The 12th of 13 children of a Welsh miner, actor Richard Burton left his humble environs by winning a scholarship to Oxford. Blessed with a thrillingly theatrical voice, Burton took to the stage, and, by 1949, had been tagged as one of Britain's most promising newcomers. Director Philip Dunne, who later helmed several of Burton's Hollywood films, would recall viewing a 1949 London staging of The Lady's Not for Burning and watching in awe as star John Gielgud was eclipsed by juvenile lead Richard Burton: "He 'took' the stage and kept a firm grip on it during every one of his brief appearances." A few years after his film debut in The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949), the actor was signed by 20th Century Fox, which had hopes of turning him into the new Lawrence Olivier -- although Burton was not quite able to grip films as well as he did the stage.
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Aside from The Robe (1953), most of Burton's Fox films were disappointments, and the actor was unable to shake his to-the-rafters theatricality for the smaller scope of the camera lens. Still, he was handsome and self-assured, so Burton was permitted a standard-issue 1950s spectacle, Alexander the Great (1956). His own film greatness would not manifest itself until he played the dirt-under-the-nails role of Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger (1959). In this, he spoke the vernacular of regular human beings -- rather than that of high-priced, affected Hollywood screenwriters -- and delivered a jolting performance as a working-class man trapped by the system and his own personal demons. Following a well-received Broadway run in the musical Camelot, Burton was signed in 1961 to replace Stephen Boyd on the benighted film spectacular Cleopatra (1963). It probably isn't necessary to elaborate on what happened next, but the result was that Burton suddenly found himself an international celebrity, not for his acting, but for his tempestuous romance with co-star Elizabeth Taylor.
A hot property at last, Burton apparently signed every long-term contract thrust in front of him, while television networks found themselves besieged with requests for screenings of such earlier Burton film "triumphs" as Prince of Players (1955) and The Rains of Ranchipur (1956). In the midst of the initial wave of notoriety, Burton appeared in a Broadway modern-dress version of Hamlet directed by John Gielgud, which played to standing-room-only crowds who were less interested in the melancholy Dane than in possibly catching a glimpse of the Lovely Liz. Amidst choice film work like Becket (1964) and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1966), Burton was also contractually obligated to appear with Taylor in such high-priced kitsch as The V.I.P.s, (1963) The Sandpiper (1965), and Boom! (1968). A few of the Burton/Taylor vehicles were excellent -- notably Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (she won an Oscar; he didn't, but should have) -- but the circus of publicity began to erode the public's ability to take Burton seriously. It became even harder when the couple divorced, remarried, and broke up again. Moreover, Burton was bound by contract to appear in such bland cinematic enterprises as Candy (1968), Villain (1971), The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), The Klansman (1974), and that rancid masterpiece Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). So low had Burton's reputation sunk that when he delivered an Oscar-caliber performance in Equus (1977), it was hailed as a "comeback," even though the actor had never left. (Once again he lost the Oscar, this time to Richard Dreyfuss.) Burton managed to recapture his old performing fire in his last moviemaking years, offering up one of his best performances in his final picture, 1984 (1984). He died later that year. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi