. But don’t cry for Sybil and her forgotten ambitions. Later on, she happily admitted that her true desires lay elsewhere.
11. He Gave Her The Life She Always Wanted
Burton’s wife, Sybil, knew that she’d married a future star, and later said, “It was very clear to me that I wasn’t making a sacrifice. I knew that Richard would have an exciting career and that it would be fun, two Welsh kids on the Queen Mary, traveling first class.” And that wasn’t all. Burton felt drawn to Sybil for his own, sometimes underhanded, reasons.
12. He Was A Wild Card
Richard Burton wasn’t exactly a straight arrow. In fact, he was a downright wild card and didn’t think twice about indulging in adultery. With his low, smooth voice and dangerous charisma, Burton charmed a number of his leading ladies. Lucky for him, his wife provided a respite from his professional life and turned a blind eye to his debaucherous ways…at least for the time being.
13. He Couldn’t Charm Them All
Burton’s first love was undoubtedly the stage, but by 1952, Hollywood came calling and offered him a breakout role in My Cousin Rachel. His leading lady was none other than the classic beauty, Olivia de Havilland—but funnily enough, she did not fall for Burton’s charms. Allegedly, Burton’s loose tongue got the best of him: His offensive quips scandalized his co-star, inciting her utter disgust.
Olivia called him “a coarse-grained man with a coarse-grained charm and a talent not completely developed, and a coarse-grained behavior [sic] which makes him not like anyone else.” Of course, the rest of the world wouldn’t agree.
14. He Surprised Them
Although Burton failed to win his leading lady’s good opinion, he certainly wowed audiences and critics alike. After the success of My Cousin Rachel, he walked away with growing notoriety and an Academy Award nomination. Just like that, the doors to fame flung wide open, and if he so desired, Burton had only to slip through and claim his throne.
Instead, he did something completely unprecedented.
15. He Turned Them Down
Over the next year, Burton starred in two more box-office successes, igniting the interest of 20th Century Fox. However, when co-founder, Darryl F. Zanuck, offered the actor a seven-year contract that amounted to $1 million, Burton shocked everyone and turned it down. You see, he had a pressing prior commitment—one that was very dear to his heart.
16. He Was A Man of Honor
Burton was a man of honor. Slotted to play Hamlet at The Old Vic, he was determined to see it through. Sure, it paid nothing compared to the huge movie studios, but he loved theater more than anything. In a blessed turn of events, his dedication to his craft worked in his favor and won him the best of both worlds. Zanuck agreed to compromise, allowing Burton to start his contract once he completed his run of Hamlet.
Burton’s risk-taking sensibilities only drove his notoriety skyward, and before long, the story was everywhere.
17. He Won The Critics Over
What kind of actor would trade in a million dollars for £150 a week? Richard Burton, of course. It was impressive and bold and enveloped the imaginations of his peers and critics alike. Even the acclaimed Hedda Hopper had something good to say, calling his early triumphs “the most exciting success story since Gregory Peck’s contract of ten years back.”
Still, not everybody was equally enthused with this brash newcomer.
18. He Met His Soulmate
Although Richard Burton’s legacy touts his Shakespearean prowess and undeniable stage presence, his fame didn’t truly explode until he hooked up with the infamous Hollywood actress, Elizabeth Taylor. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were destined to become the Hollywood couple, but surprisingly, their first impressions of one another were utterly laughable.
19. He Couldn’t Believe His Eyes
Burton first met Taylor at an LA party. Gazing at the lauded actress, he couldn’t believe his eyes: “[Elizabeth Taylor] was so extraordinarily beautiful that I nearly laughed out loud […] She was undeniably gorgeous […] She was lavish. She was a dark unyielding largesse. She was, in short, too bloody much, and not only that, she was totally ignoring me.”
Yup, Elizabeth Taylor didn’t think much of Richard Burton. In fact, she’d already formed an opinion about him—and it sure wasn’t pretty.
20. He Wasn’t Good Enough For Her
Elizabeth Taylor gave Richard Burton the once-over and saw a chatty and pompous up-and-comer that she couldn’t be bothered with. Later, she remembered him as “rather full of himself.” Of course, at this time, both actors were married to other people, with Taylor expecting a child with her husband Michael Wilding. They had no clue that they’d one day become Hollywood’s hottest couple.
