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Definition: Burton, Richard from Philip's Encyclopedia

Welsh stage and film actor, remembered for his deep, passionate, and fiery voice. By the 1950s, he had a reputation as a leading Shakespearian actor. Burton made his film debut in The Last Days of Dolwyn (1948). From 1952 he concentrated on cinema, appearing in The Robe (1953), Look Back in Anger (1959), and Becket (1964). He made a number of films with Elizabeth Taylor, notably Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). The couple had a tempestuous relationship and married each other twice.


Summary Article: BURTON, Richard (Richard Walter Jenkins; 1925-84) Actor from The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales

Often regarded as merely epitomizing massive unfulfilled potential, both on stage and screen, Burton nevertheless achieved an impressive seven Academy nominations - without gaining the coveted Oscar. For a time, through the 1960s and before the tawdry potboilers and morose binges, he was a worthy member of any pantheon of great screen actors.

He was born at Pontrhydyfen (Pelenna), near Port Talbot, into a Welsh-speaking mining family named Jenkins, later adopting the surname of Philip Burton, the teacher who inspired his passion for acting. Richard made his stage debut at the age of 18 in Emlyn Williams’s The Druid’s Rest, and studied English at Oxford. A comparable passion for literature could have made him a writer, but it was giving expression to the words of others to which he primarily devoted his formidable intelligence - and remarkable, resonant voice.

He established an authoritative stage presence early on, making a huge impact on the Stratford, London and Broadway stages. There were lauded performances in Christopher Fry plays in London and New York in 1949-50, and in Shakespeare’s Henry IV (parts I and II) and Henry V at Stratford in 1951. He was Coriolanus and Hamlet in a 1953-4 Old Vic season, and in 1955 played the title role in the same company’s Henry V and Iago and the title role alternatively in Othello. He won the New York Drama Critics’ Award as Arthur in the Lerner-Loewe musical Camelot in New York in 1960-1. Burton was a distinguished narrator in Douglas Cleverdon’s celebrated 1954 radio production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, but achieved greatest prominence as a screen actor. He made his film debut as a tongue-tied, love-smitten shop assistant in The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949). He was rarely seen in Welsh material later, although he was a superb on-screen narrator in the Oscar-winning television documentary Dylan Thomas (1962). In Andrew Sinclair’s joyless and hopelessly misguided Under Milk Wood (1972), he looked woebegone, stumbling through pointless, picaresque adventures.

His Oscar Best Actor near-misses were for the The Robe (1953), Becket (1962), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and Equus (1977). He gained a Best Supporting Actor nomination for My Cousin Rachel (1952).

Burton, who was married five times, was often criticized, probably justifiably, for surrendering to Mammon after he joined the million-dollars-a-role set as co-star with Elizabeth Taylor in the extravagant but troubled Cleopatra (1963). Two marriages to Taylor ensured permanent celebrity status, but after the late 1970s his material deteriorated and he rarely displayed the commitment of earlier screen roles. Popular in his homeland, Burton was a generous supporter of Welsh causes and, despite a luxurious life in America and Switzerland (where, at Celigny, he is buried), he always maintained contact with Pontrhydyfen.

© University of Wales Press 2008 text © text, Yr Academi Gymreig 2008

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