April 07, 1986 12:00 PM

by Hollis Alpert

Alpert, former film critic for Saturday Review, has written a canny if unspectacular biography of the actor who died at 58 of a brain hemorrhage in 1984. The book, filled with gossipy anecdotes, divides Burton’s life into two parts: before Elizabeth Taylor and after Elizabeth Taylor. We see young Welshman Richard Jenkins (who later adopted the name of his acting mentor, Philip Burton) rise from peddling horse and cow manure to become heir apparent to Laurence Olivier as Britain’s greatest stage actor. Then we get to the good stuff. Taylor and Burton first laid eyes upon each other in 1952 at the Bel Air home of Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger. Alpert quotes Burton as describing the scene this way: “I worked my way over to her. She was describing—in words not normally written—what she thought of a producer at MGM. I was profoundly shocked. It was ripe stuff.” Burton later noted to a friend, “She probably shaves.” Was this love at first sight, or what? After Taylor entered his life, Burton virtually abandoned theater for Hollywood’s big bucks. Alpert notes that Burton’s excruciatingly poor childhood left him obsessed with making money. (Humphrey Bogart touched a nerve when he told Burton, “I never knew a man who played Hamlet who didn’t die broke.”) Once Burton met Taylor, though, he learned that the quickest way to her heart was through her jewelry box. “I introduced Elizabeth to beer,” Burton once said. “She introduced me to Bulgari.” Alpert’s writing style is straightforward and dry; the book sometimes has all the charm of a term paper. Yet, there are tender moments. Working with his actress daughter Kate in TV’s 1984 Ellis Island mini-series, he whispered to her, “Bring it down, Kate,” after she began a scene histrionically. There are some other shrewd observations as well. “He was in love with ruin,” says Mike Nichols, who directed Burton and Taylor in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “He was enthralled with the idea of large, romantic self-destruction.” Overall Burton comes off as a likable, witty, decent man. But the most titillating chapters are still those involving Taylor. Even in his own biography, the man is upstaged by his former wife. (Putnam, $16.95)

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