A renowned star of stage and screen, Richard Burton was born into a large family in Wales in 1925, the son of a coal miner. In grade school he had an aptitude for literature and sports, and he began to act in school plays. As a boy soprano he won an Eisteddfod prize, and his marvelous speaking voice, even in his youth, attracted attention.
When he was sixteen, Burton left school and devoted much of his time to the war effort. He continued to hone his acting skills and eventually returned to school. Having studied briefly at Oxford, he served in the Royal Air Force from 1944 to 1947.
After his stint in the military, he began his acting career in earnest, performing on stage and in films. He won praise for his portrayal of Gareth in his first film, The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949), playing alongside Edith Evans and Emlyn Williams. In the theater, he made a name for himself in Christopher Fry’s verse play The Lady’s Not for Burning (1949), playing alongside John Gielgud; Burton appeared first in the London production, then in New York, making a favorable first impression on American audiences.
A breakthrough took place in 1951, when Burton played Prince Hal in a production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I at Stratford-upon-Avon. The noted theater critic Kenneth Tynan wrote about Burton’s immediate impact on the audience: “in the first intermission local critics stood agape in the lobbies.” His fame grew rapidly from that point on, soon reaching Hollywood, where Alexander Korda signed him up the following year. He continued to develop his skills as a Shakespearean actor at the Old Vic in the 1950s – performing in The Tempest, King John, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Henry V, and Othello – while making his name as a movie star, earning Oscar® nominations for his performances in My Cousin Rachel (1952) and The Robe (1953).
In 1954, Burton served as the narrator of the original BBC radio broadcast of Under Milk Wood by the poet Dylan Thomas, a fellow hard-drinking Welshman who had died the year before.
On Broadway in 1957, Burton starred with Helen Hayes and Susan Strasberg in Time Remembered, Patricia Moyes’s adaptation Jean Anouilh’s Leocadia, and received a Tony® nomination for his performance. But it was with his performance in Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot (1960) that Burton made a lasting name for himself in musical theater. With Burton as King Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guenevere, and Robert Goulet as Lancelot, the show garnered four Tony Awards® – including one for Best Actor in a Musical for Burton. The original Broadway cast recording, known to be a favorite in President Kennedy’s household, was a bestseller for over a year. Burton would reprise his role as King Arthur in a 1980 revival of Camelot. His Broadway career also included a notable Hamlet (1964) and Equus (1976), for which he won a Tony®.
Burton’s huge filmography includes Alexander the Great, Look Back in Anger, Cleopatra, The V.I.P.s, Becket, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Taming of the Shrew, Doctor Faustus, The Comedians, Anne of the Thousand Days, Equus (Golden Globe Award® for Best Actor), and Wagner.
Burton was married five times, most famously to Elizabeth Taylor, whom he married twice. He died in Switzerland in 1984 at age fifty-eight.