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Actor Richard Burton (1925-1984)

Actor Richard Burton (1925-1984)

“Which one?” he asked, when actor Richard Burton was told in 1957 that his father had died.  It was an odd question, but a legitimate one. Richard, indeed, did have more than one father. Was it his birth father, the poor Welsh coal miner, who had died? Or, was it his foster father, the British schoolmaster and BBC producer who taught Richard how to be a fine Shakespearean actor?

It was his birth father who had died. He was Richard Jenkins, 81, and he had died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Locally, in the coal pits and pubs, he was known as Dic Bach. His seven boys and four girls called him “Dadi Ni.” Richard Burton, named Richard Walter Jenkins at birth, was named after his father. When young Richard was born in 1925, his father was 49, his mother, Edith, 42. Edith would live only two more years; she would die giving birth to Richard’s younger brother, Graham.  As a result, at the tender age of two, Dadi Ni sent Richard away permanently to live with his older sister, Cecilia, and her violent miner of a husband in the nearby town of Port Talbot. Only occasionally did Dadi Ni come to visit Richard.

Graham and Richard (1925-1984) were the only Jenkins boys to escape the mines. The Jenkins brothers, Tom, Ifor, Will, David, and Verdun

grew tall like their mother, rugged and strong like their father, and [they] went down to the mines like their ancestors before them,” recalled Richard Burton’s sister, Hilda Jenkins Owens. (1)

Richard’s father Dic Jenkins often worked from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., six days a week, seeing the sun only on Sundays. Miner’s work was hell and Dic was a “right terror for his booze,” said one of the miners who had grown up in the village of Pontrhydyfen with the Jenkins.

Only his size, tiny, couldn’t be 5’2″ out of his boots. But drink! Bloody hollow legs!” (1)

The village was full of pubs – the Bird in Hand, Heart of Oak, Boar’s Head, Miners’ Arms, British Lion – and most of the miners went there, where the drinking was “tremendous and cheap.”

Dic Jenkins was severally alcoholic, going on drinking binges that lasted for days. Once he was burned in a mine fire. His daughters rubbed olive oil on his burned arms, which were then bandaged to his chest so he couldn’t use them at all. Even that didn’t stop him from drinking. He went straight to the pub and had pints of bitter poured directly down his throat. That night, walking home drunk from the pub, his arms strapped to his side, he was attacked and horribly beaten by an old enemy. His teeth were knocked out and he was thrown over a wall. He wasn’t found until the next morning. He survived and loved to tell the tale at the local pubs, again, over pints and pints of bitter.

Actor Richard Burton (l.), laughs with his father, Richard Jenkins, and brother Ifor Jenkins, 1953.

Actor Richard Burton (l.), laughs with his father, Richard Jenkins, and brother Ifor Jenkins, 1953.

Fortunately, when Richard was a teenager, his schoolmaster, Philip Burton, recognized his talent as an actor. Philip Burton became Richard’s foster father, adopting Richard as his ward, teaching him how to speak English without a Welsh accent, to use a knife and fork, and to dress and speak like an educated man. He taught him to read the classics. Richard left his sister’s house and moved in with Philip Burton.

Burton served as a navigator during WW2 in the British RAF. Here is shown as a RAF cadet, age 18.

Burton served as a navigator during WW2 in the British RAF. Here is shown as a RAF cadet, age 18. His eyesight was too poor to allow him to be a pilot.

 

In 1943, Richard changed his surname from Jenkins to Burton. Under Philip Burton’s tutelage, Richard Burton made his London stage debut at 18, and won a scholarship to Oxford. From them on, Richard would refer to Philip as his father.

Richard Burton did not attend his birth father’s funeral. Dic Jenkins had not approved of Richard’s choice of profession. He was actually very insulting about it. They did not have a close relationship.

Richard Burton had cast off his birthright, changed his name. He had escaped the mines. He had become an international film star, an accomplished stage actor, and had married perhaps the most beautiful woman in the world, actress Elizabeth Taylor.

During the filming of Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton find each other. The island of Ischia, Italy, 1962© Bert Stern, courtesy of Staley-Wise Gallery, New York

During the filming of Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton find each other. The island of Ischia, Italy, 1962© Bert Stern, courtesy of Staley-Wise Gallery, New York

And yet he could not escape his inheritance from Dic Jenkins –  a propensity for heavy drinking. In 1984 at age 58, Richard Burton would die – like his father – of a cerebral hemorrhage, his physical deterioration hastened by years of excess alcohol consumption. He had begun drinking alcohol regularly at the age of eleven. He used to boast that he could drink a half gallon of cognac or a fifth of whiskey during one night’s stage performance.

In 1980, Richard Burton appeared on the Dick Cavett show and spoke frankly about his personal struggle with alcohol:

(1) Kashner, Sam and Schoenberger, Nancy. Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.

For more on Richard Burton, click here.

 

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