A brief encounter with Richard Burton

On the 35th Death Anniversary of the legendary performer Richard Burton, Monojit Lahiri recalls the first time when he met the Hollywood movie and theatre star

Photo Courtesy: Social media
Photo Courtesy: Social media

Monojit Lahiri

On August 5th, the 35th Death Anniversary of the legendary thespian, showman and dazzling personality par excellence, Monojit Lahiri flashbacks to a time, far away & long ago, when he was blessed with a meeting with King Richard:

“His playing of Prince Hal turned interested speculation to awe almost as he started to speak; in the first intermission, the local critics stood agape in the lobbies. Burton is a still brimming pool, running disturbingly deep; at twenty-five he commands repose and can make silence garrulous." (K. TYNAN - HENRY IV-1951).

"Within this actor, there is always something reserved, a secret upon which trespassers will be prosecuted, a rooted solitude which his Welsh blood tinges with mystery. Inside these limits, he is a master..." (K. TYNAN - OTHELLO - 1951).

"In the post-war generation of actors, one man marked as a possible candidate for greatness was Richard Burton. If he too had spent twenty years on the stage, he might perhaps have achieved heights beyond that immensely marketable mesmeric charm and power. If he comes back, perhaps he could still do it..." (RICHARD FINDLATER).

Supreme stage actor, high-profile mega star, self destructive genius, mesmerizing lover - Richard Burton always fascinated me. In startling (refreshing) contrast to the stereotype Hollywood hero, he stood poles apart. With his brooding, lived-in looks, exciting Celtic blood, mesmerizing magical voice, riveting rags-to-riches story (from the miserable, dank coal mines of Wales to the perfumed life of a hi-profile celebrity married to the most desirable creature on this planet) Burton was the stuff legends were made of. Hence, when the opportunity to actually come face-to-face with the man presented itself one afternoon four decades ago, I grabbed it with both hands.

Sitting with a mug of tea in London's Charing Cross Railway Station on the location of Brief Encounter (co-starring Sophia Loren) and dressed in casual clothes, Burton, scruffy as hell but with an undeniable aura, turned it on in a fashion that remains etched in memory ... charming, witty, reflective, expansive, Richard Burton was truly one of a kind.

When I rang up this living legend called Richard Burton, I was shaking. Mr. Burton answered the phone. He asked me who I was and where I was from. I stuttered my credentials and wondered whether, if, just for a few seconds. "At the Charing Cross Station Refreshment Room. Whisper to the waiter. They'll know where I am. Three-thirty." And the phone went dead. And so did I. Almost. I looked at my watch. It was three O'clock. Hailing a cab, I whizzed down to make it at the dot. I remember wondering vaguely why he wanted to meet at the refreshment room of all places. He couldn't be that hungry? I didn't know then, that they were shooting scenes of his latest film. Noel Coward's Brief Encounter there. (Of Burton's co-star Sophia Loren, later...) The waiter looked at me curiously when I make it clear that I was from the Press and had an appointment with Mr. Burton. Finally, he yielded. "Knock before you enter." I knocked tentatively, crossed my fingers and swallowed real hard. (Its not exactly like meeting Govinda, remember?) A rich baritone imperiously commanded - 'Enter'.

He looked different. Maybe because he was much leaner. And fitter. But the sharp mind one had heard so much about, the vocal sorcery, the thumping good humour ... all the Burton magic was there. Richard Burton had turned down the offer of filming Brief Encounter a year and half ago. "I thought one cannot really compete against the ghosts of memorable performances (Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson) and Trev is one of my oldest friends."

Holidaying in Switzerland with his feet up and hair down, and deeply thinking about the Churchill role - after Brief Encounter, (Burton was to play Sir Winston Churchill in a TV film) he was rudely distracted by a phone call, inviting him to do the present movie. Added Burton, "They said Sophia will be in it too. Then Sophia came on and in that gently imperious voice, which turns my stomach into a bag full of butterflies, persuaded me."

