Actor Michael Sheen - currently playing Hamlet at the Young Vic theatre in London - has today (11 November 2011) joined English Heritage to celebrate the life and work of one of the greatest classical and Shakespearean actors, Richard Burton (1925 - 1984).
Burton has been commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at the London home he shared with fellow Welsh thespian Sybil Williams between 1949 and 1956. It was during the time that Burton lived at 6 Lyndhurst Road, Hampstead, NW3, he rose to international stardom.
Michael Sheen said: "It has always been an honour for me to be associated with the Wizard of Wild Welsh Magick that was Richard Burton and it gives me great pleasure to help mark one of the spots from where he cast his brooding spells over London and the world."
The son of a miner, Richard Walter Jenkins was born in a small Welsh village near Port Talbot. He was one of thirteen children and, following the death of his mother in 1927, went to live with his beloved eldest sister, Cecilia ('Cis'), and her husband Elfed James. His interest in acting was encouraged by Philip Burton, one of his teachers at Port Talbot Secondary School, who taught him how to make the most of his performances and his fine theatrical voice. In 1943, Richard changed his name from Jenkins to Burton, his mentor having become his legal guardian.
Burton made his stage debut in Emlyn Williams's comedy The Druid's Rest in 1943 and made his first appearance on the London stage two months later. In 1944, he was awarded a scholarship to study English on a special wartime course at Exeter College, Oxford, which deepened his love of literature. At the same time, Burton undertook training for the RAF, and it was only after demobilisation in 1947 that he was able to return to professional acting. He moved to London - which he later described as his favourite city - and made his screen debut in another production by Emlyn Williams, The Last Days of Dolwyn (1948); critics praised Burton for his 'acting fire, manly bearing, and good looks'. During filming, he met and fell in love with the Welsh actress Sybil Williams; the couple were married the following year and were to have two daughters, Kate and Jessica.
Throughout the 1950s - both on stage and screen - Burton was lauded by audiences and critics alike. As a member of the Old Vic theatre company, Burton took on roles including Hamlet, Othello, Coriolanus and Henry V (the latter winning him the Evening Standard best actor award of 1955). In 1952 he made his debut in Hollywood with My Cousin Rachel (1952), a performance which earned him the first of seven Academy Award nominations. The film was followed by a string of critical successes: The Robe (1953), The Desert Rats (1953), and Alexander the Great (1956). After the close of his Old Vic season in 1956, Burton decided to leave London and settled in Switzerland.
In 1961, Burton flew to Rome to make the film that would change his life - Cleopatra (1963). His affair with his co-star, Elizabeth Taylor ultimately led to their respective divorces and, in March 1964, to their marriage. The couple and their tempestuous relationship attracted an overwhelming amount of public attention and they were attended by an entourage wherever they went. The 1960s proved a golden decade for Burton, who starred in films including The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1965), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966; co-starring Elizabeth Taylor) and Where Eagles Dare (1969). In 1964, he enjoyed enormous success playing Hamlet in New York, in a production directed by John Gielgud. It was to be his last major stage performance until Equus in 1976.
After 1970, Burton experienced something of a decline, both personally and professionally; his marriage with Taylor ended in 1974 and although the couple remarried a year later, they divorced again in 1976. He continued to make films during this period, including Bluebeard (1972), The Wild Geese (1978) and the epic Wagner (1983). It was on the set of Wagner that he met Sally Hay who was working as a freelance production assistant - they married in 1983.
In 1983, Burton made his last stage appearance, opposite Elizabeth Taylor, in a Broadway production of Noël Coward's Private Lives. His last performance was in a film adaptation of George Orwell's 1984. In August of that year, Burton died suddenly in Geneva, Switzerland, at the age of fifty-eight.
Blue Plaques Historian Dr Susan Skedd said: "Richard Burton was undoubtedly one of the greatest stage and screen actors of the 20th century and we are delighted to be able to commemorate him at his former home in Hampstead. While living here, he established his reputation as a Shakespearean actor on the London stage and as a film actor in Hollywood, and also made the renowned radio recording of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood (1954)."