Richard Burton (1925-1984)
- Laurence Olivier, The Beggar’s Opera, 1952. With a surprising backer in producer Herbert Wilcox (considering there was no choice role for his usual star, his wife, Anna Neagle), Peter Brook planned a verson in black-and-white, with a coarse and virile highwayman. Burton! “Perfect for the role but the time was not ripe, his name not sufficiently known to make the investors and distributors feel secure. On the other hand, Laurence Olivier was at the height of his success, both as an actor and film-maker.” Brooke sent him a cable: ever been keen on MacHeath? “Fortunately and calamitously this struck too good a note, for apparently (it) had been a project he had been nursing for many years, hoping to act, direct and produce it himself. His ‘yes’ rejoiced us all and was an early lesson in how one must never celebrate too soon He was furious that he had let his own project slip out of his fingers and so he insisted on being co-producer as well [and] turned my first film into an ugly battlefield.”
- Marlon Brando, Julius Caesar, 1952. Still tied, contractually, to London’s Old Vic theatre. A full decade later, auteur supreme Joseph L Mankiewicz called him up again - and for Marc Antony again - in Cleopatra.
- James Mason, A Star Is Born, 1953.
- Robert Cummings, Dial M For Murder, 1953. Before making his directing debut, The Ringer, in 1952, Guy Hamilton knew what his second film should be. He’d seen a terrific TV play and praised it to producer Alexander Korda, who bought the rights for a mere £500 (TV had little impact in those days of scanty viewers). As “the junior contractor,” Hamilton directed all the tests - Burton’s included - and the next he heard was that Korda sold his rights (for rather more than £500) to Alfred Hitchcock. “Well,” said Hamilton, “I knew I wasn’t gonna win this one.” (Cummings was 15 years older than Burton).
- Vittorio Gassman, Rhapsody, 1954. Eight years before La Scandale, this was set as Burton’s first screen meet with Elizabeth Taylor, until her eye injury (while replacing Vivien Leigh in Elephant Walk) freed him for The Robe. They had first met at a poolside brunch welcoming the Welshman to Hollywood when she found him “coarse and self-important.”
- Marlon Brando, Desirée, 1954. Brando called her: Daisy Ray!
- Richard Todd, The Virgin Queen, 1954. At the start of the year, it was Burton in the cloak of Sir Walter Raleigh opposite Bette Davis’ second film as Queen Elizabeth I.
- James Dean, Giant, 1955.
- Robert Stack, Great Day in the Morning, 1955. Whatever else Burton did as a kid, it was obviously not playing cowboys and injuns. Otherwise how else could a Welshman refuse his first (and only) Western! Producer Edmund Grainger next aimed at Robert Mitchum or (the 25-years older!) William Powell.
- Kenneth More, Reach For The Sky, 1956. “I never found out why he didn’t do it,” said Kenny More of the WWII story of courageous, legless RAF fighter ace Group Captain Douglas Bader Richard was keen until offered Alexander The Great at four times More’s £25,000! More did not care. “I was the only actor who could play the part properly. Bader’s philosophy was my philosophy. His whole attitude to life was mine.”
- John Gielgud, Saint Joan, 1957. Learning from Kenny More, Burton dropped Warwick to play another war-time RAF hero: Wing o Yeo-Thomas. Joan’s director, Otto Preminger, was never that keen on Burton... as shall be seen. In 1979.
- Laurence Olivier, The Prince and The Showgirl, 1957. An early suggestion for Marilyn Monroe before she insisted on Olivier repeating his stage role and helming. Her antics turned him off directing for 13 years.
- Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory, 1957. Burton was approached about Colonel Dax - not easy to cast as most stars refused the project. Or, LAgents refused to show the script to their clients. Dirk Bogarde lumped Burton together with fellow Welshman Stanley Baker: “as tiresome as each other.”
- Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur, 1958. During the birth pangs of the MGMighty epic re-make, Sidney Franklin was due to direct Burton as the hero… Later, William Wyler (one of the original’s 1924 crew) aimed the role at Italians Cesare Danova and Vittorio Gassman. Plus Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Van Johnson (no, really!), Burt Lancaster and Edmund Purdom. Judah Ben-Heston won his Oscar on April 4 1960.
- Roger Moore, The Miracle, 1959. Everything about this one was inadequate.
- Audie Murphy, The Unforgiven, 1959. Surprisingly both Richard and Tony Curtis were considered before John Huston went back to his Red Badge of Courage star; it was the WWII hero’s third and last major movie in a 23-year career of Z Westerns.
- Yul Brynner, Solomon and Sheba, 1959. Brynner, not Burton, finished the royal role after Tyrone Power’s death during Spanish shooting.
- John Mills, The Singer Not The Song, 1960. Legend goes that Dirk Bogarde jumped at the silly bandito role because (a) he’d be in tight leather trousers and (b) have some worthwhile acting opposition - namely Burton or Peter Finch. When only the trousers arrived, Bogarde made good on his promise to “make life unbearable for everyone concerned.”
- Stuart Whitman, The Mark, 1961. Whitman’s sole Oscar nomination. Who would dare play the role today - a pedophile.
- Jeffrey Hunter, King of Kings, 1961. Nicholas Ray first chose Burton to play Jesus. The feisty director then rejected Peter Cushing, Keith Michell and Christopher Plummer and voted Hunter. Despite being, at 35, closer to Christ’s age than per usual in Schmollywood epics, Jeff was soon dubbed “I Was a Teenage Jesus.”
- Peter O’Toole, Lawrence of Arabia, 1961
- Max Von Sydow, The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1962. One year later… Same story. Same role. Same reply. “Oh, Christ, no!” (Von Sydow had also been seen for King of Kings).
- Stanley Baker, Eve, France-Italy, 1962. The Hakim producer brothers of Paris (Raymond and Robert) offered the gig to Jean-Luc Godard. “I didn’t like the actors they had in mind. I wanted Richard Burton. They thought it was a good idea. I said: There’s the telephone. They said: ‘Oh yes - but you know - maybe he’s not home!’ So I understood that they were not willing.” Baker soon understood, or so he told me in London, that the Hakims “couldn’t produce a fart out of a tin of beans.”
- Stephen Boyd, Jumbo, 1962. “Almost got him, too,” said director Charles Walters. “But something in Egypt with Liz Taylor came up!”
- Anthony Quinn, The Visit, US-France-Germany-Italy, 1964. Welsh actor-playwright friend Emlyn Williams suggested Duerrenmatt’s play as a perfect Burtons’ vehicle. Better value, certainly, than Ingrid Bergman and Quinn - who co-produced this heavy-handed Euro-suet.
- Peter O’Toole, Becket, 1964. They swopped roles. Burton was to be bawdy Henry II until Liz suggested Becket was better. “What?” exploded Richard. “After all the scandal you want me to play a saint - are you crazy?” “No! But you’d be crazy to play the king. It’s the part you’re always playing. It’s too obvious.” As usual, about cinema, she was right.
- Jean-Paul Belmondo, Pierrot le fou, France, 1965. Godard tries again... After securing the rights of Lionel White’s pulp fiction, Obsession, bilious auteur Jean-Luc Godard decided to shoot in English. With Burton in the titular role of Ferdinand Griffon, aka Pierrot, aka Crazy Pete, opposite cute singer Sylvia Vartan. Reverting to French, he then thought about Michel Piccoli (from his Le mepris, 1963) or his A bout de souffle star, Belmondo. In many ways, Pierrot is a different take on their 1959 breathless breakthrough.
- Charlton Heston, The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965. Pope Spencer Tracy was hiring him as Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling... before Fred Zinnemann quit for his masterpiece, A Man for All Seasons. And Pope Rex Harrison hired Chuck!
- Stuart Whitman, Sands of the Kalahari, 1965. “I hate friendship interferring with business,” said star-producer Stanley Baker. He had both Burtons in his pocket. Except they wanted $1.5m in theirs. (Dirk Bogarde lumped Burton and Baker together: “both as tiresome as each other”).
