Few great actors in my experience have been so unfairly represented in the public image. Drunk, a wastrel, uncontrollable, unprofessional, besotted with glamour and wealth - these are just a few of the more generous epithets dumped on Richard Burton.
I had the privilege of knowing Richard Burton well but only at the end of his life, and the only thing I hold against him was that he ‘stole’ the best assistant I ever had and made her his last wife, who gave him much comfort and tenderness in the final years of his tempestuous and tormented existence. And fortunately, as it turned out, I made this film in 1988 just in time to capture on film all his surviving siblings (he was the 12th of 13 children), especially his eldest sister, Cecilia or ‘Cis’ who, after the death of his mother when he was 2, brought him up.
What I learned from them was the horror of working down the coal mines, as their father had done, and the determination of the young Welsh-speaking Richard Burton that this would never be his fate. And later, as his fame and wealth increased, he never forgot this extended family; indeed, at one point he had over 30 family members on his ‘payroll.’
But this ‘escape’ from the mining community of Pontrhydyfen in South Wales came at a considerable price. First, his father (Walter Jenkins) effectively ‘sold him' (money changed hands) to the local schoolmaster, Philip Burton, who altered young Richard’s name and attempted to adopt him. Second, his prodigious talent and good looks propelled him into a world wholly alien. That he was transformed from a scruff who earned money by collecting coal lumps from the scrap heaps around his village into one of the most famous actors in the world before he was 30, is nothing short of miraculous.
But, as he told me, he hated his voice, hated his face, hated everything about himself. Not disliked, but hated. As the great American director (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) Mike Nichols tells us in the film, “Richard Burton was a man cut off from his past, a man for whom ‘seeming’ became more real than ‘being.’”
But as an actor who had ‘wasted’ his talent? Virginia Woolf?, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The Robe, Equus, Becket, Look Back In Anger, Hamlet, Wagner, 1984 – nearly 100 films. Few other screen actors could boast such monumental, iconic film performances. Brando, Clint Eastwood, Olivier...? Richard Burton is their equal.
Paradoxically for someone who lived most of his life in the public eye, Richard Burton was shy, deferential, courteous and absurdly generous. As Brook Williams, his Godson, says in the film: “if Richard passed through your life, even if you had only worked with him for a day or even half a day, he lit something in you that I don’t think ever goes out.” Yes he was wild, passionate, literate, incredibly well read (he once boasted he could recite any of Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart, backwards!! And he could!) and riddled with self doubt.
Like all very great actors, he identified with the characters he played, simply because they spoke for him. In Equus, Dysart (Richard Burton) at the end of the play (film) stares defiantly at the camera and attempts to sum up himself and his life. I find myself agreeing with every word. “My desire might be to make of this boy an ardent husband, a caring citizen, a worshipper of an abstract and unifying God. My achievement, however, is more likely to have made a ghost. I’ve healed the rash on his body; I’ve erased the welts cut into his mind. But I doubt he will be left with much passion. He will, most probably, be without pain. For me, however, it never stops. Why me? Why me? First, account for me.”
My film, made at Richard Burton's widow’s request, is a small celebration of an extraordinary man whom I had the privilege to know.
TONY PALMER 2010