Checkered Life

Richard Burton Electrified Audiences and Lit Up the Tabloids (Photos)

Despite a multitude of leading roles on stage and screen, Richard Burton never ceased to doubt himself as an actor, and the profession as a whole. He often expressed these concerns to his counterpart Elizabeth Taylor, saying once in a letter, ‘I have never quite got over the fact that I thought, and I’m afraid I still do think, that “acting” for a man—a really proper man—is sissified and faintly ridiculous.’ Irreverent, impulsive, and with an addiction to alcohol and women, Burton was also a loving husband, a patient father, and a loyal friend. From his early days on stage with Claire Bloom to the heights of Hollywood royalty, here’s a look back at one of Hollywood’s most beloved—and troubled—leading men.

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Despite a multitude of leading roles on stage and screen, Richard Burton never ceased to doubt himself as an actor, and the profession as a whole. He often expressed these concerns to his counterpart Elizabeth Taylor, saying once in a letter, "I have never quite got over the fact that I thought, and I'm afraid I still do think, that 'acting' for a man--a really proper man—is sissified and faintly ridiculous." Irreverent, impulsive, with an addiction to alcohol and women— Burton was also a loving husband, a patient father, and a loyal friend. From his early days on stage with Claire Bloom to the heights of Hollywood royalty, here's a look back at one of Hollywood's most beloved—and troubled—leading men. 

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London Richard Burton and Claire Bloom

After meeting on the set of The Lady's Not for Burning in 1947—Claire Bloom's London stage debut—the two formed a close friendship that would last the duration of their careers. Here they are seen embracing after the opening night of Hamlet. Both turned down promising film roles to play Hamlet and Ophelia at the Old Vic in London.

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Alexander the Merely OK

Still early in Burton's Hollywood career, the leading role in Alexander the Great was an enormous opportunity that he took on excitedly. Donning a blonde wig, Burton starred alongside Bloom as the Grecian warrior attempting to conquer the world. Although the movie was lauded for its fight sequences, Burton was far from the household name he would become. 


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Angry Not-So-Young Man

After a short return to the theater, Burton accepted another film role—this time as the obnoxious and verbally abusive Jimmy Porter in the film version of Look Back in Anger. Depicting the gritty day to day of lower-middle-class life in Great Britain, at 33, Burton was criticized as looking “too old” to accurately portray the young Jimmy. Although the black-and-white drama failed at the box office, Burton was forever proud of the work he did here.

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Actress Julie Andrews and Richard Burton

Starring alongside Julie Andrews, Richard Burton proved his acting abilities in the original 1960 production of Camelot. The original cast would return to reprise the play in 1980 at the New York State Theater.

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Richard Burton Filming Cleopatra

After six months of playing King Arthur in Camelot, the now infamous Burton took on the role of Mark Antony in 20th Century Fox's Cleopatra. Seen here during a break while shooting a bathtub scene, Burton's mischevious smile hides the knowledge that he is conducting one of the raciest behind-the-scenes affairs (with costar Elizabeth Taylor) that Hollywood has ever seen.

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That Affair

From the moment it began, the affair between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton was destined for controversy. He had been married for 14 years to wife Sybil; Liz was on her fourth husband. When the affair became public knowledge during the filming of Cleopatra, it was a scandal unlike any to come before it—with even the U.S. Congress stepping in to express their disapproval.

William Lovelace, Express / Getty Images

Ups and Downs

The attraction between the two was captivating, but their relationship tumultuous. In love letters from Burton to Taylor, the deep affection they held for one another is apparent. “I am forever punished by the gods for being given the fire and trying to put it out,” wrote Burton, “the fire, of course, is you.”

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Tying the Knot

Despite a statement released from the Vatican condemning their scandalous affair, the two married (for the first time) at a small private ceremony in Montreal. Burton was admittedly smitten, writing in his journal, “If you leave me, I shall have to kill myself. There is no life without you.”

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A Legendary Couple

Burton and Taylor were both well-known actors before they met (she probably had the edge on him in the fame department). But once married, they became the stuff of Hollywood legend. Here, they share a laugh with Sammy Davis Jr. at New York's famed Copacabana nightclub. 

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Two Pros

While Burton often struggled to come to terms with acting as a profession—afraid it wasnt “manly” enough—Taylor shined. In spite of his qualms, their combined presence on the screen was magnetic. His admiration for her work continued long into the marriage. “You are probably the best actress in the world,” he wrote in a letter, “which, combined with your extraordinary beauty, makes you unique.”

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Entourage

Soon elevated to the highest ranks of Hollywood royalty, Burton and Taylor traveled the world—bringing along a troupe of assistants, from makeup artists to security personnel. Here the two are seen at the masked ball at the Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice in 1967.

Keith Hamshere / Getty Images

Welsh on Welsh

Based on a 1954 radio play by Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood explored the intimate lives of a group of people in Llareggub, a fictional Welsh village. At the time of the production, Burton, seen here with Taylor and his drinking buddy and fellow actor Peter O’Toole, had begun drinking heavily—a foreshadowing of the alcoholism that would consume him.

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Going It Alone

After divorcing in 1974, the two remarried again barely a year later. But the volatile and often-inebriated Burton was too much too handle, and in 1976, the two divorced again, this time for good. Here Burton is seen without Taylor, an odd sight for those who watched them on screen for years. But the love story continued on long after his death. When asked—25 years later—if she would marry him again, Taylor responded, “In a heartbeat.”