Gritty Facts About Richard Burton, Cinema’s Dark Star

Kyle Climans

Known for his deep voice and steely gravitas, Richard Burton was one of the most famous film stars of his time. From his tumultuous relationships (and not one but two marriages to Elizabeth Taylor) to his acclaimed performances in hits like Cleopatra and Becket, the press constantly printed stories about Burton, with many critics suggesting that he could be the next Laurence Olivier.

However, there was a terrible dark side to Burton’s fame. He struggled with alcohol addiction, made catastrophic personal choices, and revealed his true thoughts about Tinseltown in recently-published diaries that were never meant to see the light of day. Let the camera roll: here are 42 unflinching facts about Richard Burton, cinema’s solemn star.

Richard Burton Facts

1. How I Met Your Mother

Burton’s father was Richard Jenkins Sr., a coal miner in the Welsh village of Pntrhydyfen. He met Burton’s mother, Edith Thomas, when she worked as a barmaid at a local pub called the Miner’s Arms. Sweetly, the couple’s wedding took place in the very same pub where they first met. If only their son’s love life was so tender…

2. Taken Before Her Time

Richard Walter Jenkins Jr. was born on November 10, 1925 in Glamorgan, Wales. Remarkably, he was one of 13 siblings. While this should have meant that Burton grew up surrounded by a warm and loving family, this was not the case. Burton’s home life was destroyed by an utterly unimaginable tragedy. When he was still a baby, Burton lost his mother. While her cause of death is unclear, some speculate that it was caused by her exposure to toxic coal-dust.

3. Lucrative Love Life

Burton was famous for his relationship with the iconic American actress Elizabeth Taylor, whom he wed not once but twice. Clearly, they shared a powerful bond. The duo met on the infamously troubled set of Cleopatra. Not only was the movie so expensive that it drove 20th Century Fox into bankruptcy, but even worse, it saw a major Hollywood scandal. The film’s two stars fell in love and began seeing each other—even they both already had spouses.

4. Mic Drop

The scandalous love affair was so controversial that Burton’s peer, Laurence Olivier, cabled him a question “Make up your mind, dear heart,” the esteemed actor wrote. “Do you want to be a great actor or a household name?” In what we can only call a moment of mad defiance, Burton answered with one word: “Both.”

5. Bound By Blood

When Burton’s father realized that he was now a single parent of 13 kids, he struggled to handle the stress of raising such a large family alone. Instead, Burton was brought up in quite an unconventional manner. His father was absent for most of his childhood while his two of his older siblings became stand-in parents.

Burton absolutely adored his brother Ifor and his sister Cecilia. Referring to her as “Cis,” Burton grew up under her care alongside her own children. Burton dearly loved Cis, stating that she became as close as a mother to him. When Burton became a knight in 1970, Cis attended the ceremony. As we’ll see, Ifor suffered a far darker fate.

6. Party Hard, Dumbledore

During his heyday, Burton was known for his wild lifestyle, often going on long alcoholic binges with his friends and colleagues Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Peter O’Toole. Together, the media and the public labelled these four British thespians as “hellraisers,” with a small industry of books and articles written about their debauched drinking stories.

7. Everyday is a Fight

While rowdy parties aren’t too unusual in Hollywood history, Burton truly struggled with alcoholism throughout his life. In a devastating interview, Burton described his tormented relationship with booze. He said it turned him into an “awful creature” who “shakes and creaks and has nightmares” and described how “everyday [is] a fight.” You can watch the moving interview here.

Even though Burton detested his addiction, he was often powerless to stop it. On the set of one of his later movies, The Klansman (1974), Burton was so inebriated that he couldn’t even stand. The director had to change his scenes so that Burton could sit or lie down. But even this wasn’t enough. In the final cut, viewers noticed that Burton struggled to enunciate, instead slurring his words.

8. His Father’s Son

Tragically, Burton’s dependence on booze transformed him into someone he detested: his own father. Apparently called “Daddy Ni” by his children, Burton’s father would abandon his family for weeks on end so that he could drink and gamble. Burton called his dad a “twelve-pints-a-day man” and, at least partially due to his father’s alcoholism, father and son did not have a good relationship.

