Richard Burton was an acclaimed actor of stage and screen. He earned seven Oscar nominations for work like The Dress 1953), Beckett (1964), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Equus (1977). He wed Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor in 1964, and the two maintained a volatile relationship for years to come that included remarriage and two divorces.
Richard Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins on November 10, 1925, in Pontrhydfen, South Wales. Jenkins, the twelfth child of an impoverished coal miner, lost his mother when he was two years old. He would be taken under the wing of Philip Burton, a teacher who became the boy’s guardian and introduced him to the world of theater.
Jenkins took the Burton surname and made his London acting debut as a Welsh youngster in the play The Druid’s Rest. Burton earned a scholarship to attend Oxford University and later joined the British air force during wartime.
After leaving the military in 1947, he continued his stage work and became known for his remarkable voice and oration, appearing in The Lady’s Not for Burning with Sir John Gielgud. Burton then made his film debut in 1949 with the production The Last Days of Dolwyn. The same year he wed actress Sybil Williams; the couple would eventually have two daughters.
Though met with varying degrees of commercial and critical regard over the course of his career, Burton went on to work in more than 40 films. He entered into a contract with Fox studios after Dolwyn and starred in My Cousin Rachel (1952), for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination for supporting actor. The 1953 biblical story The Dress followed, for which he received an Oscar nod for best actor. He also had the title role in the epic Alexander the Great (1956) and the British protest film Look Back in Anger (1959).
Burton had continued his stage performances during this period as well, working with the Old Vic and Royal Shakespeare companies in Britain and earning acclaim for his work on Broadway in 1960’s Camelot.
In the early 1960s, Burton put actress Elizabeth Taylor on the set of the multimillion-dollar epic Cleopatra (1963), for which he was hired to replace actor Stephen Boyd. Taylor said that Burton was recovering from a hangover and because he was unable to steady his trembling hands, she held his coffee to his lips and their eyes locked. Though each was married at the time, the two embarked on a relationship that was met with scorn from traditional institutions that included the Vatican. The couple’s romantic tribulations and luxury-item escapades would be covered in tabloid news for years to come.
Burton’s final film was 1984, an adaptation of the George Orwell classic. Burton died on August 5, 1984, at the age of 58, from a brain hemorrhage in his Céligny, Switzerland home. He was survived by Sally Hay Burton, his fourth wife, who has continued to manage the estate.