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TV Documentary Shows Two Sides of Richard Burton Legend

RICHARD BURTON: IN FROM THE COLD PBS, Friday, 9-10 p.m. First of two-part `Great Performances' documentary (check local listings). WHEN [Richard Burton] came to Oxford as an undergraduate in 1944, he had an astounding beauty,'' recalls one acquaintance midway through this two-hour, two-part portrait of the famous Welsh stage actor. He had ``a blend of classic Greek serenity and smoldering Celtic fires emanating from mystery and humor, and above all from the fires of enormous laughter. His laughs have always been as infectious as his rages can be terrifying...''

Born Richard Jenkins in Pontrhydyfen, Wales, in 1925, Burton was the 12th child of an impoverished coal miner. Untrained in theater, he ``came from nowhere,'' according to John Gielgud, and by age 25 was acknowledged by both him and Laurence Olivier as one of the greatest stage actors of his time. Ten years later he hobnobbed with the greatest in Hollywood (as well as prominent political figures) and later won seven Oscar nominations.

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Despite his gifts of looks, voice, presence, drive, and a steel-trap memory (he could recite many of Shakespeare's sonnets backwards), the legend of Richard Burton was laced with the tragedy of alcohol that led to his death at age 58 in 1954.

``Like a lot of actors, Richard began to confuse seeming with being,'' recalls director Mike Nichols. ``Once he took the leap into movie-magazine immortality with Elizabeth Taylor, he left behind any core of being and was entirely surrounded by seeming. And that left him very lonely.''

Though the portrait is pieced together from numerous interviews with friends and family, one strength is that Burton himself tells many of the anecdotes. A mild and reflective Burton recounts his boyhood in Wales, and also how he answered an ad for an actor who could speak Welsh - knowing he could speak the Welsh but not knowing if he could act. He says he changed his voice from relative weakness to thundering power by going to the top of a mountain and yelling until his voice hurt.

Interspersed are comments from such figures as Philip Burton, the teacher who eventually became his legal guardian; Emlyn Williams, the Welsh playwright credited with discovering Burton; and Melvyn Bragg, his biographer.

The program includes excerpts from Burton's film and stage roles, though one great weakness is the film's conspicuous avoidance, with limited exception, of identifying them.

This portrait touts itself as a ``sympathetic but unblinking examination of a supremely gifted artist locked in mortal combat with his own inner demons.'' But whereas Part One promises to show eventually how Burton transcended his shortcomings, Part Two deteriorates into a tawdry and tabloid-type recounting of his downfall, starting with his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. This portion is punctuated with highly passionate music that portends tragedy like a bad melodrama.

The film may not answer its own question of whether Burton was ``a genius or a dissipated movie star,'' but rather unwittingly gives ample evidence that he was both - and neither.

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``Richard was interested in a lot of superficial stuff ... things, possessions, position...'' says Lauren Bacall. But according to lifelong friend, Brook Williams: ``He needed nothing but a hot shower and a light to read by.''

Despite its weaknesses, ``In From the Cold'' still succeeds for its sheer amount of information. Whichever side of the Burton story you lean to, it becomes hard to disagree with this quote by Brook Williams: ``If he passed through your life, he lit something in you, and I don't think it ever goes out.''

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