By Louise Lague
August 20, 1984 12:00 PM

As the ambulance sped through the driving rain and thunder last Sunday morning in Céligny, a Swiss village on Lake Geneva, few of the 620 townspeople could know that it was carrying their most famous citizen. They knew Richard Burton, of course. In the 26 years that he had lived in the modest white stucco villa with grounds that sloped down toward the lake, they had met his four wives and a succession of other beautiful women in his company, they knew when he was drinking and when he was not, they heard of his professional triumphs and flops, they had followed the gaudy scandals besmirching his public image. He did not stay secluded behind the wrought iron fence and the hand-carved sign that reads “Pays de Galles” (Wales). He’d had his children baptized in the Swiss Protestant church on the village square and for years had taken them for walks in the leafy narrow streets. He had dined often in the two village restaurants. And he had even selected a place in the Céligny, cemetery where, on Aug. 9, he was scheduled to be buried.

Two nights before he was stricken, Burton had dined at the Café de la Gare with his fourth wife, Sally Hay, and actor John Hurt, who was staying with him for what was fated to be the last weekend of Burton’s life. By their affection, their admiration and even by their silence, the townspeople of Céligny telegraphed a fact strangely unrevealed during the long public lifetime of Richard Burton. Drunk or sober, he was never mean. He never forgot the small-town boy in himself, and he never evaded the small-town people in his life.

On Sunday afternoon at the villa’s white gate, Hurt, Burton’s co-star in his last movie, 1984, announced that Burton had died of a massive stroke. Inside the three-bedroom converted farmhouse, which has a library larger than the cottage where Burton was born, Sally was telephoning Pontrhydyfen, Wales, to summon the seven surviving siblings of his original dozen. A shocked Hilda Owen, who had been singing Welsh hymns in chapel when she learned the news, called Burton “a marvelous brother, looking after us all. We were a very close family and he was so very, very generous.” During a two-week stay with the Burtons last Easter, Owen said, “we had lunch with Sophia Loren, and then we went to see Roger Moore, and, of course, we were eating out in different hotels. We had a fantastic time. I’ve never seen him looking better.” Burton’s brother David, whom the actor treated to a Caribbean trip after his wife’s death last year, remembered, “I will treasure that forever. He treated us like kings and queens. He never forgot where his roots were and he would never deny his humble background.” Added his brother Verdun, “Richard had a deep longing to be with his family and friends in familiar surroundings—in Wales we call it hiraeth. The older he got, the stronger his longing became.”

The hiraeth, too, might have been a desire for stability in a life where all the elements—marriage, career, health—were never certain from one year to the next. Ironically, death came to Burton at a time when he had gotten his mercurial persona under some kind of control. He had been married for 13 months to Sally, a 36-year-old former BBC production aide, who watched his food and drink and guarded his failing health. He had found immense satisfaction filming a miniseries (CBS’ Ellis Island, to be aired this winter) with his actress-daughter Kate, 26, of whom he was intensely proud. (On the last day of filming Burton had asked a network exec, with his usual, irresistible charm, “I’m just a father, so my opinion doesn’t count, but isn’t she awfully good?”) He had just wrapped his role in the British movie 1984, which, said director Michael Radford, was only the eighth of the 50-odd Burton films that he really wanted to see.

“He took the part very seriously, in a way he had not taken a film seriously for quite a long time,” said 1984 producer Simon Perry. “We were worried about him when he was working with us. He wasn’t ill but he seemed very frail. He didn’t touch a drop and he went to bed early. He thought we were ridiculously young, and he liked the idea that somehow he was involved in the new wave of British filmmaking. Richard would keep us spellbound with his stories of Victor Mature and Elizabeth Taylor, whom he referred to as E.T.”

Director Radford noticed that Burton and Sally were “amazingly happy. He seemed to have settled and to come to some sort of renewal of himself. He’d entered a different phase of his life. He had a kind of elder statesman air about him.” Burton accepted Radford’s attempts to tone down his power onscreen. “Whenever I said, ‘Richard, you’re overdoing it a bit,’ he would say, ‘Oh, I’m doing a Burton.’ He said, ‘Listen, Michael, for 20 years I’ve had the most famous voice in the world. I just want to make one film without it.’ The upshot is he gives a performance like he hasn’t given for 20 years.”

Radford put his finger on the deep conflict that wracked Burton’s life. “I think there was something in his soul that despised making movies for a living. He despised it on two levels—first as a Welshman, a miner’s son, and second because he regarded stage acting as more important.”

Drinking was always part of his life. His father, coal miner Thomas Jenkins, was a drunk who died in a bar at 83. Richard’s mother had succumbed when he was 2, and he was raised by a married older sister.

He was 13 when he caught the notice of Philip Burton, the teacher who would become his mentor, instruct him in the classics, erase his Welsh accent (though he continued to the end to speak the language), and eventually give him his name. “I was first drawn by his brilliant mind,” recalls Philip Burton. At Oxford, which Richard attended for six months on a scholarship, he distinguished himself as an actor—and a drinker who could guzzle two pints of beer in 30 seconds. He left for the war to serve as a navigator with the Royal Air Force, then returned to the stage, appearing in a 1949 production of The Lady’s Not for Burning which later went to New York. That same year he married Sybil Williams, a Welsh coal miner’s daughter who had also taken up acting, and began a dichotomous decade during which he was a respected Shakespearean actor at the Old Vic in London and a contract performer in the U.S. with 20th Century Fox.

