Richard Burton on The Dick Cavett Show July 1980 (FULL) PLUS Cavett's reminiscence of the interview.

  • Published on:  7/10/2012
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    He was sitting in front of his dressing room mirror after a tiring performance of "Camelot," removing his make-up for the who knows how many thousandth time. Paler, with the greasepaint cleansed from the famous face, he managed to look, simultaneously, handsome, vibrant and worn.

    "Richard has been entertaining the idea of doing your show, Mr. Cavett," a man who appeared to be both valet and companion said.

    "And letting the idea entertain him," the Welshman intoned in that unmistakable voice.

    In fact, Richard Burton was still pondering whether to do my show, and it was thought that my visiting him backstage informally might help.

    I tried to imagine what fears or hesitations Burton might have about appearing with me. Could he be afraid that the rich voice, those rugged good looks, the manly erotic charm, the hypnotic blue eyes, the articulacy, the fine wit and the ready storehouse of classical and modern literary quotations and allusions were not quite enough to qualify him for sitting next to Cavett? (Did anyone think, just now, that I was describing myself?)

    Could he really think that maybe a boy from Nebraska — who had only been to Yale and not, as he had, Oxford — might outshine all those charms? As my Aunt Eva would say, "The very idea!"

    Hoping for the effect of light humor, I said, "I hope I don't frighten you, Mr. Burton."

    "No, Mr. Cavett, you do not. I do that to myself."

    I liked him immensely.

    Even under regression hypnosis, Richard would probably not have recalled how we had briefly met about a quarter of a century earlier when only one of us had a familiar name, but more of that anon.

    Memories of that night backstage: Richard's expertly flipping a single, long Marlboro — the mendaciously advertised "light" version — from its box, contemplating it for a moment in a manner that brought to mind an actor holding Yorick's skull, and saying, as if a little embarrassed to be lighting up, "Looks like these lethal goddamn things will be with me to the end of my days."

    "And hastening them," I decided not to say. Later, with us knowing each other better, he wouldn't have minded and would have had a wry response.

    Then came the best thing.

    Leaving the theater by the stage door required crossing the wide New York State Theater stage. The "Camelot' sets had been struck for the night and the house and stage were dark; dark except for the murky bulb in a cage on a stand downstage center — the thing known in the theater world as "the ghost light," an aptly named light that somehow manages to make a vast, dark space seem darker and spookier than it would with no light at all.

    What happened next was in the too-good-to-be-true category. Burton stopped near the light, his coat draped over one shoulder, gazed out at the empty house, tilted his head back and, with the famous, full chiming resonance, began, "O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention . . . " — and went right on through that ringing prologue to "Henry the Fifth" (known to actors as "Hank Cinq").

    Goose flesh manifested.

    He was standing no more than a yard from me, and I thought, "Talk about front-row seats!" Unforgettable.

    Maybe our meeting did the trick. A day or two later, Burton agreed to do the show. But, sadly, requested that there be no studio audience. I felt sorry for a bunch of strangers I would never meet who would never know what they missed.

    You can do a good show without an audience, but I knew from experience that audiences sometimes buoyed guests who at first feared them.

    "What if I made a deal with you?" I dared. "Since they already have their tickets, why don't we start with them and if you feel uncomfortable we'll tell them there's a technical problem and we have to stop for that day and see them out?"

    This gambit could accomplish one of two things: (a) he would feel sorry for the disappointed folks and relent, or (b) I would learn how to say "bugger off" in Welsh.

    He accepted the offer.
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