Before Burton was two years old in 1927, his mother, Edith, died after the last birth; his sister Cecilia ('Cis') and her husband Elfed took him into their Presbyterian mining family in nearby Port Talbot (an English-speaking steel town). Burton said later that his sister became “more mother to me than any mother could have ever been...I was immensely proud of her...she felt all tragedies except her own." Burton Senior would make occasional appearances at the homes of his grown daughters but was otherwise absent. Far more present in and important to young Richard's life was Ifor, the brother 19 years his senior. A miner and rugby star, Ifor would continue to be a close companion later in Burton's life.
Burton showed a talent for English and Welsh literature at grammar school, and demonstrated an excellent memory, though his consuming interest was sports—rugby, cricket, and table tennis. He later said, “I would rather have played for Wales at Cardiff Arms Park than Hamlet at Old Vic”. He earned pocket money by running messages, hauling horse manure, and delivering newspapers. He started to smoke at age eight and drink regularly at twelve. With the inspiration of his schoolmaster, Philip H. Burton, he excelled in school productions, his first being The Apple Cart. Philip could not legally adopt Burton because their age difference was one shy of the minimum twenty years required. Burton early on displayed an excellent speaking and singing voice and won an Eisteddfod prize as a boy soprano. Burton left school at sixteen for full-time work. He worked for the local wartime Co-Operative committee, handing out supplies in exchange for coupons, but then considered other professions for his future, including boxing, religion, and singing. When Burton joined the Port Talbot Squadron of the Air Training Corps as a cadet, he re-encountered Philip Burton, his former teacher, who was the commander. Richard also joined a youth drama group led by Leo Lloyd, a steel worker and avid amateur thespian, who taught him the fundamentals of acting.
Philip Burton, recognizing Richard's talent, then adopted him as his ward and Richard returned to school, and, being older than most of the boys, he was very attractive to some of the girls. Philip Burton later said, “Richard was my son to all intents and purposes. I was committed to him”. Philip Burton tutored his charge intensely in school subjects and also worked at developing the youth's acting voice, including outdoor voice drills which improved his projection. In 1943, at the age of eighteen, Richard Burton (who had now taken his teacher's surname), was allowed into Exeter College, Oxford for a special term of six months study, made possible because he was an air force cadet obligated to later military service. He subsequently did serve in the RAF (1944-1947) as a navigator. Burton's eyesight was too poor for him to be considered pilot material.
In 1947, after his discharge from the RAF, Burton went to London to seek his fortune. He immediately signed up with a theatrical agency to make himself available for casting calls. His first film was The Last Days of Dolwyn, set in a Welsh village about to be drowned to provide a reservoir. His reviews praised him for his “acting fire, manly bearing, and good looks.”
Burton met his future wife, the young actress Sybil Williams, on the set, and they married in February 1949. They had two daughters, but divorced in 1963, after Burton's widely reported affair with Elizabeth Taylor. In the years of his marriage to Sybil, Burton appeared in the West End in a highly successful production of The Lady's Not For Burning, alongside Sir John Gielgud and Claire Bloom, in both the London and NewYork productions. He had small parts in various British films: Now Barabbas Was A Robber; Waterfront (1950) with Robert Newton; The Woman with No Name (1951); and a bigger part as a smuggler in Green Grow the Rushes, a B-movie.
Reviewers took notice of Burton, “he has all the qualifications of a leading man that the British film industry so badly needs at this juncture: youth, good looks, a photogenic face, obviously alert intelligence, and a trick of getting the maximum of attention with a minimum of fuss”. In the 1951 season at Stratford, he gave a critically acclaimed performance and achieved stardom as Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 opposite Anthony Quayle's Falstaff. Philip Burton arrived at Strafford to help coach his former charge, and he noted in his memoir that Quayle and Richard Burton had their differences about the interpretation of the Prince Hal role. Richard Burton was already demonstrating the same independence and competitiveness as an actor that he displayed off-stage in drinking, sport, or story-telling.