- Robert Morse, The Loved One, 1965. Jimmy Porter, circa ‘59, was now too expensive for Tony Richardson. Not to say too old for Evelyn Waugh’s poet falling for an embalmer played by Liz Taylor. Again, they wanted $1.5m between then, plus plus 10% each of the profits. Au revoir, luvvies!
- Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music, 1965. Plummer likened working with Julie Andrews to “being hit over the head with a big Valentine’s Day card, every day.”
- Sean Connery, Thunderball, 1965.
- Guy Stockwell, Beau Geste, 1966. Universal envisaged a high-blown second re-make with Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, until cutting costs for a back-lot number with the contract squad.
- Cyril Cusack, Fahrenheit 451, 1966. Plus Liz Taylor and Robert Redford! That’s when Sam Spiegel burst - momentarily - into French realisateur François Truffaut’s more subdued plans.
- Paul Scofield, A Man For All Seasons, 1966. Burton was first choice for the movie Thomas More. Shouldn’t the hit stage star make the film? “By rights, yes,” said second choice Olivier, “but it’s all down to piggy banks and dog eat dog.”
- Robert Redford, This Property Is Condemned, 1966. Paramount’s off-the-wall idea for the Tennessee Williams’s one-act play set during the Depression. (And then some). When director Sydney Pollack got the script (by Francis Coppola and Edith Sommer), who else was he gonna call!
- Kenneth More, The White Rabbit, TV, 1967. Having given one RAF hero to Kenneth More in Reach For The Sky, 1956, Burton made sure he got the next one that came along... However, by the time the production was set it was eleven years later - he was the world’s #1 lover while the Wing Cmmander Yeo-Thomas story, was a BBC TV mini-series. And the RAF hero was played - again - by Kenny More!
- Richard Harris, Camelot, 1967. Far too expensive! Burton had left the original Broadway show for Cleopatra. The Burtons’s exorbitant fees killed any chance of him repeating his Arthur oposite Liz Taylor‘s Guenevere - and with Peter O’Toole as Lancelot Du Lac. “Burton played it as a man born to greatness,” said Harris. “I play it as a man with greatness thrust upon him.” He passed his test, kept his crown (literally), subbed an ill Burton in the 80’s stage revival making $8m from the international tour..
- Dirk Bogarde, Accident, 1967. Once due as Marxist director Joseph Losey’s first film for Sam Spiegel since The Prowler, 1951. “I want Burton,” said Spiegel. “Who knows Bogarde?” Losey did and owed his post-Hollywood Black List career to him - and not to Spiegel - with The Sleeping Tiger, 1954. “And he can make it now while Burton’s booked for a year.” In 1972, Burton replaced Bogarde in Losey’s Assasination of Trotsky.
- Marlon Brando, Reflections In A Golden Eye, l967. Director Peter Glenville’s first choice - although Burton was nervous about taking on a gay role (Hah!) . Next choice, Lee Marvin and only then, Brando, when Montgomery Clift proved uninsurable and, in fact, dead. Richard had been due to direct and co-star in an earlier version, set up by Liz Taylor for Monty. Not a good idea. Clift had never liked Burton’s acting. Burton hung around John Huston’s set, worried Liz would stray. Indeed, he later reported that “my Elizabeth and that Brando creature had an affair’” during the shooting.
- Steve McQueen, The Thomas Crown Affair, 1967. First choice of director Norman Jewison and producer Walter Mirisch for Tommy Crown, the most unlikely bank robber. But everybody wanted Burton.
- Terence Stamp, Histoires extraordinaires (UK/US: Spirits of the Dead), France-Italy, 1967. Getting back into action after the collapse of The Voyage de G Mastorna (the best film he never made), Federico Fellini joined the Edgar Allen Poe sketch film. . (The other directors, Claude Chabrol, Joe Losey, Luchino Visconti, Orson Welles became just Lous Malle and Roger Vadim). Fellini fell for Poe’s Never Bet The Devil Your Head with a celeb-stressed actor, the titular Toby Dammit, running amok at Cinecittà. When discussions with Peter O’Toole turned into a right royal argy-bargy, Fellini switched to Burton, James Fox and utlimately, Terry put his Stamp on it.
