He was born in 1925 in Pontrhydyfen in the Afan Valley, South Wales. He was the twelfth child born to his parents and named Richard Walter Jenkins after his father who was a coal miner. Richard was just two years old when his mother Edith died of septicaemia shortly after giving birth to a younger brother Graham at the age of forty-four. A reminder of just how dangerous childbirth was until well on into the 20th century. The child Richard was taken into the home of his sister Cecilia and her husband Elfed in Tai Bach, Port Talbot. The teenage Richard formed a bond with his teacher and would-be mentor Philip Burton, who nurtured his talents, and whose name he would later adopt as his own. Towards the end of the war Richard joined the RAF and was accepted onto a short course programme at Oxford University where he starred in a production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. However by this time he had already made his professional debut as an actor in the play Druid's Rest by Emlyn Williams which ran in Liverpool and London. After being demobbed he resumed his acting career and in 1949 appeared in his first film role The Last Days of Dolwyn, again written by Emlyn Williams. He met and married his first wife Sybil at this time. There were to follow hugely successful seasons at Stratford and at the Old Vic, his performance as Henry V being highly acclaimed. In 1952 Richard Burton was nominated for his first Academy Award, however despite being nominated on a number of occasions it was an accolade he would never achieve.
I am currently reading The Richard Burton Diaries edited by Chris Williams. I was given the book as a Christmas present from my son Tom and I am about a quarter of the way through this massive tome. They are a fascinating read so far. However I don't like to comment on books until I've completed them, so I shall no doubt be returning to the diaries in a future post.
I heard a story about Burton the proud Welshman once, that seems appropriate for St David's Day. He was on a car journey with his nephew (who was himself relating this story in a radio interview). They had stopped at a restaurant to have a meal, and at the end of this meal Burton was approached by another diner who told Burton that he'd heard he always wore the colour red about his person in honour of the Welsh dragon and his origins. Burton agreed that this was correct. The man said, "But Mr Burton, throughout my meal I've been studying you and you're dressed from head to toe in black!". Burton smiled, and unzipped the side of his Chelsea boot to reveal a red sock.
Richard Burton 1925 - 1984