Burton’s father never had anything positive to say about his son’s wealth, success, or achievements. Burton returned the negativity in kind, refusing to attend his father’s funeral when the man died in 1957.

9. My Big Break

After cutting his teeth on the stage during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Burton made the transition to Hollywood films with the gothic romance My Cousin Rachel. How did a young Welshman get cast in such a high-profile flick? It seems that everyone wants to take credit for Burton’s star turn. The director George Cukor is said to have recommended the young actor, though Lauren Bacall insists that Burton was cast after she and Humphrey Bogart suggested him.

In any case, Burton’s friends were right to call him a star in the making. My Cousin Rachel was a box office success and a critical hit. The movie earned Burton rave reviews, a Golden Globe for the New Star of the Year, and his first Oscar nomination.

10. To Join the Performance or Not to Join the Performance

Audiences couldn’t take their eyes off Burton when he performed the iconic role of Hamlet on the London stage, but one night he had to compete for the limelight with an unexpected rival: Winston Churchill. Apparently, the Prime Minister of England sat in the very front row. As Burton gave the famous “To be or not to be” speech, a gravelly voice joined in, knowing all the lines.

After the performance, Burton hoped to avoid the politician who disrupted such a crucial scene. Churchill had other plans. He knocked on Burton’s dressing room door with an odd request: “My lord Hamlet, may I use your lavatory?”

11. Giving Nature

One of the finest examples of Burton’s generosity occurred during the filming of Wagner, one of the last feature films he ever appeared in. During a filming of one of the crowd scenes, Burton noticed that one woman was repeatedly crying in between takes. He found out that the extra was desperately trying to pay off her mortgage while also being newly widowed. That same week, Burton did something utterly heartrending. He paid off her mortgage in full, even though the two of them had never spoken to each other. Whatever you might say of Burton, you can’t deny that he had a big heart when it counted.

12. Ladies’ Man

Burton’s marriage(s) to Elizabeth Taylor are the stuff of Hollywood legend. They were married between 1964-1974, then divorced only to reconcile and remarry in 1975 and then divorce the next year. (Our heads are also spinning). But Burton was married to three other women in his life too. Repeating history, he met his third wife, the model Suzy Miller, while still in his second marriage to Taylor. His widow was the production assistant Sally Hay, who awkwardly travelled with Burton and his ex-wife Taylor when they toured for a Noel Coward play. We guess three’s not a crowd?

For Lauren Bacall, though, Burton’s first wife, the British actress Sybil Williams, was the very best of Burton’s spouses. Bacall praised Williams for being “a class act always” and shaded Burton for his affair with Taylor, saying “Richard’s values were not very good and I don’t think his standards were either.” Ouch. Gonna need some ice for that burn, Burton.

13. Disco Entrepreneur

A moment for the wives and girlfriends who seldom make history: Sybil Williams led an utterly fascinating exciting life both before and after her marriage to Burton. She began her career as an actress but after Burton left her for Taylor, she transitioned careers and became New York City’s It Girl. Williams founded a popular discotheque called “Arthur.” Famous guests included Truman Capote, Roger Daltrey, Princess Margaret, and Andy Warhol. Groovy.

14. So, He’s Not Smooth, is He?

Despite the success of Burton’s breakout film My Cousin Rachel, the movie had a troubled production. The two leads simply hated each other. Olivia de Havilland considered Burton to be “a coarse-grained man with a coarse-grained charm and a talent not completely developed and a coarse-grained behavior which makes him not like anyone else.” We almost don’t want to know how Burton earned that verbal smackdown!

15. Don’t Turn This into a Soap Opera

When Burton was still married to Elizabeth Taylor, he became familiar with Marlon Brando, who was then in the middle of his heyday as Hollywood’s greatest actor. The two men even competed over the same roles in their film careers. Brando and Taylor’s closeness became such that Brando’s ex-wife later claimed that the macho actors once got into a fistfight over who was the better actor.