Kenneth Tynan said of Burton's performance, “His playing of Prince Hal turned interested speculation to awe almost as soon as he started to speak; in the first intermission local critics stood agape in the lobbies”. Suddenly, Richard Burton had fulfilled his guardian's wildest hopes and was admitted to the post-War British acting circle which included Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Hugh Griffith, and Paul Scofield. He even met Humphrey Bogart, a fellow hard drinker, who sang his praises back in Hollywood.Lauren Bacall recalled, “Bogie loved him. We all did. You had no alternative." Burton bought the first of many cars and celebrated by increasing his drinking. The following year, Burton signed a five-year contract with Alexander Korda at £100 a week, launching his Hollywood career.
In 1952, Burton successfully made the transition to a Hollywood star; on the recommendation of Daphne du Maurier, he was given the leading role in My Cousin Rachel opposite Olivia de Havilland. Burton arrived on the Hollywood scene at a time when the studios were struggling. Television's rise was drawing away viewers and the studios looked to new stars and new film technology to staunch the bleeding. 20th Century Fox negotiated with Korda to borrow him for this film and a further two at $50,000 a film. The film was a critical success. It established Burton as a Hollywood leading man and won him his first Academy Award nomination and the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year - Actor. In Desert Rats (1953), Burton plays a young English captain in the North African campaign during World War II who takes charge of a hopelessly out-numbered Australian unit against the indominable Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (James Mason). Mason, another actor known for his distinctive voice and excellent elocution, became a friend of Burton's and introduced the new actor to the Hollywood crowd. In short order, he met Judy Garland, Greta Garbo, Stewart Granger, Jean Simmons, Deborah Kerr, and Cole Porter, and Burton met up again with Humphrey Bogart. At a party, he met a pregnant Elizabeth Taylor, then Mrs. Michael Wilding, whose first impression of Burton was that “he was rather full of himself. I seem to remember that he never stopped talking, and I had given him the cold fish eye”.
The following year he created a sensation by starring in The Robe, the first film to be shot in the wide-screen process Cinemascope, winning another Oscar nomination. Tyrone Power was originally cast in the role of Marcellus, a noble but decadent Roman who finds Christianity through his wife Jean Simmons and his Greek slave Victor Mature. It marked a resurgence in Biblical blockbusters. Burton was offered a seven-year, $1 million contract by Darryl Zanuck at Fox, but he turned it down, though later the contract was revived and he agreed to it. It has been suggested that remarks Burton made about blacklisting Hollywood while filming The Robe may have explained his failure to ever win an Oscar, despite receiving seven nominations.
In 1954, Burton took his most famous radio role, as the narrator in the original production of Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, a role he would reprise in the film version twenty years later. He was also the narrator, as Winston Churchill, in the highly successful television documentary series The Valiant Years in 1960.
Burton appeared on Broadway, receiving a Tony Award nomination for Time Remembered (1958) and winning the award for playing King Arthur in the musical Camelot (1960). Moss Hart directed the musical, written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe which was originally called Jenny Kissed Me, and based on T. H. White's The Once and Future King. Julie Andrews fresh from her triumph in My Fair Lady played Guenevere to Burton's King Arthur, with Robert Goulet as Lancelot completing the love triangle. The production was troubled, with both Loewe and Hart falling ill, numerous revisions upsetting the schedule and the actors, and the pressure building due to great expectations and huge advance sales. The show running time was nearly five hours. Burton took it all in his stride and calmed people down with statements like “Don't worry, love”. Burton's intense preparation and competitive desire served him well. He was generous and supportive to others who were suffering in the maelstrom. According to Lerner, “he kept the boat from rocking, and Camelot might never have reached New York if it hadn't been for him.” As in the play, both male stars were enamoured of their leading lady, newly married Andrews. When Goulet turned to Burton for advice, Burton had none to offer, but later he admitted, “I tried everything on her myself. I couldn't get anywhere either”. Burton's reviews were excellent, Time magazine stated that Burton “gives Arthur the skillful and vastly appealing performance that might be expected from one of England's finest young actors”. The show's album was a major seller. The Kennedys, newly in the White House, also enjoyed the play and invited Burton for a visit, establishing the link of the idealistic, young Kennedy administration with Camelot.
