November 10, 2015 — Sir Richard Burton, one of the greatest movie stars of his time, would have been 90 years old today.
Born to a Welsh-speaking, working class household, Richard Burton would come to be considered to be one of the finest actors of his generation, gifted with talent, good looks, and one of the world’s most gorgeous speaking voices. He was one of the greatest stars of his time, as well. But he is most famous for one thing — his two marriages to Elizabeth Taylor, one of the screen’s ultimate icons.
The two met on the set of Cleopatra, the 1963 epic which was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made. Taylor played Cleopatra, and was probably the most famous woman in show business. Rex Harrison was her Caesar; Burton would play Marc Anthony. The film was plagued with problems and is widely considered to be a bloated mess. But the publicity that was generated by the affair between the two leads — both of whom were married to other people at the time — was so enormous that the film came close, eventually, to recouping its massive cost.
Lord Laurence Olivier, who had worked with the young Burton at the Old Vic, had cabled him during that time, saying “Make up your mind, dear heart. Do you want to be a great actor or a household word?” Burton answered him, “Both.”
He would be a household name for the rest of his life; his name would be inextricably linked with Taylor’s, whom he married, divorced, remarried and re-divorced, even when he was married to someone else. It was a potent chemistry, both on screen and in the gossip pages. Yet Taylor would write of their earliest meeting, claiming it was inauspicious. She said that his first comment to her was, “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?” She remembers, “I said to myself, Oy gevalt, here’s the great lover, the great wit, the great intellectual of Wales, and he comes out with a line like that.”
Apparently they got past it. But it was a turbulent relationship from the start, with huge brawls — sometimes in public — and huge reconciliations, often accompanied by huge jewelry. In 1969 he would spend $1.1 million (approximately $7.25 million in today’s currency) on a diamond which would come to be known as the Taylor-Burton diamond. he said of it “I wanted that diamond because it is incomparably lovely … and it should be on the loveliest woman in the world. I would have had a fit if it went to Jackie Kennedy or Sophia Loren or Mrs. Huntingdon Misfit of Dallas, Texas.”
He would star in many movies, on Broadway (he would play King Arthur in the original Broadway production of Camelot), and on stage in London, often to excellent reviews. He would be nominated for seven Academy Awards, but never won. Only Peter O’Toole, one of his favorite drinking buddies, would be nominated for more (8) without a win. But O’Toole would be given an honorary award before he died; Burton never would. Taylor would win two Best Actress awards: for Butterfield 8 and for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in which she starred with Burton.
He would be Knighted in 1970. Burton, who was a life-long smoker and a significant drinker, would suffer a brain hemorrhage at the age of 58 and would die at his home in Switzerland in 1984.
Watch Richard Burton in three of his films: Absolution with Billy Connelly, Alexander the Great with Claire Bloom and Frederic March, and his last film, 1984, with John Hurt.