The Law of Contact

Memories of Richard Burton

by Rex Bromfield - September 2015

Richard Burton came to my home town, Toronto, in 1981 to do a film called "Circle of Two" in which he played a 60 year old painter who falls hopelessly in love with a schoolgirl (Tatum O'Neal). At the time I had made a “no-budget” feature film called Love At First Sight and was anxious to further my career. When the government film funding agency announced a beginning director's observer program that would pay local aspiring directors to shadow name directors visiting from abroad, most of my colleagues balked. The government, in its inimitable way, had managed to insult all of us by suggesting that the work we'd struggled to produce thus far was not up to snuff and that we needed more training. But when I learned that Jules Dassin (Topkapi, The Naked City, Never on Sunday) was one of these visiting directors, I set my ego aside and signed up to be his apprentice. ($25 per day - whoopie!) That was where I met and became friends with Richard Burton. Richard and I started hanging out together. I knew my way around town pretty well and Richard liked the out of the way spots where the attention of fans might not be an intrusion. Not that he minded it, but it did get to be a problem at times. He explained that it wasn't unusual for some drunk guy out on a date to come up to him and try to pick a fight - probably to impress their date. I thought this was very weird, but sure enough, one night while we were having a drink in the bar of the Westbury Hotel (a pretty respectable place) this drunk comes weaving over to us and starts up with the "I'll bet you're not such a big man" and "come one put 'em up." I like to say that I tried to get in between them, the fact is, I was caught in the middle. But, still, my instinct was to protect Richard. I stood on rubbery legs, but Richard pushed me gently aside and went into a performance that floored everyone in the place. It wasn't long but it was brilliant. I won't try to recount his words; I was scared breathless to tell the truth. This guy wasn't small. Instead of belittling his attacker Richard flattered him in such a back handed way that it went right over his head but got to everyone else in the room. It was a thing to behold. Just like something out of the movies, only better. He'd obviously confronted this situation many times before. I think the traffic down in the street even stopped. Burton was amazing. Soon he had his arm around the guy's shoulder, directed him back to his date and ordered them a round. I thought the woman was going to pass out when he addressed her with that smile everyone knows.

Richard was a real pro. I can't think of another actor who could have made the lustful old man in Circle of Two as sympathetic as he did.

It was a sad day at the airport when he left. Richard Burton was a great man, even more so in real life than on the screen - and that's saying something.

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