For years nothing about Richard Burton attracted my attention to him more than to any other famous person. He appeared in many inferior films, but even his highly regarded ones—Look Back in Anger (1959-British), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Taming of the Shrew (1967-US-Italian), 1984 (1984)—were not among my favorites. The critically acclaimed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) I considered crap (because of the writing, not the acting). Becket (1964) was a standout, though marred by Peter O’Toole’s performance as Henry II. Burton’s marriages to Elizabeth Taylor made the glamorous couple the Brad and Angelina of their day, but I paid no attention to that.
But then I saw director Tony Palmer’s powerful, virtually unknown documentary In from the Cold? The World of Richard Burton (1988), and my assessment of the actor changed radically. I really hadn’t known anything about him.
The central theme of the movie is articulated by author Melvyn Bragg in the opening minutes: “He was a great Welsh hero. He never lost his Welshness.” I experienced Palmer’s film as overpoweringly white, an impression repeated viewings did not dispel.
Though never formally trained as an actor, Richard Burton shot to fame on the stage in most of William Shakespeare’s plays and became one of the highest-paid film actors in the world. Nominated seven times for an Academy Award, he never won.
His meteoric rise from an impoverished, Welsh-speaking urchin to one of the wealthiest and most famous actors in the world is an amazing story.
Tony Palmer, the film’s director, was the creator of award-winning documentaries of Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Stravinsky, and others. Palmer made In from the Cold? at the request of Burton’s widow, Sally, in 1988, in time to preserve on film all of Burton’s surviving siblings.
Palmer had previously directed Burton in the 5-hour Wagner (1983-British-Hungarian-Austrian) (Burton said: “I am Wagner”), originally a 9-hour British TV series. It is the only movie in which Burton, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Laurence Olivier all appeared together.
It seems that Wagner was critically panned, but Burton suffered tremendous physical pain during the arduous production, which was shot all over Europe. Palmer, who acknowledges problems with the film, came to know Burton well, developing a fascination with him—a fascination powerfully conveyed to the viewer of In from the Cold?
Richard Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins in 1925 in Pontrhydyfen, a little village in south Wales, the son of a coal miner and an ex-barmaid. “Pontrhydyfen” means “the bridge across the vale”; in fact a bridge spanned the valley from mountain to mountain.
He was less than two years old when his mother, Edith Maude (née Thomas), died at the age of 43 after giving birth to her 13th child. “I was the last but one of thirteen children, but I always think of them as eleven, because two of them died in infancy before I was born.”
There were seven boys and four girls; Burton’s brothers all worked in the mines.
After his mother’s death his eldest sister Cecilia “Cis” and her husband Elfed, with whom he had a troubled and tempestuous relationship, took him into their Presbyterian mining family in the village of Tai Bach (Port Talbot), six miles from Pontrhydyfen. The boy spoke only Welsh (Cymraeg) before beginning school; English, when he learned it, was his second language.
Not touched upon by Palmer, but indispensable for an understanding of the subject, is some background about Burton’s Left-wing views. Combined with his alcoholism and loose sexual behavior, he is no role model. The man was quite typical of his irresponsible generation.
One of his many sexual liaisons was with Negro actress Jeanne/Jean Bell, a cast member in his anti-white film The Klansman (1974). Bell’s brief acting career was the consequence of having been the second Negro Playboy centerfold, and the first to appear on the magazine’s cover (1969).
Though at times mildly critical of homosexuality, Burton was basically unbothered by it. London’s West End theater, like Broadway, was saturated with homosexuals, but Burton worked comfortably in both milieus.
Actor John Gielgud was a great friend and mentor. And as early as 1969 Burton and Rex Harrison co-starred as a homosexual couple in Staircase, which, however, even Establishment critics don’t regard as a particularly good movie.
Burton told at least two people that he’d “tried it once.”
His schoolteacher and mentor in Wales, Philip Burton, was the real-life Professor Henry Higgins to Richard Burton’s Eliza Doolittle.
There is some dispute over whether this older bachelor with whom he lived, who became his legal guardian, whose name he adopted, who ruthlessly trained the teen’s voice and taught him how to speak English properly, and was responsible for the boy’s entrée to Oxford University and the stage, was homosexual.
Melvyn Bragg called Philip, “A chaste bachelor—impropriety unthinkable.” Biographer Michael Munn says John Gielgud informed him that Philip was indeed homosexual.
So it’s impossible to tell. Philip Burton eventually left Wales for New York City, then retired to Key West, Florida. Why Key West, particularly?
