The 12th of 13 children of a Welsh miner, actor Richard Burton left his humble environs by winning a scholarship to Oxford. Blessed with a thrillingly theatrical voice, Burton took to the stage, and, by 1949, had been tagged as one of Britain's most promising newcomers. Director Philip Dunne, who later helmed several of Burton's Hollywood films, would recall viewing a 1949 London staging of The Lady's Not for Burning and watching in awe as star John Gielgud was eclipsed by juvenile lead Richard Burton: "He 'took' the stage and kept a firm grip on it during every one of his brief appearances." A few years after his film debut in The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949), the actor was signed by 20th Century Fox, which had hopes of turning him into the new Lawrence Olivier -- although Burton was not quite able to grip films as well as he did the stage.
Aside from The Robe (1953), most of Burton's Fox films were disappointments, and the actor was unable to shake his to-the-rafters theatricality for the smaller scope of the camera lens. Still, he was handsome and self-assured, so Burton was permitted a standard-issue 1950s spectacle, Alexander the Great (1956). His own film greatness would not manifest itself until he played the dirt-under-the-nails role of Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger (1959). In this, he spoke the vernacular of regular human beings -- rather than that of high-priced, affected Hollywood screenwriters -- and delivered a jolting performance as a working-class man trapped by the system and his own personal demons. Following a well-received Broadway run in the musical Camelot, Burton was signed in 1961 to replace Stephen Boyd on the benighted film spectacular Cleopatra (1963). It probably isn't necessary to elaborate on what happened next, but the result was that Burton suddenly found himself an international celebrity, not for his acting, but for his tempestuous romance with co-star Elizabeth Taylor.