21. He Landed His Biggest Role
Throughout the 50s, Burton continued to play historical roles both onscreen and on Broadway, but it wasn’t until 1963, that he truly cemented himself as one of the greatest actors of his time. It had been many years since Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had first clapped eyes on one another, but they were finally coming together to film Cleopatra—a production that, at first, seemed like more trouble than it was worth.
22. He Worked On A Nightmare Set
At the time, Cleopatra was the most expensive movie ever made, costing upward of $40 million. However, behind the scenes, the production was a total mess: The first director resigned, and to make matters worse, the script wasn’t even finished. However, when Richard Burton won the role of Mark Antony opposite Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra—that’s when the salacious news stories really started rolling.
23. They Had A Chilly Reunion
Taylor’s second impression of Burton wasn’t any better than the first. He immediately came on to her with the most lackluster line imaginable: “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?” In Taylor’s eyes, Burton certainly didn’t live up to his reputation as a great seducer. Similarly, Burton was unenthused with Taylor’s acting chops…But that was all about to change.
24. He Had A Change Of Heart
When Burton got a chance to review some of Taylor’s scenes, he had a change of heart. Although it was difficult for him to see her emote while acting opposite her, he realized that the camera emphasized her subtle expressions, transforming her into a skilled and believable actress. She was truly made for cinema, and slowly but surely, she gained his reluctant respect. And that wasn’t all.
25. He Softened Her Edges
According to Taylor, she fell for Burton during their very first scene together. Apparently, Burton struggled with remembering his lines and revealed a rare vulnerability that softened Taylor’s feelings toward him. Before long, their distaste for one another transformed into a heartfelt affection. While on set, they dove unabashedly into a hot and heavy affair, and soon, everyone knew about it.
26. He Couldn’t Keep A Secret
If Burton and Taylor even tried to keep their affair a secret then they failed horribly. In fact, according to the director’s son, Christopher Mankiewicz, Burton announced to the entire Cleopatra cast that he’d slept with Elizabeth Taylor in the back of his Cadillac. From there on out, whispers of their affair began slipping through the cracks.
27. He Was Perfect Tabloid Fodder
The Italian paparazzi was all over Burton and Taylor. No matter where they went, the press was always hot on their heels. In order to keep their outings on the down-low, the couple even tried an underhanded strategy: Taylor, a classic brunette, often donned a blonde wig while out on the town, making her look suspiciously like Burton’s wife, Sybil.
However, they weren’t fooling anybody, and before long, their respective spouses caught wind of their shameless infidelity.
28. He Dallied With A Homewrecker
Pictures of Burton and Taylor were everywhere, and rumors about what they got up to in their trailer ran rampant. Sounds of laughter and passionate arguments emanated from their private chambers and became gossip fuel for the masses. Having already seduced Debbie Reynold’s husband, Eddie Fisher, Elizabeth Taylor was notorious for being a “homewrecker.”
But as we all know, it takes two to tango, and this time, Liz and Dick paid no mind to the destruction they left in their wake.
29. He Had His Very Own Scandal
Soon, this publicized affair garnered its very own name—Le Scandale—and what a scandal it was. Both Sybil Burton and Eddie Fisher were in Rome and watched in horror as their spouses galavanted their newfound love. Feeling the sting of betrayal, they both fled the city. For Sybil, who’d always tolerated her husband’s disloyalty, this was the last straw.
30. He Drove His Wife To Suicide
Le Scandale destroyed Sybil Burton and Eddie Fisher, and as a result, heartbreaking rumors abounded. Some sources believed that the betrayal drove them both to attempted suicide, and as such, it was only a matter of time before their marriages ended in divorce. However, when it came to Burton and Taylor, their partners weren’t the only ones enraged.
31. He Enraged The Church
Did the Church have an opinion on this epic affair? Oh, heck yes, they did. While Liz and Dick frolicked in the Vatican’s backyard, the more they ruffled the Church’s “moral” feathers. The Vatican newspaper published an open letter to Taylor, shaming her for “erotic vagrancy.” As worldwide headlines capitalized on this madness, it started to worry some of Burton’s steadfast peers.