Richard Burton was a lifelong socialist. He sympathetically portrayed Leon Trotsky and Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito (with whom he and Elizabeth Taylor also socialized) on the screen.
The Western elite during Burton’s lifetime was pro-Communist; any committed and vigorous anti-Communist paid an enormous social price not unlike that exacted from white racialists today.
Burton wrote in his Notebooks, recently published as The Richard Burton Diaries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), “I think that I am, despite my ferocious attachment to the working class, an admirer of the true aristocrat.” By “true aristocrat” he meant high-status Establishment rich, politicians, and celebrities—people one Burton book reviewer identified as “high-level flotsam.” Like all Leftists, he gravitated to money and power.
Burton was also philo-Semitic. The entertainment industry—theater, film, and television—was controlled by Jews.
In his Notebooks he speaks glowingly of Wolf Mankowitz, who wrote the Tito screenplay, and had previously written the initial draft of Dr. No, the first James Bond movie.
Burton adds, “I’ve always lusted for medium-height dark-haired Jewesses, or those who could be first racial cousins. Elizabeth has always fancied Jews, period. She seems to have a rapport with them which she doesn’t have with the ordinary Anglo-Saxon.”
It is probably the case that Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who “adored” the sleazy, pot-bellied, “grubby-looking” Mankowitz as “the kind of man I could love”) didn’t know he was a Communist Party member and Soviet spy, but that’s splitting hairs.
By the standards universally employed to identify “racists,” “anti-Semites,” and “neo-Nazis,” everyone had to know Mankowitz was a totalitarian. The British secret police had him under surveillance. But because he was a Jew, a Communist, and a traitor to Britain, the government left him alone. Birds of a feather.
Burton’s philo-Semitism could plumb the depths. His Notebooks reveal that he insulted an Arizona family who were assisting Elizabeth’s ailing mother. The country club where they’d dined together, he says, excluded Jews.
Consequently, he heaped abuse upon their hostess. “Elizabeth, as you obviously don’t know, is a convert to Judaism, and our daughter Liza [Taylor’s daughter by Jewish movie director Michael Todd, whom Burton adopted] is of course a Jewess and my grandfather was a Jew.”
Burton, Taylor, and their entourage later ridiculed their hosts, who were “little different from Pavlovian dogs.” The rich jet setters reduced themselves “to hysteria in the course of the post mortem in our suite but under it all we were sick at heart” due to “the platitudinous idiocies of their conversation,” their being so “brainwashed” that no argument or “appeal to intelligence could possibly change them,” etc.
It never occurred to Burton to apply his principles of racial inclusiveness to the ruling class. Why wasn’t he scandalized and sick at heart that Jews excluded whites, Christians, blacks, and others from membership in and leadership over Jewish communal organizations? Why wasn’t inclusion/racial subordination a two-way street?
Assuming he reported the incident truthfully and was not simply grandstanding to win brownie points (how many country clubs actually excluded Jews in 1972? and he lied about his grandfather), Burton did score one valid point against his hosts: “W. said the thing that had made this country great was that it was a melting pot for all the peoples of the world. Yawn. Yawn. But they had just said that Jews were not allowed in their club! There was therefore absolutely no point in asking about blacks.”
That does sound like a social “anti-Semite.” They were conventional, conservative people, not genuinely exclusive in a principled way. Despite Jewish whining, weak-kneed social anti-Semitism was never serious. Jews have always knocked such people to the ground and stomped their faces into a bloody pulp with the greatest of ease.
These prefatory comments are necessary because Burton’s thought processes and behavior, which are common to whites, led inevitably to the Jewish seizure of power and, now, totalitarianism and genocide.
Yet Palmer (wisely) omits all such topics from his film. He doesn’t touch upon politics at all. Stripping away ideological and racial distractions in this way reveals the irreducible essence, or core, of Richard Burton. It has the unexpected effect of exposing the actor’s underlying whiteness, thereby making the documentary far richer and deeper than it otherwise would have been.
Unsurprisingly, Jews seemed to harbor an instinctive animus toward Burton. To them he potently represented the Other—the white alien. I have no doubt this is why he is the male actor with the most Academy Award nominations who never won.
In 1975 Taylor and Burton considered marrying in Israel (this was their second marriage), but were refused because Burton was not Jewish. For some reason that didn’t constitute prejudice and stupidity.
Nor will readers be surprised to learn that Palmer’s three Jewish interviewees are hostile to Burton—most intensely Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart’s wife and the first cousin of Shimon Peres of Israel, director Joseph Mankiewicz next, and director Mike Nichols least, or most subtly.
