Richard Burton died at only 58 in 1984 after a life and career that could be called meteoric in the truest sense that meteors both rise and fall, blaze across the sky and fade.
The biography was itself the stuff of drama: the 12th of 13 children (two died in infancy) of a poor Welsh mining family named Jenkins, then the young and sudden glory of the English stage, then as quickly a legendary film star less noted for his performances than for his roistering appetites and a global romance conducted in the privacy of page one and television newscasts.
Then, as quickly again, Burton seemed a burnt-out case, living quietly in Switzerland, the good times having taken their toll on him at an age when, by contrast, Olivier and Gielgud had two decades or more of good work ahead of them.
The whole story is told, with both sympathy and sharp perception, in “Richard Burton: In From the Cold,” which airs in two parts on the PBS “Great Performances” series Friday night (9:05 on Channel 28, 8:30 on Channel 24, 9 on Channel 15), concluding Dec. 8. It is engrossing, entertaining and ultimately touched with a terrible sadness.
The profile was directed and edited by Tony Palmer, who had directed Burton in the miniseries “Wagner,” based on the composer’s life. It was Burton’s last major outing and there is a snippet of film of the actor being made up for the day’s shooting and muttering wearily about his distaste for the life.
“I think he hated acting,” Mike Nichols says in a surprising interview. Nichols directed Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” which may have been his finest, strongest screen performance.
“I think he was ashamed of being an actor,” Nichols goes on. “You know, Richard seemed to be a prisoner of fantasy, of having sold his soul to the devil. He was always aware of what the other guys were doing that he wasn’t doing--the plays Olivier was doing, the plays Paul Scofield was doing, what he felt he should be doing, and what he feared he was doing instead.”
Nichols also remarks that Burton confused seeming with being, the fantasies at last inextricable from the realities.
The theme that Richard had sold out--abandoning his gifts for Hollywood’s gold, the poor lad irresistibly drawn to the comforts and pleasures of wealth--runs through much of the writing and commenting about Burton.
But Melvyn Bragg, who wrote the most ambitious biography of Burton (and who is also host of the long-running “South Bank Show” in London), argues that it’s a myth--"a very, very strong myth,” he admits, but still a myth.
“Olivier is supposed to have sent him a telegram saying, ‘You now have to decide whether you’re going to be a household name or a great actor.’ But, of course, Burton, like Olivier, became both.”
In a joint interview Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had with an unseen interviewer (British journalist David Lewin) who was pressing the case that Burton had abandoned the stage, Taylor angrily refuted the charge, pointing to his long run in “Equus” and his appearances in Shakespeare (with her) at the Oxford University Dramatic Society.
The extensive clips shown on “In From the Cold” leave no doubt that, whatever else was true, Burton was a very good movie actor, from his first film, the rarely seen “The Last Days of Dolwyn” (1949), written for him by Emlyn Williams, who starred. Burton, Williams liked to say, had “the face of a boxing poet.”
Burton plays a lovestruck store clerk, looking astonishingly young and palely handsome, the melodious and unmistakable voice already beguiling in its resonances. One of the extras on the film was Sybil Williams, who became his first wife.
Even amid the top-heavy fooleries of “Cleopatra,” Burton manages an earnestness that, given all the surrounding hullabaloo, represents a triumph of concentration.
Burton is in a real sense a television profiler’s dream, because there are thousands of feet of Burton being interviewed, including a charming soliloquy on how to deal with first-night nerves. He wiggled his toes, Burton says, until a Shakespearean role in which he had to wear sandals.
Always a great raconteur, Burton tells of the launching of a massive scene in “Cleopatra,” thousands of extras, several dozen dwarfs got up as giraffes, the lot, when director Joseph Mankiewicz cried, “Cut!” He had spied an ice cream vendor, still selling among the horde of extras.
“The basic Richard would have been as happy telling funny stories or reciting poetry in a pub,” Sir John Gielgud says, adding sadly that instead the glamour of Hollywood “infected him.” Gielgud hired the young Burton for a long run in London and then the United States in “The Lady’s Not for Burning.”
In a long clip from “Equus,” which concludes Part II and the profile, Burton as the distraught psychiatrist speaks directly to the camera and appears to be revealing his soul. It is tempting to read into the moment the actor revealing his own despair at some private goals unrealized.
Palmer’s cameras visit Pontrhydyfen, where Burton was born and lived for a time in the shadow of a great stone-arched bridge. There are interviews, candid and affecting, with five of Burton’s brothers and sisters and two of his nieces, his actress daughter Kate, his last wife, Sally Burton, and with Philip Burton.
Burton was the local English master who saw the promise in Richard Jenkins and made him train his voice and lose the impenetrable Welsh accent. (Richard stood on a hilltop and shouted into the wind until his throat was sore.)
Richard changed his name to Burton by deed-poll as a legal maneuver so that Philip could get him into Oxford and set him on the road to fame.
Says Kate Burton of her father’s incandescent time with Elizabeth Taylor: “Her manner was very American, almost coarse in some ways, and I think it probably just knocked his socks off.”
Burton’s close friend, Brook Williams (Emlyn’s son and himself an actor), says Burton was generous not only with the lady who knocked his socks off but also with others, and was at one moment supporting 42 friends and relatives.
The profile ends with a quick succession of stills--Burton with a skull as Hamlet, Burton as the ravaged George in “Virginia Woolf,” clues to a tumultuous life. Palmer seems to leave it to the viewers to decide at last whether the achievements outweighed the excesses, whether the brightness of the meteor mattered more than the shortness of its arc.