32. He Had The Perfect Comeback
Shocked by the outright scandal, one of Burton’s idols, Laurence Olivier, reached out to him, asking, “Make up your mind, dear heart. Do you want to be a great actor or a household word?” Burton’s comeback was perfect…He replied, “Both.” After Cleopatra wrapped, Burton finally made his love for Taylor official and married her.
But while the epic chapter of Antony and Cleopatra had come to a close, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were just getting started.
33. He Had Expensive Taste
As husband and wife, Burton and Taylor became famous for their ridiculous spending. With money at their fingertips, they lived a luxurious and dreamlike existence. On a whim, after a delightful trip to Paris, Burton purchased the $960,000 jet he’d flown in on. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The Burtons lived like royals with no expense spared.
34. He Bought Anything He Wanted
Richard Burton threw his money at whatever he wanted. He and Taylor bought countless properties and expensive works of art. They boasted an enviable collection that included “Monet, Picasso…Renoir, Rouault, Pissarro, Degas, Augustus John, and Rembrandt.” But the most excessive demonstration of wealth was, by far, Burton’s mission to adorn his wife with the most expensive jewels imaginable…
35. He Rivaled A Millionaire
In jest, Burton once said, “I introduced Elizabeth to beer; she introduced me to Bulgari.” In fact, this obsession with jewelry soon had him competing with one of the richest magnates in the world, Aristotle Onassis. Like Burton, Onassis had a reputation for purchasing his famous wife, Jackie O, rare pieces of jewelry. Luckily for Taylor, her own husband gave the millionaire a run for his money.
36. He Dressed Her In Diamonds
Richard Burton certainly knew that diamonds are a girl’s best friend, and gifted Taylor one of the largest diamonds imaginable: The 33.19-carat Krupp diamond. And he didn’t stop there. He also spoiled her with a historic treasure that had once graced the fine neck of a Spanish monarch, the “La Peregrina” pearl. These riches catapulted the celebrity couple into a separate realm.
Compared to other Hollywood players, Burton and Taylor were closer to royalty, and as such, they began rubbing shoulders with dignified aristocrats.
37. He Detested The Royals
Although Elizabeth Taylor fit in with European royals, Burton found their company utterly boring. Important figures like Princess Grace of Monaco and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor peppered his social circle—but he wasn’t pleased about it. He described them as “the class of people who are ‘in a somewhat false position and know it.”
But although they often fought over the dullness of such company, it soon became clear, that fighting only enhanced the couple’s passion for one another.
38. He Loved Fighting With Her
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor took their fights seriously. For them, the world was a stage, and they had no problem putting on a show: “We will often pitch a battle purely for the exercise. I will accuse her of being ugly, she will accuse me of being a talentless son of a b*tch, and this sort of frightens people…I love arguing with Elizabeth, except when she is in the nude.”
However, as time passed, these fights became more and more vicious.
39. He Lost Control
Whatever joy Burton and Taylor enjoyed from their heated squabbles eventually turned sour. Together, they were two bulls in a china shop, destroying hotel rooms and smashing valuables. Before long, drinking and jealousy poisoned the fun, turning the passion into pure volatility. Sadly, cracks in their relationship were beginning to show.
40. His Addiction Ruined Everything
Over the course of their marriage, a cornucopia of sad realities drove a wedge between Burton and Taylor. Firstly, both of them struggled with addiction—Burton with drinking, and Taylor with pill-popping. Throw in some infidelity and Burton’s affair with Nathalie Delon, and you have yourself a recipe for disaster. But while their romantic zeal suffered, they also took on roles that oddly mirrored their own dysfunction.
41. He Was Too Much Like His Character
One of Burton and Taylor’s greatest films was the 1966 classic, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But this was no romance. The film garnered acclaim for its raw depiction of a failing marriage. Of course, the acting couple took their roles seriously and completely immersed themselves in their inflammatory characters. But did this bode well for their own marriage? Absolutely not.
42. He Couldn’t Take It Any Longer
After finishing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Burton and Taylor had a difficult time separating fiction and reality. Later, they both admitted that their roles took a huge toll on the health of their marriage. By 1974, everything had spoiled and this dazzling duo decided to call it quits…But with a love as mad and incendiary as theirs, do you think divorce was enough to keep these two apart?
