November 17th, 2009

Richard Burton
speaks to the epigone

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Four half-hour chats — from 1980 with Dick Cavett.

A fine heart and mind. And interesting times.

He talks remarkably of his father, a coal miner. And of alcohol and his saving-grace wife, Susan.

The four clips, linked here, are from the NY Times site, where Cavett has a column:

Part One. Wales. His father the coal miner.

Part Two. Growing up poor & orphaned but happy. Stumbling into acting & catching the bug. Laurence Olivier. John Gielgud.

Part Three. Garbo. His journals. Writers. Bogart & Bacall & John Huston. Spencer Tracy. Hubris. Elizabeth Taylor. His own films. The Bogey stories are fun.

Part Four. Demon Rum. His wife Susan. A taste of Camelot.

And throughout: the slings and arrows of acting and life and other arts, from one who learned most of what he knows out of school.

Bravo, PBS. And Mr Cavett, who fields a number of short-hoppers with thoughtful aplomb. Noticed him about town some months ago, looking spry.

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Camelot on Broadway, with Julie Andrews, 1960-61

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Alan Jay Lerner and director Moss Hart adapted Camelot from T.H. White’s rejuvenation of the King Arthur legend, The Once and Future King. Frederick Loewe came grudgingly aboard to write the music.

Burton and Julie Andrews were the original headliners, the latter as Guineviere, fresh from her smash in My Fair Lady, also by Lerner and Loewe. Robert Goulet got his first break as lovelorn Lancelot. Broadway’s advance-sales records were broken.

The show had been five hours plus in out-of-town trials, with Loewe and Hart seriously ill and Lerner suffering marriage trauma. The latter in later years was keen to credit Burton’s “faith and geniality” for holding the production together.

It opened on Broadway in early December 1960. Senator Kennedy had defeated Vice President Nixon four weeks earlier.

Twenty years later, it’s between performances of a Camelot revival at Lincoln Center that Burton sits with Cavett. Exhausting exercise, at age 55.

Weeks later Burton had radical back surgery. The pain or a certain constriction can be seen in his eyes.

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Night of the Iguana, with Sue Lyon, 1964

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Talking at frank length about alcohol, Burton credits his wife Susan with likely saving his life.

Four years later he was dead. At 59.

I remember my mother grieving a bit, not for having lost a star, but something closer to the bone, bearing on early deaths of her oldest brother and father, the latter whom, like Burton, died in his 50s of a brain hemorrage.

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With Liz Taylor

Life in bloom.

He met Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, while filming Cleopatra, at the time the most expensive film in history.

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They were married twice, from March 1964 to July 1976, taking sixteen months off in June 1974.

Was it Nixon’s resignation …?

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It’s generally thought that they acted out private life, with encouragement from Mike Nicholls, as Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1966

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Six years after the last divorce, he speaks of Taylor as a good friend.

And argues she was a great screen actress, underrated because of beauty, but due for rediscovery and immortality.

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Asking about his diaries, Cavett suggests that Burton is in essence a writer.

The actor allows he’s had ten or so extracts from his journals published — but merely in places that pay well. Ladies Home Journal. Cosmopolitan.

Then offers that he admires writers above all other “craftsmen,” and prefers their company, among artistic types, finding painters “inarticulate” and actors wont to tell stories rather than converse.

Throughout, comments about acting and the business focus on scripts and mention authors.

Post mortem, a book was carved out of his journals, and published to rave reviews.

Seems the thinking man’s world found itself shocked to find he was not a gigolo.

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Boom! 1968

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He speaks of his father, Richard Jenkins, as a genius coal miner. The stories are laced with alcohol and affection.

But elsewhere he spoke of the man’s violence. And when the father died in 1957, his namesake son, 32 and famous, did not attend the funeral.

His mother had died when he was two, giving birth to her thirteenth child at age 44. He says he has no memories.

At some point the state made master Richard Jenkins a ward of Philip Burton, one of his schoolteachers and a scholar of the theater. The lad’s passion for rugby was channeled elsewhere.

“I would rather have played for Wales at Cardiff Arms Park than Hamlet at the Old Vic,” the actor later said. (So reports biographer Melvyn Bragg.)

It’s curious that he speaks at such length about his father with Cavett, yet so briefly — but with honor — of Philip Burton, whom he reports alive and well and living in Key West.

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The Longest Day

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The photo at the very top here is also from The Longest Day, where Burton stands out — in a huge top-drawer Hollywood ensemble, and among the work-hard-play-hard Yank soldiery — as a quiet, hard-drinking RAF pilot on the verge of losing his nerve.

One imagines he cherished the role, having served in the RAF for three years during the war.

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He came home intending to return to Oxford, but found the town so crowded at that moment with veterans that his chances to make the rugby squad were deemed poor.

So, instead, with Philip Burton’s aid and comfort, he answered an ad for an acting job …

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His last film was magnificent: Michael Radford’s 1984, shot in the spring of Orwell’s year.

John Hurt was an obvious and indeed perfect Winston.

Less than obvious was Burton as O’Brien, the Ministry of Truth officer who watches then arrests Winston, methodically interrogates and breaks him, then washes his brain. A fierce minimalist perfect performance.

He died months later. August 5.

The 1984 now seems a bookend to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, from John le Carre’s breakthrough book. Another great minimalist characterization in an important film about secret police.