In Hollywood Burton caroused with Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, with whom he shared an interest in acting—and alcohol. “I could hold my own with anybody,” Burton once said, “but Spencer could really put it away. Bogie was more civilized. We’d meet at Romanoff’s, have a bottle of wine with lunch, then brandy and Benedictine, then home for a nap, then start again at sevenish.”

Though he deservedly got Oscar nominations for 1952’s My Cousin Rachel and 1953’s The Robe and in fact would get seven Oscar nominations in his career, Burton never won an Academy Award. After a series of mediocre films, an offer to do something different—sing—brought him to Broadway as King Arthur of Camelot in 1960 and made him a full-blown star. “Richard would amaze me,” recalls co-star Julie Andrews. “There was a big speech and depending on his mood, he would play it for laughs or play it straight for tears. The audience reaction was phenomenal.”

Though still married to Sybil and now the father of two girls, Burton was a free and roistering spirit. Columnist Jim Bacon told of the time Burton left Sybil in a restaurant to go to the men’s room, met a girl he knew at the bar and disappeared for three days with her. In 1961 when Fox summoned him to Rome to play Anthony in the $44 million bust Cleopatra, Burton fell insanely in love with Elizabeth Taylor. His life changed for good, and, some would say, for bad. Burton told British columnist Roderick Mann, “A lot of Elizabeth’s glamour did wash off on me, and of course my price went up, by a half million dollars a picture. But I was genuinely in love. I felt I didn’t know the meaning of the word before.” Over the years it became clear that the Liz and Dick saga was no ordinary dalliance. Their first marriage lasted a decade—an astonishing commitment for both of them—but their love lasted to the end, long after they were able to live together. On the day he died Sally Hay called Elizabeth, after informing his Welsh family.

During the halcyon years from their 1964 wedding to their 1974 divorce, the Burtons epitomized glamour. He gave her a $500,000 yacht and a $1.2 million, 69.42 carat diamond. He brought her home to drink with the coal miners in Wales, and occasionally to Céligny, where she was not the locals’ favorite wife. (They preferred Sybil and Sally.)

Onscreen, the Burton-Taylor partnership prospered through nearly a dozen celebrated movies. Whether they were good (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) or bad (The Sandpiper) the fans flocked to see a legendary couple in action.

His old friends worried. Laurence Olivier begged him to choose between “being an actor and a household word.” The critics wondered why on earth this fine actor was squandering his skills. “He never fought back, never excused himself, never said the critics were wrong,” observed Mann, “because in his heart he knew they were not. I thought the marriage tore him in two. Fifty percent of him had wanted to marry Taylor, knowing that fame and fortune would accrue. The other half bitterly resented what he had done. So he drank.”

The nadir for Burton came during the filming of The Klansmen with Lee Marvin in 1974. “That is a picture,” Burton said, “I hardly recall making.” And little wonder. He drank vodka on the rocks from a coffee cup by day and double martinis most of the night, recalled Jim Bacon. Elizabeth left him. He dried out but doctors told him another two weeks like that would kill him. That year, Burton said later, “I got my first hangover.”

Afterward he began trying to keep his drinking down to wine at dinner and the occasional binge. His reform was convincing enough to win Liz back in 1975 for a second wedding, but their reunion lasted only a year.

Burton did not remain alone for long. Within that year he met and married model Susan Hunt. As powerfully attractive to women as he was magnetic onstage, Burton was driven constantly to new conquests. “He accepted his womanizing as he accepted his drinking problem,” says Philip Burton. “But regardless of what he said publicly, he didn’t like it about himself.”

Susan clamped down on his drinking and encouraged him to make a Broadway comeback in Equus. The 1977 movie version won him his final Oscar nomination, but Burton was too wedded to his opulent life-style to maintain a high standard of acting. He played in some truly dismal films—Exorcist II was a horror—quite frankly for the money. “I’ve made more millions than I can count,” he said. “But you know, it’s a faerie gold—the tax people take most of it, and the rest goes to people you need to stay alive, places to live, conveyances to get from here to there.”

The 1980 revival of Camelot was both a compliment and a trial. Crippled by bursitis and disintegrating vertebrae, Burton missed one performance because he was too dizzy from painkillers, and dropped out after nine months to have surgery. He was never robust again.

He recovered enough to do a 1982 television movie titled Wagner, which was important mainly because he met Sally Hay on the set. The next year he agreed to play opposite Elizabeth Taylor in an ill-starred stage tour of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. “He rashly did Private Lives,” said his friend John Gielgud. “That was a terrible fiasco. I said to him, ‘You aren’t really going to do Private Lives, are you?’ And he said, ‘Well, I expect Elizabeth will make me.’ ”

Working with Burton in Private Lives, actor John Cullum came to understand why he rejected the reproaches of his peers. “It finally dawned on me that Richard was not fulfilling what other people wanted,” Cullum said. “He took acting as seriously as he wanted to take it. It’s easy for other people to think he was unfulfilled, but Richard was tremendously satisfied and vital.”

Richard Burton battled warring demons during his 58 years: The coal miner’s son sought wealth and excess, while the classics scholar demanded discipline and professional purity. “I’ve got the weight of a rather tempestuous life to carry,” he once observed. In the end the burden was too much for even Burton’s brave spirit to bear.

Written by LOUISE LAGUE from bureau reports