In a striking montage, Elizabeth Taylor is shown screaming at Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), “I’m going to finish you before I’m through with you!”, immediately followed by newsreel footage accompanied by dirge-like music of Burton visiting Israel with Taylor, wearing a yarmulke and kissing the Wailing Wall, dissolving finally into poignant, jarringly European scenes of his Welsh birthplace, Pontrhydyfen.
In sum, Richard Burton’s repugnant social, political, and racial views were thoroughly conventional, reflective of his time and the Establishment of which he was a part.
The swiftness with which Burton rose to fame is astonishing. It seems there was never a moment in his life, from his teens on, when his consummate gifts were not recognized.
It has puzzled me that I have known over the years at least 20 actors who are every bit as accomplished as I am and for the most part far better looking. The same size and weight and shape with all the accouterments a “star,” for lack of a better word, should have—good voice, good presence, good eyes—and they haven’t made it. And I can never quite figure it out; I can only assume it’s some sort of diabolical or even divine luck. There are 20 or 30 people like that in the world, and they don’t know, but they worry about it, because I know most of them very well. I never worry about it. But I do sometimes wonder about it.
He could easily have ended up in the mines like his brothers. At 14 he left school to work in a haberdashery, which he detested. “It was so unmacho; I’d much have preferred to have gone down in the mines.”
As noted, Burton was taken under the wing of his English schoolmaster in Tai Bach, Philip H. Burton, and excelled in school productions. Philip trained the famous voice and taught the teen to speak English properly, without any trace of a Welsh accent.
Philip, who was also a writer and occasional producer of programs for the BBC, rigorously schooled his young charge in literature and acting, sending him to the nearby Welsh mountaintops to work on voice projection.
It was very difficult to shout in a house. There were other people around, and the people next door would think you’d gone mad. It sounds terribly romantic and idiotic, but in actual fact I used to go to the top of the mountain and scream as loudly as I could until my voice hurt. Then when it hurt I waited for a bit and then screamed again to fix it in some way that it didn’t hurt. It was a very primitive way of doing it, but it worked.
The actor’s next important mentor was bisexual Welsh actor-playwright Emlyn Williams, who afforded Burton his professional stage debut in his play The Druid’s Rest (1944) and, later, his film debut in Williams’ The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949-British), set in a Welsh village about to be submerged by the construction of a reservoir.
Burton informally adopted Emlyn Williams’ son Brooks Williams, who is a key figure in Palmer’s film. Brooks eventually became Burton’s personal assistant and a permanent part of his entourage.
When I was about 8 he took me under his wing, because my father [Emlyn Williams] was really only interested in the theater and writing and everything. Richard could do all the things that a small boy simply worshiped There’s nothing Richard couldn’t do. And what he couldn’t do he pretended he could.
In the 1951 season at Stratford Burton gave a critically acclaimed performance and achieved stardom as Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. Between 1953 and 1956 he juggled theater with film, playing Hamlet, Coriolanus, and other Shakespearean roles at the Old Vic, even alternating the parts of Iago and Othello nightly with actor John Neville.
The famous cliché about Burton is that he threw away his talent as a classical or Shakespearean actor in return for money and film celebrity. He and Paul Scofield were jointly held up as the natural heirs to Gielgud and Olivier. Burton, it was said, forfeited his half of the fictional bargain.
My career with 20th Century Fox was somewhat checkered. I did some films that I enjoyed and wanted to do, and a lot of films that I didn’t want to do. There was no way of my persuading anybody that I wasn’t right for them, or that the scripts weren’t good. Not the most interesting period of my life from the artistic point of view. But I have no self-criticism at all. I firmly believe that if people will pay money to see me in the theater, or in the films, that’s their responsibility and not mine. It’s virtually every man for himself. I don’t think anybody wants to help you particularly. When I go out there, I’m battling the world. I have to beat the world, to be the best. I do it because I rather like being famous, I rather like being given the best seat in the plane, the best seat in the restaurant. After all, the fundamental basis of being an actor is to make money.
In fact, Burton never forgot his extended Welsh family; at one point he had over 30 relatives on his “payroll.” His goal was to get all of his brothers out of the mines. That was one of his objectives for making money.
According to biographer Melvyn Bragg, Burton’s entire art involved “calling up forces he did not understand, nor did he pretend to or want to understand them.”
Yet we obtain tantalizing hints from Palmer’s film, Burton’s Notebooks, biographies, and interviews.
