This article is about the 20th-century actor. For the 19th-century explorer, scholar, and orientalist, see Richard Francis Burton.
He was born Richard Walter Jenkins in the village of Pontrhydyfen near Port Talbot. With the assistance of his inspirational schoolmaster, Philip H Burton (who legally adopted him), he excelled in school productions. It was at this time that he began to develop the distinctive speaking voice that became his hallmark, having been encouraged by Philip (who sidelined as a BBC radio producer) to "lose his Welsh accent".
There is a widespread myth (perhaps encouraged or even believed by some members of his stoutly working-class family) that Richard Burton "won a scholarship to Oxford at the age of sixteen" but left after six months. The facts, as recorded by Burton himself in his own autobiography and in Richard and Philip, which he co-wrote, are as follows: At the age of sixteen, he was forced to leave school and find work as a shop assistant. His former teacher, Philip Burton, recognising his talent, adopted him and enabled him to return to school. In 1943, at the age of eighteen, Richard Burton (who had now taken his teacher's surname), was allowed into Exeter College for a term of six months study. This was made possible only because it was wartime and he was an air force cadet.
In 1952, Burton successfully made the transition to Hollywood star, appearing in My Cousin Rachel opposite Olivia de Havilland. In 1954, he took his most famous radio role, as the narrator in the original production of Under Milk Wood, a role he would reprise in the film version twenty years later.
An insomniac and notoriously heavy drinker, Burton was married five times – twice, consecutively, to Elizabeth Taylor. Burton and Taylor played opposite each other in Mike Nichols's film of the 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. The film is reputed to have been similar to Burton and Taylor's real-life marriage.
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.
Burton's fourth marriage was to Suzy Hunt, ex-wife of motor racing driver James Hunt, and his fifth was to Sally Hay, a make-up artist who later became a successful novelist. While married to Sally, he died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Switzerland, where he is buried. He was only 58 years old.
Burton is sometimes erroneously referred to as "Sir Richard Burton", perhaps due to the similarity of his assumed name to that of Richard Francis Burton, but unlike the 19th century scholar, he never received a knighthood.
- Now Barabbas (1949)
- The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949)
- The Woman with No Name (1949)
- Waterfront (1950)
- Green Grow the Rushes (1951)
- My Cousin Rachel (1952)
- The Desert Rats (1953)
- The Robe (1953)
- Thursday's Children (1954) (short subject) (narrator)
- Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)
- Prince of Players (1955)
- The Rains of Ranchipur (1955)
- Alexander the Great (1956)
- Bitter Victory (1957)
- Sea Wife (1957)
- Look Back in Anger (1958)
- A Midsummer Night's Dream (1959) (narrator)
- Ice Palace (1960)
- The Bramble Bush (1960)
- Dylan Thomas (1962) (short subject)
- The Longest Day (1962)
- Cleopatra (1963)
- The V.I.P.s (1963)
- On the Trail of the Iguana (1964) (short subject)
- Zulu (1964) (narrator)
- Becket (1964)
- The Night of the Iguana (1964)
- Hamlet (1964)
- A Statue for 'The Sandpiper' (1965) (short subject)
- The Big Sur (1965) (short subject)
- What's New, Pussycat (1965) (Cameo)
- The Sandpiper (1965)
- The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
- The Comedians in Africa (1967) (short subject)
- The Taming of the Shrew (1967) (also producer)
- Doctor Faustus (1967) (also producer and director)
- The Comedians (1967)
- On Location: 'Where Eagles Dare' (1968) (short subject)
- Boom (1968)
- Where Eagles Dare (1968)
- Candy (1968)
- Staircase (1969)
- Under Milkwood (1971)
- The Klansman (1974)
- Equus (1977)
- The Wild Geese (1977)
- 1984 (1984)