43. He Married Her Twice
Sixteen months after their marriage ended, Burton married Taylor again. But this was clearly a mistake. It lasted less than a year. Still, despite their separation, they were forever bound together by their children, as well as a love that—despite their differences—would never die. Burton held a burning flame for Taylor until the day he passed.
44. He Was Gay
In a 1974 interview, Burton made a shocking confession. He openly admitted to “trying” homosexuality. After this, scandalous rumors began to circulate. Some speculated that in his early career, Burton had enjoyed a fling with Laurence Olivier. But Burton’s opinions also made another daring assertion. He believed that many actors were actually gay and closeted, and that “we cover it up with drink.”
And at the end of the day, “drink” was the key to Burton’s greatest downfall.
45. He Lost His Brother In A Chilling Way
In 1968, Burton faced an unspeakable tragedy. While going on a bender with his older brother Ifor, Burton watched in horror as his brother slipped and broke his neck. The consequences were dire. Poor Ifor found himself paralyzed from the neck down, and only four years later, he passed. This trauma only caused Burton to sink deeper into his addictions.
46. He Fell Apart
Behind that handsome face, Burton’s health suffered terribly. As the 70s wore on, his drinking problems continued to mount. In fact, he reached a devastating low during the filming of 1974’s The Klansman. Allegedly, the actor was so inebriated, he couldn’t even stand properly for most of his scenes. To combat this problem, he either sat or lay down to deliver his lines. But his struggles didn’t end there.
47. His Health Spiraled
Burton, known for delivering his lines flawlessly, absolutely dropped the ball on the set of The Klansman. His addiction had turned him into a bumbling mess and he mumbled his way through much of the dialogue. His co-star O.J. Simpson revealed that “There would be times when he couldn’t move.” Still, drinking wasn’t his only vice.
In 1977, the actor admitted to blowing through 60 to 100 cigarettes a day—and he was about to pay the price.
48. His Body Turned On Him
By the time he hit his forties, Burton’s body was already turning on him. He had an unfortunate cocktail of ailments: bursitis, arthritis, dermatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, and kidney disease. This once regal actor now battled constant pain and walked with a startling limp. His glory days were fading before his very eyes. Still, even in his broken-down state, there was one thing that would never change.
49. He Only Loved One Woman
Although Burton went on to marry two other women after Taylor, she was the one who truly owned his heart. Three days before his sudden passing, Burton wrote Taylor a heart-wrenching love letter—the contents of which remain a mystery to this day. On August 5, 1984, Burton suffered an intracerebral hemorrhage and closed his eyes forever. Elizabeth Taylor was heartbroken, but she held fast to the knowledge of his eternal love.
50. He Wrote Her Love Letters
Throughout his other marriages, Burton wrote more than 40 poignant letters to Elizabeth Taylor—all of them overflowing with declarations of love: “I love you, lovely woman. If anybody hurts you, just send me a line saying something like ‘Need’ or ‘Necessary’ or just the one magic word ‘Elizabeth’, and I will be there somewhat faster than sound.”
But none of these letters cut as deep as his final words to her.
51. He Left Her One Final Message
Elizabeth Taylor received Richard Burton’s last love letter after attending his memorial service. When she saw his handwriting, she fell apart. From then on, she kept the letter next to her bed, ensuring that he was always in arm’s reach. Although she revealed many of his other letters, this was the one letter she kept for herself.
However, she did reveal one satisfying detail.
52. He Wanted To Go Home
To her biographer’s delight, Taylor finally gave some insight into Burton’s final letter. She said, “In it he told [me] what he wanted. Home was where Elizabeth was, and he wanted to come home.” When Taylor herself passed, it was her wish to be buried with the letter. But while this one wish was granted, there was one dream that never came to pass.
53. He Had A Bitter Widow
You see, both Burton and Taylor had hoped to be buried next to one another. Of course, Burton’s bitter widow, Sally Hay, wasn’t about to let that happen. She went ahead and purchased the plot next to her deceased husband and then covered both plots with a gigantic headstone. Perhaps she wanted the last laugh, but at the end of the day, only one truth remained: Richard Burton’s heart belonged to one woman, and one woman only.