Richard Burton, one of the finest and most troubled actors of his generation, died of a cerebral hemorrhage yesterday at a hospital in Geneva.
He died at 11 a.m. EDT at Cantonal Hospital, according to Dr. Andre Marti of nearby Nyon Hospital. He had treated Mr. Burton for 30 minutes before sending him to the Cantonal Hospital. Doctors there declined to comment.
Mr. Burton had a villa near Nyon at Celigny, about nine miles east of Geneva. At the villa, actor John Hurt told reporters Mr. Burton was in "good form" Saturday night but later became ill. "You will appreciate that Mrs. Burton is not available." Mr. Burton's widow, Sally Hay, 36, was with him when he died.
Mr. Burton may have been most widely known as the husband -- twice -- of Elizabeth Taylor. But the 58-year-old son of a Welsh coal miner received his professional acclaim for roles that ranged from King Arthur, Hamlet and Winston Churchill to the British espionage agent Leamas in "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold." He appeared in more than 50 movies.
When he reached age 50, Mr. Burton summed up his own career and image as well as anyone could -- he was always a fine conversationalist. "I rather like my reputation, actually," he said, "that of a spoiled genius from the Welsh gutter, a drunk, a womanizer; it's rather an attractive image."
He was also, sometimes, an artist. The colleagues who were saddened by his death are an index of his potential and occasional achievement as an actor.
"He was serious, charming, with tremendous skill," said Sir John Gielgud. "He was a born actor. He chose a rather mad way of throwing away his theater career but obviously he became very famous and a world figure through being a film star . . . He was awfully good to people and generous."
If he had not been so "wild," Gielgud said, Mr. Burton might have ranked with Lord Laurence Olivier.
Olivier said yesterday he had been "looking forward to working with him again on his next film." Shooting on the film, "Wild Geese II," had been scheduled to start next week.
"Richard was a very fine actor," Olivier said, "and his early death is a great tragedy to the theater world, the film world and the public."
He was nominated for the Academy Award eight times -- more often than any other actor who never won one. He commanded million-dollar fees in the early 1960s, long before anyone else -- except Elizabeth Taylor. His name was linked to hers in one movie blockbuster after another in the 1960s -- though several of their last films together were financial disasters.
But still there were a lot of people who would pay to see them in person. As recently as last year, when they toured in a stage production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" that drew critical brickbats, they played to standing-room audiences wherever they went.
Taylor and Mr. Burton were married from 1964 to 1974 and again in 1975-76. Their love life captured the world's imagination in the movies they made together -- movies that seemed to dwell obsessively on the ways a man and woman can relate to one another. These films, ranging from "Cleopatra" (their first) to "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," cast a larger-than-life, complex series of images that few mere humans could live up to in real life. But Taylor and Mr. Burton were as extravagant and tempestuous offstage as on.
In their heyday, the press was filled with stories of their lavish life style: a $500,000 yacht, extravagant parties, million-dollar gifts of jewelry and an entourage that filled two floors of a large London hotel.
But their marriage was as stormy as it was spectacular -- primarily, acquaintances said, because of Mr. Burton's fondness for alcohol and other women. Their final words as a married couple (according to friends) were like dialogue from one of their many scripts: Taylor: "I refuse to play second fiddle to a bottle." Mr. Burton: "At least a bottle doesn't answer back."
He once said on television, "I'm not sure I'm an alcoholic, but if I'm not, I'm very near."
They seemed torn between a desire for privacy and a desire to show the world -- perhaps to share with the world -- the wonder they had found in one another. Two years ago, after dancing with Taylor at her 50th birthday party (their first meeting since their second divorce in 1976), Mr. Burton snapped at reporters who asked whether he would be seeing her again: "That's a repulsive and obscene question." But a day later, he was confessing to London newspapers: "I love the woman. She will always be a part of me and I will always be a part of her." A year after that, they were on stage together in "Private Lives," which some observers saw as an exploitation of their own private lives.
