The thrice-Tony-nominated actress Kate Burton occasionally makes trips to the Hollywood & Vine area of town.
“I audition for casting directors who have offices there, and I always find it a deep hoot to see what stars are under my feet,” says the thesp, who now plays Vice President Sally Langston on ABC’s “Scandal” series. “What’s illuminating, of course, is all the stars you’ve never heard of! I’m not a showbiz historian, but who is this? Dad, the seven-time Oscar nominee, doesn’t have a star?”
Not that the great Welsh actor’s legend hasn’t been immortalized in Hollywood.
“One of my favorite things is that fabulous mural on Wilcox,” says Kate Burton. “I took my daughter there seven years ago and said, ‘There’s Grandpa on the aisle in his Marc Antony armor!’ To me that is the sweetest thing.”
The newly ensconced Richard Burton star on the boulevard marks the 50th anniversary of “Cleopatra,” which is being released on Blu-ray. The real force behind the tribute, however, is the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, which houses the Richard Burton Theater.
“They raised the money and a lot of major Welsh dignitaries will be there on St. David’s Day. It’s a Welsh national thing, and to me it’s a very joyful, fun celebration of my dad.”
As for “Cleopatra,” it was the film that introduced Burton to Taylor, created a tabloid frenzy over not only their romance but also the heretofore unprecedented $40 million budget that nearly brought down 20th Century Fox and, in the process, launched hundreds of careers in entertainment journalism.
Since she was only about 4 or 5 at the time, Burton has a slightly hazier but more personal take on the whole cinema brouhaha.
“I have a vague memory of being in Rome and being with Liza Todd, Elizbeth’s daughter, in some preschool class together,” she recalls with a laugh. “My sense, the conventional wisdom growing up, is that ‘Cleopatra’ was not regarded as one of their greatest movies. We didn’t put it in the category of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ or ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’ I feel those were the two greatest films Dad and Elizabeth did together.”
Richard Burton once said that when he first acted opposite Taylor he didn’t think she was doing anything. Then he saw the dailies and changed his mind.
“She was such an amazing actress, I think probably yes, he did learn from her by osmosis. I don’t know if they had conversations about it,” says Kate Burton. “Great film actors appear to be doing nothing.” She recalls seeing a taped version of Burton’s Hamlet on stage. “You see how over the top he is in sections.
It is really theatrical. Any great theater actor has to figure out how to minimize, how to navigate for the camera. It’s a big learning curve. But Dad was such a sponge. By osmosis he learned from her, and she learned an incredible amount, just acting together. It was a great acting partnership, as well as a marriage for a period of time.”
Sans Taylor, Kate Burton points to “Becket” and “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” as her father’s best screen work. “In the house, we regarded those as the great ones, as well as ‘1984,’ his last film. He should have been nominated for ‘1984,’ which would have been posthumous.” Burton died in 1984 at age 58.
Besides a real admiration for her father’s turns in “My Cousin Rachel” and “The Night of the Iguana,” Kate
Burton also has a special fondness for his acting with Clint Eastwood in the World War II actioner “Where Eagles Dare,” released in 1968. “He did that one for us kids, because we kept asking him, ‘Can you do a fun movie that we can go see?’
“It’s a funny thing about growing up with movie-star parents,” she continues. “It’s funny how it affects all of us. Some go into the business, some don’t. I took it in stride, I was able to weave it into the fabric of my life. Growing up in New York City, I lived 15 years in the same apartment with my mother, but my summers were off to some fabulous film set. Why do I feel comfortable on TV or film set, because
I’m really a theater actress? Well, I spent my summer vacations on film sets!”
And they ran the gamut, from Warner Bros. (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) to Shepperton and Pinewood (“Anne of the Thousand Days”) to Cinecitta (“The Taming of the Shrew”) and many others. She and Liza Todd were actually given cameos in “Anne,” and later Kate Burton had the opportunity to act with her father on CBS’ “Ellis Island” and PBS’ “Alice in Wonderland.”
“I’d played Alice on Broadway. For PBS, Dad played the White Knight. He was very supportive and came in and did his thing,” she recalls. “It’s sweet because my kids saw it, and he died before they were born.”
Kate Burton recently turned on TCM for its screening of “The Robe,” released in 1953 when her father was only 27. She watched it with her mother, Sybil Burton Christopher.
“I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and during the first third, man, he got an Oscar nomination for this?” she recalled, not entirely impressed. “Then he had his Oscar moment and became a madman and crucified Jesus! I forgot about that! It is hysterical to watch Dad when he is very theatrical.”
Her mother, however, offered a defense, noting, “Well, he didn’t have directors helping him. He had to come up with it himself.”
Kate Burton continues, “He did become a better film actor as he became older, when he got a great director and he’s not doing the Richard Burton voice. He worshipped at the shrine of Mike Nichols. He and Franco
Zeffirelli worked it out on ‘Taming of the Shrew.’ My dad got a little bit stuck in the 1960s and couldn’t move into the 1970s with some of the maverick directors, like Robert Altman. They weren’t there for him — until Michael Radford, who is brilliant, with ‘1984.’ ”
While that Richard Burton voice may have continued to charm Hollywood and Broadway, Kate Burton holds in highest regard “his stillness. There is a quiet power.”
And, of course, there is something else.
Watching “The Robe,” she says, “My God, he was so handsome!”
Her mother replies, “He sure was.”