The eyes, a clear Welsh blue, are her father’s, and so is the strong Celtic chin. The aspirations, too, are similar: Shakespeare and Shaw and a modest sprinkling of Noël Coward. Yet despite the remarkably close physical and artistic kinship, Kate Burton, named after the tempestuous heroine in The Taming of the Shrew, has sometimes found it troublesome being Richard Burton’s daughter. “Early on, I thought my father’s business was frivolous,” explains Kate, 26. “I wanted to do something more meaningful.” Later, after she too had gone on the stage, there were still problems. “People thought: ‘Oh, she can’t act. She’s successful because she’s Richard Burton’s daughter,’ ” Kate gripes. “They’re pleasantly surprised when they realize I’m more than passable.”
Far more than passable, to judge by her credits. Only two years out of the Yale School of Drama, she has already performed in her third Broadway show, Doonesbury. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s first play got tepid reviews and its audiences dwindled, but the satirical musical will go on tour. “Audiences really enjoyed it,” protests Kate, who played J.J., a savvy college kid in overalls. She found the role an absorbing change of pace after playing two period pieces: Coward’s Present Laughter, starring George C. Scott, and Alice in Wonderland, in which Kate played the title role. Later, when Alice was made into a PBS-TV special, “Dada,” as Kate calls Richard, joined his daughter and gallantly played a cameo in the production as the White Knight.
Kate recently began sporting a discreet engagement diamond on her left hand. Her fiancé is Michael Ritchie, 26, the production stage manager at Broadway’s Circle in the Square theater (where Kate played a daffy debutante in Present Laughter). “At first I thought he was a cool dude, the kind of guy I usually stayed away from. He was very together,” she says. Gradually, Michael won Kate over. “He’s calm and unobsessive and he loves me,” she says. “He couldn’t give a hoot who my father is.”
Ritchie does care, however, as does Kate, about the precariousness of theater life. “We want to get more financially stable and save some money before we get married,” explains Kate, who doesn’t foresee a wedding this year. “I’d like to have a couple of kids before I’m 30, and I’d like to have the economic means to give my children everything I can.”
This is a surprisingly level-headed reaction for the product of a chaotic childhood. The marriage of her Welsh mother, Sybil, to Burton came asunder in 1964 after Richard and Elizabeth Taylor fell in love on the set of Cleopatra. Sybil later opened a discotheque called Arthur in Manhattan and married rock singer Jordan Christopher, 12 years her junior. The marriage turned out to be a long-lasting one, and Kate grew up with them as “a crazed New York kid.” Once or twice a year, she was dispatched to some exotic European port to cruise with Richard and Elizabeth on their yacht, Kalizma.
Dada, in his fashion, was a doting parent over the years, calling regularly and sending gifts. When it came time to buy his daughter her first car, Richard selected not a Jaguar or a Mercedes, but a Volvo. “He said it was like a tank,” Kate says wryly.
Burton was similarly conservative when it came to Kate’s career choice. A taste of acting during her undergraduate years at Brown University had encouraged her to abandon plans to be a diplomat. Her subsequent decision to apply to the Yale School of Drama left her father nonplussed.
“That was the big showdown,” recalls Kate. “He said: ‘You went to an Ivy League school for four years. Why be an actor? It’s a rough profession. It’s hard to have a private life.’ I told him: ‘Yeah, but I know what I’m getting into. You didn’t. You were 19 years old, a little guy who suddenly became the hope of the theater. You didn’t know what was happening.’ ”
So Burton’s strong-willed daughter enrolled at Yale and soon Richard was eagerly supporting her career. When Kate got some bad reviews in Alice, Burton was livid. “It was like: ‘Get out a lynch mob!’ ” says Kate.
Undaunted, she is busy auditioning for new parts, and will even consider commercials, though not, she says, “deodorant or breath-mint ones.” Self-sufficient as well as tough-skinned, she is determined to make it on her own. Her new Manhattan apartment is sparsely furnished with relics from her college days. The Betamax and tape deck Richard gave her were stolen in a break-in, and Kate has no plans to replace them. Moreover, though she lives only a few blocks from the celebrity eatery Elaine’s, she has not stepped inside. “I can’t afford it,” she complains. “A little plate of mozzarella and tomatoes is $7 or something.”
With her independent streak, did Kate ever consider shedding her famous name? “Yes,” she admits. “For about 10 minutes in college I thought of changing it to Jenkins [her father’s name until he adopted that of his mentor, schoolmaster Philip Burton]. Then I realized that I’d just be Kate Jenkins, Richard Burton’s daughter.”