In his 3-hour stage performance of Hamlet in 1964 (the longest-running Hamlet in Broadway history), Burton spoke his lines verbatim, without flubs. (I followed along in Shakespeare’s Complete Works.)
Referring to his long-running 1953 performance in the same role at the Old Vic, he commented, “it’s a very exhausting part, even at that age” (late 20s). (For more on the 1964 Broadway performance and the miraculous survival of a single film recording of it, scroll down to the subheading “The Stage” here.)
Once when Burton was drunk and became vicious, savagely belittling the acting abilities of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Ralph Richardson—all seated at the table with him—he sneered that Richardson’s famed timing was nothing more than forgetfulness; he could not remember his lines and had to look around for the “idiot-boards.”
In his Notebooks Burton commented upon Rex Harrison’s inability to remember his lines during the making of Staircase.
Of Burton’s work on Wagner director Tony Palmer said,
He shot for 152 days and on every day he was word perfect. Sometimes for the most incredibly long speeches. And he would often get them in take one. But often, when I’d say “wonderful,” he’d say, “didn’t you notice that I said ‘across’ instead of ‘towards’—let’s do it again.” And if I hadn’t noticed, he’d be quite cutting.
But during the shooting of 1984 shortly before his death, Burton, in turn, was unable to remember many of his lines.
He was a renowned raconteur, and Palmer’s film is filled with examples of his superb storytelling ability. He is absorbing to listen to, and the spellbinding quality of his words is as much in the manner of telling as in the stories themselves. A consummate actor, Burton was a talented mimic who liberally adorned his tales with observed mannerisms and tricks of speech.
Dick Cavett, who was fascinated by Burton and interviewed him repeatedly, called him “scintillating, hypnotic, wonderful,” noting, “He was praised [as King Arthur] in Camelot [Broadway, 1960] for his economy of motion. And one of his goals as an actor was to do the least, and convey the most in that least—line reading, physically, whatever.”
Combined with Burton’s tremendous natural gifts, the effectiveness of this technique is readily apparent in interviews and recitations. He always has a commanding presence.
The technique was also potent in Becket, of which Burton wrote, “It is comparatively easy to be a red, roaring man. But it is not so easy to change into a little pale man, alone, burned by the fury of his own awful and terrible belief. He must be taciturn, spare. This is the writer’s and the actor’s problem with a part like Becket—to keep him as silent as possible and still interesting.”
Swiftly the Past Slips Away
In a remarkable scene where the aged Burton is being made up for a part, he tells his interviewer quietly, matter-of-factly: “I hate my voice, I hate my looks, hate my hair, hate my body, I hate everything—don’t like myself at all.”
Burton’s immoderate lifestyle aggravated severe health problems and pain during his final years. He was only 58 when he died of a stroke.
He was buried with a copy of the Collected Poems of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, the first poet Burton, a lifelong voracious reader—he had a huge library and loved reading far better than acting—had independently discovered as a boy, and who was also his friend.
A weird thing about life is how quickly the past is forgotten and completely slips away. Two days ago actress Kate Burton said, “I grew up with one of the most famous fathers in the world in the 1960s and ’70s. He passed away in 1984, and as time went on, people didn’t know him. That blew me away.”
Richard Burton’s last (4th) wife, Sally, a young makeup artist he met on the set of Wagner, to whom he was married for the last year of his life, has been a godsend for his reputation. She appears in Palmer’s film. “You’re a good wife,” she says of herself, “but I’m not sure you’re going to be a very good widow.”
But she has been.
Sally Burton, despite remaining completely in the shadows, is responsible for seeing to it that the only surviving copy of the 1964 film of Burton’s Hamlet survived and has been made public; for asking Tony Palmer to make his magnificent film about Burton; and for the publication of Burton’s diaries one year after Elizabeth Taylor’s death.
More than anyone else she has insured that Richard Burton in all his complexity, rather than a mere cardboard cut-out celebrity, is preserved for the historical record.
My fascination with Richard Burton stems from having seen Tony Palmer’s exceptional though obscure film, which I recorded during a PBS Great Performances broadcast in 1989. There was nothing about the actor that would have drawn my special attention to him otherwise.
The great mystery of Richard Burton is a general one. Why do so many thoroughly white people possess his anti-white, carelessly totalitarian, Jew-worshiping psychological overlay? It has been a disaster for our race and the entire world.
Someone said that Palmer’s In from the Cold? is the best film about an actor they’ve ever seen.
I have to concur with that assessment.