Burton, however, never made any reference to such an incident in his personal diaries, though his admiration for Brando was tinged by the suspicion that Brando, like Taylor, had become famous far too early in life.

16. That Can’t Be Good…

Aside from alcoholism, Burton had an addiction to cigarettes, which he’d started smoking at the age of eight. Burton’s smoking habit only grew from there, to the point where he was inhaling five packs a day. Sources are unclear as to what the maximum number was, but it was apparently between 60 and 100 cigarettes every single day.

17. Sticking by Your Principles

Following the success of his first three Hollywood films, including the early biblical epic The Robe, Burton quickly became of the era’s most desired movie stars. To nobody’s surprise, Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox approached Burton with a seven-year, seven-picture deal for the seven figure sum of $1 million (presumably because Zanuck was mad about symmetry).

To everyone’s surprise, Burton turned the deal down because he was set to star in an adaptation of Hamlet at the Old Vic Theatre. Even when Zanuck threatened to ruin Burton’s film career, Burton didn’t back down. Zanuck eventually relented, agreeing to Burton’s compromise that his film deal would start after his Hamlet stint was completed. This negotiation sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry and gained Burton a lot of respect and cred amongst his peers.

18. Climbing the Ladder

Due to his family’s working-class background in a Welsh mining town, Burton was actually the first person in his family to go to secondary school. In fact, Burton’s education was an important goal for his father and older brother. They were convinced that if Burton worked hard enough, he might even get into Oxford. As it turns out, they proved to be right, but maybe not in the way they predicted.

19. The Father I Chose

In his youth, Burton was taught to sing by a man named Philip Burton who would come to hold an absolutely crucial place in the actor’s life. After falling out of touch, they reconnected during World War II when Philip was Burton’s superior in the Royal Air Force’s Air Training Corps. Following their shared experiences in the war, the men remained close for the rest of their lives.

Philip considered Burton to be the son he never had. He helped Burton to get into Oxford for a six-month scholarship program and even assisted him during his stage career. He even tried to adopt Burton but tragically, it was not meant to be. British law required the adoptive parent be at least 21 years older than the child, and maddeningly, Philip was just 20 days shy of the mark.

Burton instead became Philip’s legal ward and even changed his surname to honor of the man who did so much to secure his future.

20. Not Even a Lifetime Achievement Award??

During his film career, Burton was nominated for an astounding seven Academy Awards for acting over a period of nearly 25 years. In fact, Burton once held the record for most acting nominations without winning (this record was broken by Peter O’Toole in 2007). Sadly for Burton fans, the Academy never rewarded the actor’s efforts.

21. Peer Pressured

Evidently, the Academy weren’t the only ones unmoved by Burton’s acting. At least one person disliked his performance as Hamlet. John Gielgud, who previously won acclaim for his own portrayal of Shakespeare’s tormented prince, visited Burton backstage and asked a supremely catty question.

“Shall I go ahead and wait until you’re better… ah, I mean ready?”, he coyly queried. Amazingly, Burton’s admiration for Gielgud was such that instead of punching him or insulting him back, Burton altered his subsequent performances of Hamlet to be more like Gielgud’s! What happened to that steel spine he showed against Darryl F. Zanuck?

22. In Another Life, Maybe

While Burton never let the critics get him down for long, he did have a back-up plan of sorts. During his youth, Burton was said to have had promise as a rugby player. Nothing ultimately came of it, but Burton never forgot about what might have been. He once commented that he would have happily traded his theater accomplishments for the chance to play rugby for Wales.

23. Partners in Life and Art, but not Death

Burton and his famous wife, Elizabeth Taylor, spent almost as much time together on screen as they did off screen. They appeared in no fewer than 11 films together (most famously Cleopatra and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). If you’re having trouble putting that into context, imagine if Brad and Angelina had made 11 good films instead of a single bad one.