- Oliver Reed, Oliver! 1968. Everybody wanted the Burtons, even as humble Bill Sykes and Nancy.
- Alan Bates, The Fixer, 1968. Director John Frankenheimer (the Spielberg of his day) wanted Burton for the 1911 Russian-Jewish handyman, Yakov Bok. Or, indeed… Peter Sellers! (The first cut was four hours, 45 minutes!).
- Nicol Williamson, Laughter in the Dark, 1969. Roger Vadim aimed his 1954 version of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel at Burton and Brigitte Bardot. Director Tony Richardson also chose Burton. And sacked him after two weeks, for “unpunctuality and unprofessionalism” - ie. Not being as sober (or not holding his booze as well) as during their Look Back in Anger in 1958. Burton said good luck to Williamson, who crowed: “I’m better than him.” A jinxed item: Mick Jagger was in re-tread that ran out of funds in the 80s.
- Peter O’Toole, Goodbye Mr Chips, 1969. The reunion with his Broadway Camelot partner Julie Andrews did not happen and he refused Petula Clark as a substitute because she was a... singer! And Julie was what, exactly? Peter made it, quite happily, with Pet.
- Maximilian Schell, Simón Bolívar, 1969. Italian director Alessandro Blasetti wanted Burton as El Libertador of Venezuelia: SimónJosé Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios y Blanco (!). With Liz on board as…er….oh anyone else… (What about Consuelo Hernandez?) However, the Burton chased by film-makers that year was, he told his diary on July 22, “fundamentally so bored with my job that only drink [1½ bottles of vodka per day] is capable of killing the pain.”
- Rod Steiger, Waterloo, Italy-Soviet Union, 1969. This major flop was the reason why Stanley Kubrick lost backers for his own Napoleon venture. Burton was first asked by Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis to play Napoleon (with pal O’Toole as Wellington). He said no - but yes to Trotsky, Tito, Churchill... “He’s ruined his great gifts,” bemoaned Orson Welles, calling the Welsh kettle black! “He’s become a joke with a celebrity wife. Now he just works for money, does the worst shit.” Hmm…
- Christopher Plummer, Waterloo, Italy-Soviet Union, 1969. De Laurentiis then offered first Duke of Wellington, Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley. And what if he had played them both… ?! As had been supposedly suggested to Peter Sellers when he was booked for Bonaparte and Sean Connery passed on Wellington. Plummer reprised his Iron Duke in a 1974 chapter of the Witness To Yesterday series.
- George Segal, The Owl and The Pussycat, 1970. The Burtons were just too famous a couple to pass for a bookworm and a hooker living in the same New York building. Or, the same room in this claustrophobic version of Bill Manhoff’s play.
- Christopher Jones, Ryan’s Daughter, 1970. When Brando rejected iconic director David Lean for a third time, scenarist Robert Bolt voted Burton. He had the right “forbidding darkness,” agreed Lean, but he went younger with a Z-movie player whose sole connection with acting talent was once being Lee Strasberg’s son-in-law.
- Ian Holm, A Severed Head, 1971. As the fashion became trying to squeeze the Burtons into anything semi-literate, producer Elliott Kastner tried to land them, opposite Brando and Julie Christie, in Iris Murdoch’s intellectual farce. Kastner had forgotten Burton’s low opinon of Brando. (And vice-versa).
- Kevin Conway, Hogan’s Goat, TV, 1971. Now it was the Burtons, O’Toole and Spencer Tracy..! Impossibly pricey for William Alfred’s so-so Broadway play and after Tracy’s death, it became a PBS special.