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The cold spy, with celestial Claire Bloom. 1965

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HOWEVER …

I hadn’t realized, knowing only his post 50s films, that Burton’s roots were so wide and deep in the English theater

More than once he tells Cavett that he doesn’t watch movies at all, work aside, and suspects only ten or twelve of his 60 or so are worth preserving from fire.

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His Hamlet here, in New York, in 1964 was much remarked upon.

There’s a filmed rehearsal run-through available on CD, which became the basis, two summers ago, of a revival extravaganza on a big screen in Central Park (if memory serves) and then the Public Theater.

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I missed it. But do have the CD, which is always a bit disappointing, because the actor is indeed running through the text.

Watching the erstwhile rising rugby star run, however, one can imagine the fearsome athletic power he brought to the role. An Achilles of a Hamlet.

Able to snap Claudius’s neck with a hand.

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Burton speaks highly of Gielgud, who directed him in Hamlet but also later remarked that Burton was, indeed, too rough for the role. Meaning, perhaps, nothing more, or less, than that he was a Welshman.

Toward the end of their chat, Cavett notes that his (Cavett’s) wife had performed with Burton years before in Munich.

The actor responds with a taste of Hamlet’s second soliloquoy in German.

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The passing of Paul Newman a year ago left me feeling similarly bereaved.

Is it only in context — contrasted with the luminaries and prospects of our day — that Burton seems so remarkable here, chatting with an urbane fellow traveler of the cosmopolis, as Reagan’s presidency, which just a few months before had seemed as always a ludicrous long-shot, so lugubriously dawned?

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1966-02-08
February 8, 1966

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Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot

The Camelot company did an original cast album in 1961. Burton refers to the lovely royalties with a smile, and replies to Cavett’s request for a piece of his quality by noting that viewers may yet buy the record.

The music had caught on inside the Kennedy White House. Mr Richard Burton had been invited to dinner.

And after the state murder, Camelot inspired Jackie to compare her husband’s administration to the court of young Arthur, who after innocently pulling a sword from a stone had found himself king, and gone on, legend goes, to do noble things.

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February 6, 1968: Bobby, Liz, Richard and Ethel.
Four months later a dream fully died.

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JFK, incoming, was not much like Arthur: His progress to the White House was long planned and well contrived, and he’d been working in town, in Congress, for twelve years already, and had been raised in a family that traded at the highest levels.

Nevertheless, his odyssey once arrived at the big house was indeed that of an Arthurian ingenue, quick on his feet, able to sniff rats, and change course, intent on nobler things.

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Burton was banned from the BBC for speaking of Churchill as a mass-murderer and quasi-fascistic racist in his conduct of the war.

He spoke of himself as a socialist, life long, and his pride in honest labor is the steady note in the tales he tells Cavett of his father, and the sisters who raised him, and his six brothers all of whom went to the mines.

Yet to avoid the King’s tax man, the escape artist resided in Switzerland, from the 50s onward.

And is buried there, in Celigny, on the shores of icy majestic Lake Geneva.

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8 comments

  1. Michael Gushue says:

    Great tribute, Bill. I actually remember that first Cavett interview, and Burton talking about the big vein of call that runs up the Appalachians and loops down through Wales–same coal. And his father’s ability to look at the wall of the mine and know exactly where to place the charge, or strike it.

    I also read somewhere recently that Burton encouraged Taylor to push herself in Who’s Afraid, to get that performance out of her.

    What’s else? Also he traveled everywhere with a bag full of books to have a hand and read. That was after my own heart.

    A great actor and person.

    November 19th, 2009 at 9:08 am

  2. ed says:

    That talk of the great coal vein is indeed memorable. .

    The whole discussion, in the first part, of his father and the techniques and social status of mining …

    I’m inclined now to read his book.

    Seems clear he’s hard up for money, from watching here, and then looking at the films he made in the 70s. Some pretty wretched potboilers. All those divorces, perhaps …

    November 19th, 2009 at 1:09 pm

  3. Valerie says:

    Thanks for this – I am a huge Burton fan and always searching for info.

    This link is to the Taylor/Burton page at my site: http://www.bonzasheila.com/stories/taylorburton.html

    Best wishes, Valerie

    December 2nd, 2009 at 7:33 pm

  4. ed says:

    Glad you like it.

    Bonza Sheila …

    Gonzo and bonzai …?

    December 2nd, 2009 at 9:13 pm

  5. ed says:

    Vanity Fair runs a piece on Dick & Liz:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2010/06/liz-and-dick-the-ultimate-celebrity-couple.html

    June 27th, 2010 at 8:25 am

  6. Angela says:

    I remember clearly the sadness when Richard Burton passed away. A talent gone too soon. I have a few of his films and writings. He appealed to most females, the poetic intelligence, strong voice, the ‘naughty boy’ image, the eyes and imperfect skin. Wonderful.

    July 4th, 2011 at 10:11 am

  7. elmerfudzie says:

    I beieve Burton’s socialist pronouncement. He’d throw all that money at Liz in the form of carbon baubles just to adorn her pinkies. I mean really thirteen carats? surely it’s the thought that counts, eh?
    Whenever I want sanity, I play The Spy who came in from the Cold. At least the world made more sense then, than it does now.

    September 5th, 2011 at 10:27 pm

  8. ed says:

    His diaries are being published in a new edition

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/books/the-richard-burton-diaries-edited-by-chris-williams.html?ref=books

    October 29th, 2012 at 11:20 am

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