He then put his stage career on the back burner to concentrate on film, although he received a third Tony Award nomination when he reprised his Hamlet under John Gielgud's direction in 1964 in a production that holds the record for the longest run of the play in Broadway history (136 performances). The performance was immortalized both on record and on a film that played in US theatres for a week in 1964 as well as being the subject of books written by cast members William Redfield and Richard L. Sterne. Burton took the role on just after his marriage to Taylor. Since Burton disliked wearing period clothing, Gielgud conceived a production in a "rehearsal" setting with a half-finished set and actors wearing their street clothes (carefully selected while the production really was in rehearsal). Burton's basic reading of Hamlet, which displeased some theater-goers, was of a complex manic-depressive personality, but during the long run he varied his performance considerably as a self-challenge and to keep his acting fresh. On the whole, Burton had good reviews. Time said that Burton “put his passion into Hamlet's language rather than the character. His acting is a technician's marvel. His voice has gem-cutting precision.” The opening night party was a lavish affair, attended by six hundred celebrities who paid homage to the couple. The most successful aspect of the production was generally considered to be Hume Cronyn's performance as Polonius, winning Cronyn the only Tony Award that he would ever receive in a competitive category.
After his Broadway Hamlet, Burton's stage appearances were rare, although he made a memorable return to Broadway in 1976 in Equus, his performance as psychiatrist Martin Dysart winning both a special Tony Award for his appearance as well as the role in the 1977 film version. Burton made only two more stage appearances after that, in a high-paying touring production of Camelot in 1980 that he was forced to leave early in the run due to a back injury (to be replaced by his friend Richard Harris), and in a critically reviled production of Noël Coward's Private Lives opposite his ex-wife Elizabeth Taylor in 1983. Most reviewers dismissed the production as a transparent attempt to capitalize on the couple's celebrity, although they grudgingly praised Burton as having the closest connection to Coward's play of anyone in the cast.
In The Rains of Ranchipur, Burton plays a noble Hindu doctor who attempts the spiritual recovery of an adulteress (Lana Turner). Critics felt that the film lacked star chemistry, with Burton having difficulty with the accent, and relied too heavily on Cinemascope special effects including an earthquake and a collapsing dam. Burton returned to the theater in Henry V and Othello, alternating the roles of Iago and Othello. He and Sybil then moved to Switzerland to avoid high British taxes and to try to build a nest egg, for themselves and for Burton's family. He returned to film again in Sea Wife, shot in Jamaica and directed by Roberto Rossellini. A young Joan Collins (then called by the tabloids “Britain's bad girl”) plays a nun shipwrecked on an island with three men. But Rossellini was let go after disagreements with Zanuck. According to Collins, Burton had a “take-the-money-and-run attitude" toward the film. Burton turned down the lead for Lawrence of Arabia, also turned down by Marlon Brando, which went to newcomer Peter O'Toole, who produced a memorable performance in the multi-Oscar-winning film..
Then in 1958, he was offered the part of Jimmy Porter, “an angry young man” role, in the film version of John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, a gritty drama about middle-class life in the British Midlands, directed by Tony Richardson, and again with Claire Bloom as co-star. Though it didn't do well commercially (many critics felt Burton, at 33, looked too old for the part) and Burton's Hollywood box office aura seemed to be diminishing, Burton was proud of the effort and wrote to his mentor Philip Burton, “I promise you that there isn't a shred of self-pity in my performance. I am for the first time ever looking forward to seeing a film in which I play”. Next came The Bramble Bush and Ice Palace in 1960, neither important to Burton's career.
