Kate Burton: Daddy's girl

She may be making her West End debut, but Kate Burton is a seasoned pro of stage and screen. She tells Sam Marlowe about her career and her memories of Richard, her extraordinary father

Thursday 27 March 2003 01:00
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My meeting with Kate Burton begins inauspiciously. I arrive at London's Playhouse Theatre, where she is appearing in Chekhov's Three Sisters alongside Kristin Scott Thomas and Madeleine Worrall, to be met by an anxious company manager. Burton is nowhere to be seen. Ten minutes later, the phone rings. It's Burton – she's running late. Can I meet her at Starbucks? I go to the coffee bar and wait. Ten more minutes pass. Then I spot a striking red-haired woman outside, gesticulating impatiently. Determined jaw line, piercing, blue-green gaze – this has to be Richard Burton's daughter. "There are two Starbucks on this street," she says, irritated. "I've been at the other one."

For Burton, 45, the proliferation of branches of this US chain must make London feel like home. She is Welsh and was born in Switzerland, but is a confirmed Manhattanite. She has mainstream movies such as Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful, Woody Allen's Celebrity, and Ang Lee's The Ice Storm under her belt. But her most substantial work has been on stage in the US, where her credits includeThe Elephant Man andHedda Gabler on Broadway. Three Sisters is her West End debut.

Back in her dressing-room, she applies make-up in preparation for the photographs, our earlier misunderstanding forgotten. She is warm and friendly, with a loud, throaty laugh. But she is also every inch the sharp, smart New Yorker, and I suspect she is used to exerting a firm control over meetings such as this. As she dabs on foundation, she spots the photographer and raises a defensive hand to protect her face. "I'll let you know when it's OK," she says. "I mean, you can totally hang out, but please don't take any photographs yet."

Kate Burton had to get used to intrusive lenses at an early age. The daughter of Richard Burton and the actress Sybil Williams, she was three and a half when her father fell for Elizabeth Taylor. Sybil responded with almost superhuman dignity and unselfishness. "She's extraordinary; she always put her children first, no matter what," says Kate. "Everyone regards Mom and Dad breaking up as this terrible thing, and at the time it was. But it changed her life in the most positive way." Sybil moved to New York, opened a nightclub and met the actor and musician Jordan Christopher, who was 12 years her junior. They married in 1965.

Things were more difficult for Taylor and Burton. "Dad's relationship with Elizabeth was wonderful, but also tumultuous," she says. "And the media were on them, morning, noon and night. It was awful." Burton and Taylor were, famously, married twice, in 1964, and then again, for less than a year, in 1975. Asked what ultimately destroyed their relationship, she responds with candid common sense. "In any relationship, you don't know what goes on behind closed doors. Only the two people know. And even they have two different versions of events. So who the heck knows?"

Despite the glare of publicity, Kate's childhood memories are sunny. She lived with her mother in New York, and went to the United Nations school, along with the children of George C Scott, Christopher Plummer, and Malcolm X. Summers were spent with her father and Taylor, on movie sets, taking trips, or aboard the couple's yacht. There was no shortage of playmates: Elizabeth had three children from previous marriages, and she and Richard also had an adopted daughter, Maria. "Dad and Elizabeth lavished us with love. It was dreamy."

She remains close to her extended family, including all three stepmothers – Richard Burton married Susie Hunt in 1976, and Susie Hay in 1983. By contrast, Kate has been happily married to the theatre producer Michael Ritchie for 19 years, and they have two children, Charlotte, five, and Morgan, 15. But there is a darker side to her story. Kate's younger sister, Jessica, is severely autistic and lives in an institution in the US. "It's terribly sad," she says, gently. "But I'm incredibly grateful, and so was Dad, that earned so much money that, if the rest of us went up in a puff of smoke tomorrow, Jessica would still get the very best care."

Alcohol abuse has also taken its toll on the family. Richard Burton was a notorious alcoholic; Kate's maternal grandfather and stepfather, Jordan Christopher also drank. Her father's alcoholism persisted until his death in 1984 from a cerebral haemorrhage. "Alcoholism isn't a character flaw – it's a disease," says Kate. "If you have an alcoholic in the family, you must seek help. It's not some terrible secret – so many people have to deal with it."

Whatever his demons, Richard was always, she says, deeply affectionate and intensely proud of her – even if their shared stubbornness sometimes led to clashes. After leaving school, Burton studied Russian and history at Brown University, and planned to become a diplomat. But, spending the summer after graduation with a drama-student friend, she experienced "an epiphany", and knew she had to act. "Dad was horrified. But I said, look, let me give it a try. If it doesn't work out, I promise I'll do something else."

So she got her way, and won a place at the prestigious Yale School of Drama. Two weeks before graduating, she was cast in a Broadway production of Noël Coward's Present Laughter. Her father came to see it, "and he was so cute! He was a nervous wreck!" He needn't have worried – Kate was a success. She wasn't so lucky with her second job, a stage version of Alice in Wonderland. "I knew on the first day of rehearsal that it was terrible," she groans. The critics agreed, and Richard was outraged on Kate's behalf. To her horror, he announced that he, Olivier and Gielgud would launch an attack on The New York Times. "I said, 'Dad, please don't do that. I'm embarrassed enough'. But that was typical, he really was the doting dad."

Since then, she hasn't looked back. She is thrilled to be in the West End, and numbers Three Sisters, Chekhov's drama of provincial boredom and stifled emotions, among her favourite plays. A copy in the original Russian lies on her dressing-table among the brushes and powders. She plays Olga, a frustrated schoolteacher fighting her desire for her sister's husband. "It's a story about relationships, about a group of vibrant, interesting characters who are not easily definable. And," she twinkles, "there's a lot of sex in it. Everyone's in love with the wrong person."

Put like that, it almost sounds like the story of Richard Burton's life. But in Kate herself, her mother's pragmatism and generosity seem happily married to her father's determination and passion. These qualities are most evident when she recalls working on Broadway in the aftermath of September 11. "It was a very scary time, but we felt we had to keep going. We have to help each other, we have to know why we're alive. That's what it's all about." She examines her face, now immaculately made up, in the mirror. Then, laying down her lip brush, she says to the photographer, "OK, I've reached a point of acceptability." And she turns towards the lens and smiles.

'Three Sisters' is previewing at the Playhouse Theatre, London WC2 (020-7369 1785). It opens on 3 April

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