There must be something in the water in the Afan and Llynfi Valleys that creates wonderful voices. Within a stone's throw of each other come Anthony Hopkins, Martin Sheen, Katherine Jenkins, Ivor Emanuel, Rebecca Evans and perhaps the smoothest voice of them all - Richard Burton.
Born Richard Walter Jenkins at Pontrhydyfen in 1925, Burton was the twelfth child of thirteen born into a mining family. Just two when his mother died, Richard was brought up by his sister 'Cis' in Port Talbot. His brother Ifor, who was 19 years older, also played a crucial role in Richard’s life, eventually becoming his personal assistant.
In 1943, to help his chances of going to Oxford, Richard took the surname of his legal guardian Philip Burton, who had steered him through troubled teenage years. Philip had coached Richard’s voice, making him recite Shakespeare on the hills above Port Talbot, until he learnt that it was distinctiveness that mattered and not necessarily volume. He developed what is probably the greatest acting voice ever: if you’ve heard him reciting Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood its rich, velvety tone will undoubtedly still haunt you. He loved the spoken language and narrated for BBC radio throughout his career.
For his screen debut in 1948 in Last Days of Dolwyn, he was cast as a Valleys boy made good – which became the story of his life! He was nominated for an Academy Award on seven occasions. His most celebrated film performances include roles as Mark Antony in Cleopatra (1963), Thomas a Becket in Becket (1964), Henry VIII in Anne of the Thousand Days (1970) and as O’Brien in 1984 (1984). By the height of his career he was charging $1 million per film. But he never forgot his Welsh roots. He had it written into all his contracts that he did not work on March 1 – St David’s Day.
He met Liz Taylor on the set of Cleopatra the most expensive film of its time, although their most successful picture together was Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In which they played their roles with uncomfortable realism. When he was awarded a CBE in 1970 he took his sister Cis and Elizabeth with him to Buckingham Palace. He died in Geneva on August 5th 1984 of a cerebral haemorrhage, just 58.
He was buried with a copy of the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas.
Where to Visit?
Richard was born in Pontrhydyfen - why not explore this Valleys' village with its historic aqueduct. Download the Richard Burton Trail leaflets here:
After his mother's death Richard Burton lived in Port Talbot with his sister.
Richard Burton Trail
Explore the area where Richard Burton grew up
10 November 1925
05 August 1984