After playing King Arthur in Camelot on Broadway for six months, Burton replaced Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony in the troubled production Cleopatra (1963). Twentieth Century-Fox's future appeared to hinge on what became the most expensive movie ever made up until then, reaching almost $40 million. The film proved to be the start of Burton's most successful period in Hollywood; he would remain among the top 10 box-office earners for the next four years. During the filming, Burton met and fell in love with Elizabeth Taylor, who was married to Eddie Fisher. The two would not be free to marry until 1965 when their respective divorces were complete. On their first meeting on the set, Burton said “Has anyone ever told you that you're a very pretty girl?” Taylor later recalled, “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”. In their first scenes together, he was shaky and missing his lines, and she soothed and coached him. Soon the affair began in earnest and Sybil, seeing this as more than a passing fling with a leading lady, was unable to bear it, and she fled the set for Switzerland, then London.
The gigantic scale of the troubled production, Taylor's bouts of illness and fluctuating weight, the off-screen turbulence—all generated enormous publicity, which by-and-large the studio embraced. Zanuck stated, “I think the Taylor-Burton association is quite constructive for our organization”. The six-hour film was cut to under four, eliminating many of Burton's scenes, but the result was viewed the same—a film long on spectacle dominated by the two hottest stars in Hollywood. Their private lives turned out to be an endless source of curiosity for the media, and their marriage was also the start of a series of on-screen collaborations. In the end, the film did well enough to recoup its great cost.
Burton played Taylor's tycoon husband in The V.I.P.s, an all-star film set in the VIP lounge of London Airport which proved to be a box-office hit. Then Burton portrayed the archbishop martyred by Henry II in the title role of Becket, turning in an effective, restrained performance, contrasting with Peter O'Toole's manic portrayal of Henry.
In 1964, Burton triumphed as defrocked Episcopal priest Dr. Lawrence T. Shannon in Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana directed by John Huston, a film which became another critical and box office success. Richard Burton's performance in The Night of the Iguana may be his finest hour on the screen, and in the process helped put the town of Puerto Vallarta on the map (the Burtons later bought a house there). Part of Burton's success was due to how well he varied his acting with the three female characters, each of which he tries to seduce differently: Ava Gardner (the randy hotel owner), Sue Lyons (the nubile American tourist), and Deborah Kerr (the poor, repressed artist).
Against his family's advice, Burton married Taylor on Sunday 15 March 1964 in Montreal, Canada. Ever optimistic, Taylor proclaimed, “I'm so happy you can't believe it. This marriage will last forever”. At the hotel in Boston, the rabid crowd clawed at the newlyweds, Burton's coat was ripped and Taylor's ear was bloodied when someone tried to steal one of her earrings.
After an interruption playing Hamlet on Broadway, Burton returned to film as British spy Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Burton and Taylor continued making films together though the next one The Sandpiper (1965) was poorly received. Following that, he and Taylor had a great success in Mike Nichols's film (1966) of the Edward Albee play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which a bitter erudite couple spend the evening trading vicious barbs in front of their horrified and fascinated guests, played by George Segal and Sandy Dennis. Burton was not the first choice for the role of Taylor's husband. Jack Lemmon was offered the role first, but when he backed off, Jack Warner, with Taylor's insistence, agreed on Burton and paid him his price. Albee preferred Bette Davis and James Mason, fearing that the Burtons' strong screen presence would dominate the film. Nichols, in his directorial debut, managed the Burtons brilliantly. The script by Hollywood veteran Ernest Lehman broke new ground for its raw language and harsh depiction of marriage. Although all four actors received Oscar nominations for their roles in the film (the film received a total of thirteen), only Taylor and Dennis went on to win. So immersed had the Burtons become in the roles of George and Martha over the months of shooting, after the wrap Richard Burton said, “I feel rather lost”. Later the couple would state that the film took its toll on their relationship, and that Taylor was “tired of playing Martha” in real life.