When Taylor passed away, many people wondered if she would be buried near her beloved Burton. Burton’s widow Sally Hay made sure that wouldn’t happen. Hay bought the plot surrounding Burton’s grave, but she went even further. Hay put a massive gravestone across both plots, with many believing she was marking her territory. Taylor wasn’t going to pull a final diva manoeuvre on Hay’s watch.

24. Take the Risks

It’s hard to exaggerate the impact of Burton’s scandalous love life in 1960s Hollywood. In 1964, he acted as the English saint Thomas Beckett in the film Becket, but he initially refused the role because of his bad boy image. He was paranoid over what the media and the public would say about the hard-partying Burton portraying a Christian saint. However, his fears were unfounded, as Becket resulted in another Oscar nomination for the Welsh actor.

25. Assembled Talent

There’s an odd fact about Burton’s birthplace. Within Wales, one ten-mile radius witnessed the births of some of Britain’s most famous actors. Along with Burton, there’s also Ray Milland, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Anthony Hopkins. Maybe there’s something in the water?

26. Seems Excessive…

Despite all his accomplishments on stage and screen, Burton undoubtedly made many box office duds, often purely for the money rather than any artistic merit. This led many to argue that he’d squandered his potential, with Harry and Michael Medved once describing him as the “Worst Actor of All Time.” Ouch. Even with all his duds, that feels more than a little harsh. Keep in mind, though, this was in 1980, long before Rob Schneider appeared on the scene.

27. Get Hype!

Burton had a reputation for being very well-read and intellectual. During the 1960s, Burton became well acquainted with Robert F. Kennedy, whom he greatly admired. Kennedy was another well-read man so naturally, the duo challenged each other to what can only be called a “quote war.” Burton and Kennedy had to perfectly quote the sonnets of William Shakespeare. It was so neck-and-neck that Burton only won when he recited a Shakespearean sonnet backwards. Is this the theater kid’s rap battle? Unequivocal yes.

28. Thanks, Liz!

In the 1960s, Burton’s career saw a major upswing, leading him to become one of the Top Ten box office draws in Hollywood for most of the decade. Burton personally credited his then-wife Elizabeth Taylor for this, as she was the one who persuaded him not to look at films to get rich but as an extension of his artistic reputation (which he’d more than earned in the theater world by then).

29. Come Join Me, Guys!

Unlike so many other people who let fame get to their heads, Burton never forgot his roots, or the people with whom he worked back his days as a hungry theater actor. When it was time to fill out the cast for his 1965 hit thriller The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, several of the cast members were Burton’s friends and cast-mates from the Old Vic and London’s West End.

30. My Duty

Speaking of Burton’s ties to his Welsh homeland, many of Burton’s contracts featured a unique clause. Burton refused to work on March 1, which is also known as St. David’s Day. He always made sure to take that particular day off and honor Wales’ patron saint.

31. The High-Water Mark

Arguably, Burton’s best film was the 1966 dark comedy Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Based on the highly controversial play of the same name, the film starred Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a dysfunctional couple who invite a younger couple to their house for drinks. The film caused quite a stir for including explicit language and was even the first movie to receive an 18A rating.

Yup, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was so scandalous that the MPAA needed to create a new rating. The film was a massive success, grossing more than Cleopatra cost to make. It is also just one of two movies in all Hollywood history to have been nominated for every single available Oscar category that existed at the time of the film’s release.

32. On Set Tension

Like many Elizabeth Taylor sets, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ran way over schedule and over budget. Apparently, Burton and Taylor’s contracts requested a 10AM start time (when most movies start at the crack of dawn). By the time the actors’ makeup was on, it was lunch time and off they’d trot for a long lunch with plenty of booze. By the time they finally got back, it was early evening.

While the crew and the studio were miserable, Taylor and Burton’s diva behavior didn’t get in the way of their excellent performances. Both actors received Oscar nominations.

33. Sad Consequences

Despite the success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the experience of playing such a fractured and dysfunctional couple so thoroughly took a serious toll on Burton’s marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. The acting couple had a lot of trouble getting out of character, and they both later said it contributed to their relationship falling apart.