- Topol, Follow Me (US: The Public Eye), 1972. Following the Liz ‘n’ Her’s dictates, he considered the public eye shadowing a suspect wife in Peter Shaffer’s version of his play. They could never agree on the right director.
- Clive Revill, The Legend of Hell House, 1972. Fantasy writer Richard Matheson set about bettering Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting and then toned down his novel’s gratuitous sex and violence to win over his dream team - the Burtons.
- Peter Finch, Bequest To The Nation, 1973. Finchy leapt at Lord Nelson, “the most built-in romantic who ever lived. He defeated Napoleon, bucked the Establishment, lived with a smashing broad, had one arm, one eye and was funny. Christ, they don’t come any better than that!” Burton probably knew America would call it... The Nelson Affair.
- Richard Kiley, The Little Prince, 1974. “A big disappointment,” said producer Robert Evans. Burton “sang beautifully” but director Stanley Donen, who had already refused to work with Sinatra, also refused his replacement. So, one Broadway star was replaced by another... and the movie played to empty seats.
- John Wayne, Rooster Cogburn, 1974. The idea was fair - a sequel to True Grit. But if Wayne proved too ill, what would be the point of someone else in his titular Oscar-winning rôle? Marlon Brando topped producer Hal Wallis’ eye-patch list of Burton, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Burt Lancaster, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, George C Scott and several Duke co-stars: Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn. This was director Stuart Miller’s second feature. The “6ft 6ins somafabitch no-talent, ” as Duke termed him, never made a third.
- Topol, Galileo, 1975. The Brechtian director Joseph Losey had to wait 30 years to film his earliest Broadway success - minus his Trotsky.
- Michael Caine, The Man Who Would Be King, 1975.
- Len Cariou, A Little Night Music, 1977. The Burtons were split asunder... Once he married Suzy Hunt, Elizabeth telephoned congratulations and asked him to consider being her husband in the Sondheim musical instead of Robert Stephens. Burton almost agreed. “I want her to be happy, to have success with marriage and her work. That will take any guilt off my shoulders.”
- John Mills, Des Terufels Advokat (UK: The Devil’s Advocate), Germany, 1977. Due for the priest finding his faith tested by terminal cancer. Opposite Liz, of course.
- Richard Attenborough, The Human Factor, 1979. “I offered him the role of Daintry, instead of Castle,” producer-director Otto Preminger told me in London. “But Attenborough had already found a script somewhere and selected the part for himself!”
- Nicol Williamson, The Human Factor, 1979. In short. Otto’s dislike of Burton continued. “I didn’t like his complexion,” Preminger told me in London during the shooting, du, “all those holes in his cheeks.”
- Gregory Peck, The Sea Wolves, 1980. Producer Euan Lloyd meant it as a re-teaming of his Wild Geese.
- Albert Finney, Under The Volcano, 1984. “I wanted to do it since 1947. With the possible exception of Ulysses and In Parenthesis, it’s the best novel of the century.” He discussed it with John Huston during The Night of the Iguana, 1964. Had a handshake deal with Joe Losey in 1972 - and was stage-touring the Liz ’n’ His Private Lives (more like The Dance of Death, said critics) when John Huston called again.
“They fly again... “ But Burton had already flown. Just as Stephen Boyd died just before making the first Wild Geese, 1978.
- Edward Fox, Wild Geese II, 1984. “Richard died on the Sunday he was due to join us,” recalled producer Euan Lloyd. “I tried everybody - all engaged - then remembered Richard’s admiration for Edward in Edward and Mrs Simpson... and he agreed to become Colonel Faulkner’s younger brother.” Lloyd dedicated his film to Burton’s memory. (Stephen Boyd died just before making the first Wild Geese, 1978).
- Claudio Amendola, Nostromo, TV, 1997. Director Joe Losey’s 1956 casting - “at that moment, he was ideal for the role” - passed to David Lean and finally, to a TV mini
- Michael Caine, The Quiet American, 2001. The re-make was offered when he preferred the film of the year - 1984. Soon after finishing it, he died in Switzerland, August 4, 1984.