KATE BURTON: FATHER DIDN’T WANT HER TO BE AN ACTRESS
“Why won’t you let me do this? I must try, I must try!”
“Why do you want to do this? You’ve graduated from college--the first person in the family--you should go get a solid job!”
This dialogue between a daughter bent on an acting career and a father horrified at the prospect is quoted from memory by Kate Burton. She admits to “screaming and yelling” the daughter’s words after her 1979 graduation from Brown University, with a BA in history and Russian, before going on to Yale Drama School.
The father’s part was no doubt screamed with resonance--it was the late Richard Burton.
He lost the argument, of course: Daughter Kate made her Broadway debut in 1982 in director-star George C. Scott’s revival of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter.” She also played a lesbian in “Ellis Island,” the 1984 miniseries she did with her father just before his death (rebroadcast this week on CBS).
And now she makes her big-screen debut as a perky reporter in “Big Trouble in Little China,” the Kurt Russell action-adventure-fantasy opening today from 20th Century Fox.
Despite life with a legendary father, Kate Burton, 28, seems unaffected by it all as she chats in the Upper East Side apartment she shares with her stage-manager husband of a year. The place is, in fact, a beige, standard-issue young-marrieds’ flat, and the brown-haired, full-cheeked and makeupless actress is in standard-issue sweats and sneaks.
She was 5 years old when her father left her former-actress mother, Sybil, to engage in what the press called “the romance of the century” with his “Cleopatra” co-star Elizabeth Taylor.
She was 6 when Liz and Dick married for the first time, 18 when they divorced for the second, making Elizabeth Taylor her stepmother for the better part of 12 years.
She was 7 when she and her mother moved from Europe to New York, Sybil to become Gotham’s Queen of the Night via her ownership of Arthur, America’s first celebrity disco; 8 when Sybil remarried, to years-younger musician-turned-actor Jordan Christopher.
“I had a very stable--I won’t say normal--but stable childhood,” says Burton. “I basically grew up in one place, in New York. I went to an international school, I did my homework afternoons in the empty discotheque. My mother was a ‘real mom'--always there. After she and Jordan had been married two years, they had Amy, my stepsister"--now 18, and a Bennington College student--"and it was great to be 10 with a baby in the house.”
All this contrasts sharply with the two or three weeks she spent each summer with Dad and Liz, on the sets of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” or just cruising the Mediterranean or the Adriatic on their fabled yacht the Kalizma.
“Elizabeth and I got along well--this is where everybody always says, ‘Oh sure, really'--because I wasn’t her child,” says Burton. “So she didn’t have to discipline me; she could have all the fun parts of me, she could enjoy me.”
They still visit, and more frequently phone. But she admits that the hotel and yachting life “wore me out.” And, once home, she was occasionally worn out by the visits of certain nameless actress friends of her mother. “I loved them a lot, but I thought: I don’t want to be so wrapped up in a career, I’d hate to be so self-involved that way. And I also knew about the rejections actors face.
“So,” she continues, “I resisted the idea of becoming an actress, even though I had been in plays in high school and at Brown. I was in my senior year at Brown"--and thinking of a career as a diplomat or linguist--"when a really wonderful professor said, ‘You really express yourself best as an actress.’ ”
Richard Burton eventually agreed. As a past recipient, he presented her Theater World award as most promising newcomer for “Present Laughter.” But it took an Off-Broadway show called “Winners” for casting directors to take her seriously and for Dad to say, “I knew you could really do this.”
“That meant so much to me,” Burton says.
So did the last two years of her father’s life, during which she spent “more concentrated time with him than I had since early childhood.” Close to the end, there was “Ellis Island,” Kate’s first encounter with “that camera.”
“Dad said, ‘You’re trying too hard to repeat the same performance from take two, Kate. Just do it, and whatever happens, happens.’ This advice--the spontaneity--has helped me with my stage acting, as well as with, of course, my work on ‘Big Trouble in Little China.’ It’s really the last thing I thought I’d be making my movie debut in,” she laughs. “I thought I’d be doing a Merchant-Ivory kind of thing, wearing long dresses and corsets. But it turned out to be perfect. My character thinks she’s so smart, while she’s really a little behind everybody else.”
Burton’s June, 1985, wedding to Michel Ritchie was hastened by Richard Burton’s death.
“I’ve always known,” Kate Burton says, “that it was very important for me to get married and have children and a home. Michel and I were going to get married eventually, but my father’s death made me say, ‘The time is now, let’s get married.’ In the next year we’d like to have a child, the first of two or three or four.”
Unlike those actress cronies of her mother, she says, “I feel my career isn’t my life, my life is my career.”