Richard Burton, the Alcoholic


Recently, I read a book by Robert Sellers titled “Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed” (Amazon page). Written in 2008, the book is strictly meant to entertain, a series of drunken misadventures involving four British movie stars, as collected by Sellers. These men knew each other, sometimes worked together, sometimes got drunk together and sometimes got into fights. The stories in the book make it clear that they enjoyed their escapades, and we the readers are supposed to as well. And we do, up to a certain point. And that comes pretty early in the book; essentially, it’s just one story piled on top of another. Just when you thought one of these guys couldn’t get any drunker, or do something even crazier, then BOOM!

Sellers’s writing makes you feel like he’s sitting next to you with a pint, constantly nudging your side with his elbow, wanting you to be one of the lads at the pub. He admires these guys and not because they are and were great actors, but for their ability to drink like there’s no tomorrow. Anyone who doesn’t share this sentiment is a bore, we’re made to understand. Believe me, I’m far from a teetotaler; hell, I’m not even entirely sober writing this. But that book made me feel a little queasy. Then I found this clip above, an interview Dick Cavett made with Richard Burton in 1980, a time when the star tried to stay away from alcohol. The clip shows an aging man with a tortured face, uncomfortably talking about his drinking as a disease (“you’re always fighting […] every day is a fight”). The clip ends with Burton looking straight into the camera telling not only other alcoholics but their families that they have his deepest sympathy. Not so funny anymore, is it?

Peter O’Toole is the sole survivor of these men. Oliver Reed died of a heart attack in 1999, his career suffering badly from his excessive, drunken behavior. Richard Harris’s work also suffered from his favorite pastime habit, which ultimately made him look twenty years older than his age in the 1990s; he passed away in 2002. As for Burton, he died in 1984 at the age of 58. A stroke killed him, as expected from a heavy drinker and smoker.

I don’t want to sound judgmental. I love what these actors have contributed to the art of cinema. But I do object to glorifying the disease they fell victim to.

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One thought on “Richard Burton, the Alcoholic”

  1. I often wonder how many more years and great movies these last movie greats would have had, if not for the damage this type of lifestyle put on them. I know part of the elure of these actors is their real life behaviour; yet i would have preferred they left that out and made more movies and lived longer.

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