On the day I met Burton, he had apparently confessed to Miss Loren earlier, that only once or twice in his life did he feel this strange sense of power. He had it coming and he knew it. 'Yes', Miss Loren was reported to have replied "I noticed it in the scene this morning when you said: Are these bath buns fresh?" Burton countered this ego-shattering blow by going into a series of distracting cross eyed tricks, while rehearsing subsequent scenes.

Richard Burton's next, the Churchill film, was scheduled to span the period between 1936-1940 with his first speech in the House of Commons. Burton was completely obsessed about getting every physical detail, every line of dialogue about the cigar-chewing icon, absolutely right. "I regard this as one of the most important roles in my life", he said. Suddenly that amazing magical voice, went back into time in an effort to re-weave an experience. Sir Winston came to the old Vic often. In fact, he was something of a favourite there. I recall right now, one single experience. I was playing Hamlet and he as usual was in the first row. Suddenly he started speaking Hamlet's lines. And didn't stop. I tried to hasten the pace, then slacken it, then hasten it again - but there was no buckling him down. He went right on and on ..." The Churchill film was to be shown on TV in the United States and Britain on the actual night of the Churchill centenary.

Then, very quietly, I asked him about the hottest buzz in Fleet Street: Burton to return to the theatre. He smiled. "I've been meaning and waiting to come back to the stage, but I couldn't manage. My overheads were too vast." A fleeting look came ... and quick went. "Now that my overheads are gone, I can afford to go back." Overheads, to the uninitiated, was ex-wife Elizabeth Taylor. "Yes, I think the National want me to do Falstaff. Ideally I'd like to do a comedy, one of the rougher ones. I could never play Benedict, for example. I have the lightness of touch of a steamroller. Maybe something by Ben Johnson or Volpone or perhaps the great hammy thing."

Burton paused. And I was quickly reminded of Tynan's words. Yes, this man can make silence garrulous. Could command repose. "In my days at the old Vic, I used to hate my nights off from the theatre. I'd like to do at least four performances a week if I went back. I must have to think about the theatre all the time."

What about the Oxford thing? Burton, at that point, was writing about Churchill. "I am also captioning some pictures by Norman Parkinson of Sophia. Can't wait to be respectfully destructive. Oh yes, I am going to lecture at Oxford. Must work up the Latin quotations, you know: I met John Kenneth Galbraith last Christmas and asked him the secret of a successful lecturer. He said you have to mumble, so they can't hear what you say, and be as obscure as possible, so they'll go out and buy the books anyway. The people at Oxford are so marvelous. When I went there, I thought they'd treat me like a juvenile delinquent." He gave me an imitation of Burton - the lecturer at Oxford. Gowned, capped and suitably austere, he'd buttonhole a student. "Ah, James Junior, a word with you. About this evening's tutorial, don't bother. Sent your sister instead." Incredible.

He grinned, sometimes, like a juvenile delinquent. Then, more serious talk about the Churchill-movie and preparation. Then back to Shakespearean quotes. He had begun the interview, sitting with a mug of tea in his hand and Prospero's final speech in the Tempest ("our revels are now ended") It was like a festival of recitations with fragments from Richard II, Corialanus, The Jew of Malta, not forgetting that evocative line from Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great - "is it not passing brave to be a king, to ride in triumph through Peraspolis ...?" Burton was so fond of this line that he confessed, he often slipped it into the middle of other plays at old Vic. "Very handy, especially if you are drying up."

In Richard Burton, the person and personality, the artiste and star, there lay a force that transcended argument. Earthy and masculine, he brought a presence, variously described as Celtic and Star-quality best summed by the celebrated critic Walter Kerr as "something radiating more than the sum of its known energies, working on a scale greater than it is, packing space on an arc more sweeping than is properly natural, more alive than live ... " He shared his Guru Churchill's lust for words, in a voice that, to quote Kerr "sweeps the walls of the theatre clean, with an apparent effortless power, magnifying the natural, until we are repeatedly caught up in its gale, left stunned and breathless ..."

Not surprisingly, you realise that Shakespeare is most appropriate to sum up Burton's life. You realise too, that like Irving a century ago, when Burton recited Shakespeare, the bard was there to meet him.

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Published: 5 Aug 2019, 8:00 PM