Friday, March 13, 2015

An Evening with Richard Burton

My good friend James Rosin, author and actor, told me a great story the other day and I asked him to type it up and send it to me, to share with you. The following below is from Jim.

It was the spring of 1970. I was an aspiring 23-year-old actor living in Los Angeles. I was studying acting with Estelle Harman, a reputable acting teacher in Hollywood, and working as a bartender at the renown Beverly Hills Hotel, decked out in pink and green on Sunset Blvd.

Richard Burton
This was not your typical commercial hotel. A lot of notable people stayed there because it was somewhat small and private. In back were a series of bungalows which provided a safe haven for the reclusive, including Howard Hughes, who once lived there. Downstairs were a series of shops, plus a beautiful ballroom, where larger-scale events were held. The room had lots of history. For example, in 1941, the wedding reception for Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor took place there.

Although we had entered a new decade and were into the “consciousness movement,” the hotel still retained a flavor of a past era. For example, in addition to the Rodeo Room (where parties were held) was a formal dining room, and a festive nightclub room with a dance band playing pop standards.  Dominique, the pretty cigarette girl, always dressed in black, wandered throughout the hotel as did Buddy Douglas, the page who stood about three feet high, and portrayed the same in some memorable Phillip Morris commercials.

I usually worked the day shift in the well-known Polo Lounge where phones were a fixture on most of the booths. It was a fun place for me as many industry people came in for lunch or cocktails. They included Jane Wyman, Mervyn LeRoy, Rock Hudson, Orson Welles, Ben Gazzara, Jacquline Bisset, Ringo Starr, Agnes Moorehead, James Caan, Tina Louise, Suzanne Pleshette, Roy Thinnes, Christopher and Linda Day George, Johnny Carson, plus many others.

Some found their way to my small and intimate bar. The actors I remember with a fondness include Dick Van Dyke, Pat O’Brien, Kennan Wynn, Paul Burke, Alex Cord, Carl Betz and boxer Billy Conn. Some of my other customers included Van Heflin, Jack Palance, Laurence Harvey, Lex Barker, David Hedison, Sylvia Miles, Frank Perry and Lawrence Dobkin.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
Sometimes I would do night duty for a party or banquet. One Wednesday afternoon, the head bartender called and asked me to come in that night to work a small cocktail party. It was to be hosted by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor for all the actors who were nominated but didn’t win at the Academy Awards, held two nights before.

The party would take place on the Lanai Terrace, a small and narrow room overlooking the tennis courts. I was set up at a portable bar and ready for the small get-together. Richard Burton was a bit reclusive from the guests and stood by my bar for huge periods of time with his P.R. representative, John Springer. He was a bit put off by the Academy Awards experience. At one point he said to Springer: “You know, Elizabeth and I spend our whole lives trying to avoid the masses and then she has to go and be a presenter at that ceremony.” At that moment I felt for him. I realized that achieving fame curtailed a huge amount of individual freedom.

Burton was “on the wagon” that night and throughout the evening he would turn to me and say, “ Well, hit me with my old soda water.” I truly liked him. He possessed a pleasant demeanor. He was a handsome man with crystal-clear blue eyes that belied a sensitive and gentle soul. I remembered as a small boy watching him in The Robe, and that final scene where both he and Jean Simmons are condemned. They ultimately leave the palace with the sky behind them symbolizing their eventual ascent to heaven. (Ironically, four years later I would act in an episode of Banacek and meet Jay Robinson, the actor who played the twisted Caesar who condemned them. Robinson too, was a very nice and down-to-earth man diametrically opposed to the man he portrayed on screen.)

At one point, I told Richard Burton that my agent had submitted me for a part in an independent film written by Edward Anhalt (who had written Becket starring both he and Peter O’Toole.) He then wrote down my name and number on a cocktail napkin and said he would call “Eddie” and see if he could get me in for an audition. He seemed sincere and I appreciated his generosity. (Unfortunately the film never came to fruition.)

Later on, Elizabeth Taylor, whom I had no previous exchange with, was standing nearby conversing with Donald Sutherland. They were discussing her oldest son, who was about sixteen at the time, and who had apparently run away to India. They finished talking, Sutherland made his exit, and Taylor moved to my bar with her back to the guests.

Standing in front of me was an iconic movie star with her mesmerizing blue eyes, exquisite diamond tiara necklace who had become distraught. Her eyes were suddenly fighting back tears she didn’t want those behind her to witness. I didn’t know what to do. The scene reminded me of acting class; how you learn to speak to the other person in the scene with a purpose, an intention, aware of your conflict. I was in the midst of such a moment. I felt this strong need to comfort her but didn’t know how she would react and it concerned me. At the same time, my need to reach out to her overshadowed that. I said, “Excuse me, Mrs. Burton, may I say something?” She nodded yes, with a look of receptivity and trust. I told her that I couldn’t help overhearing about her son but that she shouldn’t be overly concerned.

Lots of teenagers do things like that in a rash moment, but when the smoke clears they come running back. She talked a bit about her son, then remarked that there was nothing demeaning about what I was doing, and suggested her son might take a similar job. I pointed out that I was seven years older but when I was his age, I was also in a similar state of flux. I assured her with conviction, that in a year or two, he would be in a different place and one that would give her more peace of mind. My sincerity seemed to lessen her concerns, at least for the moment, and Mrs. Burton began to dry her eyes. Just then, John Springer joined her at the bar. I offered her a drink and made her “Jack Daniels on the Rocks.” She earned it. She then went off to her guests.

At the end of the evening, she came back to the bar and thanked me for our “little chat.”

In recent times, I watched The VIP’s on Turner Movie Classics that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and co-starred Rod Taylor, Maggie Smith, Louis Jordan, Orson Welles and Margaret Rutherford. The Burtons were playing a couple whose marriage was in jeopardy and their scenes together were affecting. There was also something familiar about this couple which in a way had more of an impact. I didn’t realize why I felt that sense of familiarity. After it ended, I realized I had spent an evening with the Burtons many years before. I remembered them both as sensitive and genuine people. I guess that was what made their performances even more meaningful for me forty four years later.

Jim's story above has a concluding note. Ironically, twelve years later in 1982, with over twenty TV roles under his belt, Jim Rosin auditioned for a role on television's The Fall Guy, a TV series that starred Lee Majors. The part was that of a Philadelphia cab driver. Jim is from Philadelphia. He also drove a cab in Beverly Hills for four years in-between acting jobs. It was a two-character scene. The other actor was to be Richard Burton. Despite his Philadelphia accent and experience as a taxi driver, Jim didn’t get the part.