34. A Bit Rich, But Okay

When Richard Burton and his friend Humphrey Bogart were at a Hollywood party, they noticed a well-known lout flirting with women. This man, whose name has never been revealed, was a lawyer who targeted stars who were “between-marriages.” Unimpressed with his behavior (though to be fair, Burton and Bogart were both also guilty of some questionable romantic manoeuvres!), the duo turned on their most intimidating glares and just stared at the lawyer as he boogied away.

Burton said it didn’t take long for the fellow to “fall apart” and “sit quietly in the corner.”

35. Consummate Professional

One production which boosted Burton’s personal reputation was the gargantuan musical theater piece Camelot. Starring Burton as King Arthur, the play ran for nearly five hours. The production was also badly marred by important crew members falling ill. Burton stepped up to the plate to not only master the lead role (which featured a lot of singing), but also to help manage the troubled production so that it would make it to opening night.

Ever the theater enthusiast, he brought in his beloved mentor, Philip Burton, who rewrote the play and improved the story. Burton personally took on the task of training the understudies and tirelessly encouraged everyone to get the production moving forward. Against the odds, Camelot opened on Broadway in 1960 and became a massive success. For his performance as the once and future king, Burton won a Tony Award.

36. To Be Honest…

Speaking of Burton’s diary hobby, the actor was a compulsive journal-writer. He wrote throughout his life, with two-time wife Elizabeth Taylor sometimes reading and responding to his notes. The diaries, which were published after his death, include withering remarks about rival actors and Burton’s own films.

He coyly writes, “All the bad things that have ever happened to me have always happened in Rome,” referring to the catastrophic Cleopatra shoot, and describes Taylor being so “sloshed” that she could hardly read a script. Point taken but also, glass houses?

37. A Family Secret

In 2001, Burton’s daughter Kate revealed a heartbreaking family secret. While Kate Burton has become a respected actress in her own right, Burton and his first wife Sybil Williams actually had another daughter named Jessica, but she was born with autism and developed such severe schizophrenia that she was placed in an institution before her seventh birthday. This startling revelation makes Burton’s abandonment of Williams even more devastating.

38. Out with a Whimper?

The final film production that Burton ever worked on was the 1984 film adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (we applaud the film studio for making this bit of symmetry). Unfortunately, the aging Burton was in terrible health during the film’s production, to the point where he had to wear a neck brace during rehearsals. This poor health greatly affected his ability to remember his lines. To give an example of these complications, Burton’s flubs resulted in one scene needing 41 takes to complete.

39. Ending on a High Note

Sadly, Burton never lived long enough to see 1984 on the big screen. The 58-year-old thespian suffered a brain haemorrhage on August 5, 1984. Subsequently, 1984 added a dedication to Burton’s memory when it was released in theatres. Despite any trouble he had during the production of the film, Burton’s final performance was met with widespread acclaim.

40. And a Career was Born

At one point in his life, Burton was on a flight when he happened to embark on a conversation with a young man sitting beside him. The young man was in marketing, but he was interested in acting. Burton ended up urging the young man to not only pursue his acting dream, but to also seek it out full-time. Against all the odds, this young man quit his day job, chased the acting gigs, and ended up securing a lasting film career. We know that young man today as Kevin Costner.

41. So Much for Tact

In the aftermath of Burton’s death, his former mentor, acclaimed Shakespearean actor John Gielgud commented “”He was serious, charming, with tremendous skill. I feel nothing but sadness. He was a born actor but he was a bit wild and chose a rather mad way of throwing away his theatre career.” As it so often happens, this thoughtful, lamenting quote was bowdlerized for a catchy headline. The Times titled their front page “Richard Burton dies at 58: Career madly thrown away.” Naturally, this sparked outrage from Burton’s bereaved family.

42. Trauma from Tragedy

In 1968, Burton was out drinking with his older brother, Ifor. While they were carousing together, however, Ifor had a nasty fall, breaking his neck in the process. Ifor spent the rest of his life paralyzed from the neck down, dying in 1972. Burton’s younger brother wrote that the guilt over this accident helped contribute to Burton’s increase in drinking from then on.

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