Their lively version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1967), directed by Franco Zeffirelli, was a notable success. Later collaborations, however, The Comedians (1967), Boom! (1968), and the Burton-directed Dr. Faustus (1967) (which had its genesis from a theatre production he staged and starred in at the Oxford University Dramatic Society) were critical and commercial failures. He did enjoy a final commercial blockbuster with Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare in 1968 (a favorite television re-run) but his last film of the decade, Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), was a commercial and critical disappointment. In spite of those failures, it performed remarkably well at that year's Academy awards (receiving ten nominations, including one for Burton's performance as Henry VIII), which many thought to be largely the result of an expensive advertising campaign by Universal Studios.
He found success in 1978, when he narrated Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. His distinctive performance became a necessary part of the concept album - so much so that a hologram of Burton is used to narrate the live stage show (touring in 2006 and 2007) of the musical.
Burton had an international box office hit with The Wild Geese (1978), an adventure tale about mercenaries in Africa. The film was a success in the U.K. and Europe but had only limited distribution in the U.S. owing to collapse of the studio that funded it.
He went back to appearing in critically reviled films like The Medusa Touch (1978), Circle of Two (1980), and Wagner (1983), a role he said he was born to play, after his success in Equus. His last movie performance as O'Brien in the 1984 film adaptation of George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was critically acclaimed.
At the time of his death, Burton was preparing to film Wild Geese II (1985) in Berlin, the sequel to The Wild Geese (1978). Burton was to reprise the role of Colonel Faulkner, while his friend Sir Laurence Olivier was cast as Rudolf Hess. Burton was replaced by Edward Fox, and the character changed to Faulkner's younger brother.
Television played an important part in the fate of his Broadway appearance in Camelot. When the show's run was threatened by disappointing reviews, Burton and costar Julie Andrews appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show to perform the number What Do The Simple Folk Do?. The television appearance renewed public interest in the production and extended its Broadway run.
Late in his career, he played himself in an episode of the Television Show The Fall Guy, repeating a stunt he made in 1970 when he and then-wife Elizabeth Taylor appeared as themselves on an episode of Here's Lucy as part of his unsuccessful campaign to win the Oscar for his nominated performance in Anne of the Thousand Days.
In 1997, archive footage of Burton was used in the first episode of the television series Conan.
On the Michael Parkinson show in 1974, Burton acknowledged homosexual experiences as a young actor on the London stage in the 1950s . He also suggested that perhaps all actors were latent homosexuals, and "we cover it up with drink". In 2000, a biography of Elizabeth Taylor suggested that Burton may have had an affair with Laurence Olivier. Burton was also notorious for his unrestrained pursuit of women while filming. Joan Collins wrote that when she rejected his on-set advances, he embarked on a series of liaisons with other women including an elderly black maid who, according to Collins, was "almost toothless". Collins playfully told Burton that she believed he would sleep with a snake if he had the chance, to which Burton is alleged to have replied "only if it was wearing a skirt, darling".
He was an insomniac and a notoriously heavy drinker. However, ongoing back pain and a dependence upon pain medications have been suggested as the true cause of his misery. He was also a heavy smoker from the time he was just eight years old, sustaining at least three packs of cigarettes a day.
His father, also a heavy drinker, refused to acknowledge his son's talents, achievements and acclaim. In turn, Richard declined to attend his funeral, in 1957. Like Richard, his father died from a cerebral haemorrhage, but at 81.
Burton was banned permanently from BBC productions in 1974 for questioning the sanity of Winston Churchill and others in power during World War II – Burton reported hating them "virulently" for the alleged promise to wipe out all Japanese people on the planet. Ironically, Burton had got along well with Churchill when he met him at a play in London, and kept a bust of him on his mantlepiece. Burton courted further controversy in 1976 when he wrote a controversial article about his late friend and fellow Welsh thespian Sir Stanley Baker, who had recently died from pneumonia at the age of 48.