Taylor was also eloquent on the subject of Mr. Burton. In the announcement of their plans for their first marriage, she said: "I knew what I was doing -- loving Richard -- was wrong. I felt terrible heartache because so many innocent people were involved, but I couldn't help loving Richard." And in a handwritten statement when they began the trial separation leading to their first divorce, she wrote: "Maybe we have loved each other too much -- not that I ever believed such a thing was possible."
Taylor and two of her children were in California when the news of Mr. Burton's death arrived. "They are extremely, extremely upset," said Chen Sam, her publicist, who was herself weeping. "Of course, it's a shock." Sam, after a phone conversation with Taylor, reported that she would issue a statement later but "definitely not today. No way."
The Taylor-Burton romance, as spectacular as any they played on the screen, began in Egypt, where they were working together on their first film, "Cleopatra." Both were married -- Mr. Burton (in his first marriage) to Welsh actress Sybil Williams, who was described as a "school sweetheart." Taylor, the widow of producer Mike Todd, had already made international headlines because of her spectacular life style with her late husband. When work began on "Cleopatra," she was married to singer Eddie Fisher -- her fourth marriage, but one that Hollywood observers considered ideal. Within two weeks, rumors began to circulate that the on-screen love scenes between Taylor and Mr. Burton were being played more vividly offstage. Even Hollywood cynics were shocked.
That was in 1962. The logistics of arranging two divorces delayed their marriage until March 15, 1964, but their romance was a matter of public knowledge almost from the beginning. An enormous crowd welcomed them back to London in December 1962, where they checked into the same hotel but different suites. After their marriage, then-representative Michael Feighan, chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, tried to have Mr. Burton barred from the U.S. as "detrimental to the morals of the youth of our nation."
Taylor was his third as well as his second wife. When their second marriage broke up in 1976 (reportedly after he gave a $500 ring to a waitress), he soon married model Suzy Hunt, who helped him with his drinking problem. They divorced in 1982. His final marriage, a year ago, was to Sally Hay, who had been the secretary of a film director with whom he was working.
Richard Burton was born Nov. 10, 1925, in Pontrhydfen, Wales, with the name of Richard Jenkins -- the 12th of a coal miner's 13 children. His foster father Philip Burton taught him reading and acting skills, introduced him to theatrical classics such as Shaw's "Pygmalion," cast him in school productions and spotted an ad for a Welsh-speaking actor that led to his London debut in a play starring Emlyn Williams.
After attending Oxford on a scholarship, Richard Burton spent two years in the Royal Air Force. His theatrical abilities began to attract London critics' attention in 1949, when he was much praised for his performance in Christopher Fry's verse play, "The Lady's Not for Burning." He went on to other roles on the American stage and screen -- notably the movies "The Robe" and "My Cousin Rachel." In England, he developed a parallel career as a Shakespearean actor, with a "Hamlet" at the Old Vic that had critics ranking him close to Gielgud. At one point, he turned down a $350,000 film offer from Howard Hughes to work in Shakespeare productions at the Old Vic.
His portrayal of King Arthur in the stage version of "Camelot" changed his life and led directly to his assignment as Taylor's costar in "Cleopatra." After the Broadway run of "Camelot," director Moss Hart had advised him against going after the kind of career he later developed: "You're rich now. Don't waste your gift. The next five years may decide whether you'll become the leading actor on the English stage."
Mr. Burton's notable movies include "Look Back in Anger," "The Longest Day," "Equus," "Becket" and "The Night of the Iguana." His most recent acting assignment was in a new film based on Orwell's "1984." Before that, he played in a film on the life of Wagner, costarring with Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud and Lord Laurence Olivier. Critics found his acting far better in his early years than they did recently.
His death came as a shock to acquaintances, who said he had mastered his drinking problem.
"He has been in tremendous form recently," said his brother, journalist Graham Jenkins. "I last saw him two weeks ago when he came to Britain and we dined together. He was in great spirits and we reminisced on the past, recalling childhood days. There was no question of him being drunk or anything like that because he has been off drink."
Besides his wife, he is survived by three daughters, Maria, Kate and Jessica, and his foster father, Philip Burton.