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Being Welsh on St. Patrick's Day

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By Rick Howell

So I’m in the doctor’s office the other day (I’m sorry, conservativeseeit wasn’t serious), and the nurse is wearing a St. Patrick’s Day shirt already, something decorated in those green shamrock things.

“It’s just a bit early for that, isn’t it?,” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she said. “We've only got one day for this holiday, so I wanted to wear my shirt all I could.”

Okay. There’s some logic there. But I proceeded to tell her that as someone who is Welsh, I don’t get too excited about the Irish holiday. I told her that if the Welsh have any holiday, it should probably be to celebrate the life and work of the late actor Richard Burton.

So, as samples of my left-wing blood were being taken, we had a brief conversation about actors, movies, and that sort of thing. She said she liked George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio. I agreed that they were very good, but suggested that no one today could equal the abilities and the smoldering intelligence of Burton, a Welshman who left us too early back in 1984.

Her recollection of him was what most people have, if they remember him at all: That he was married to Elizabeth Taylor twice. Like a good Welshman, I seized the opportunity to educate her a bit about a man who might have been the greatest actor who ever lived, the very pride of the Welsh.

With Easter on the horizon, Christians can surely appreciate “The Robe,” the 1953 film that exploded Richard Burton onto the American scene. He played the Roman soldier who, at the crucifixion, had won the wager for possession of Jesus’ final robe. I saw this film as a kid and it made quite an impact.

Burton portrayed the tortured psyche of the soldier with an intense authenticity that first revealed his talents to Americans. In later years, he would make the movie that connected him with Taylor, the epic of “Cleopatra.”

Their tempestuous relationship, reported by a sensational press that foreshadowed today’s paparazzi, overshadowed their work, much of which was very good. Anyone who’s ever been married or divorced should see “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” probably the greatest film the both of them made.

Burton was an actor, yes, but he also possessed talents that might have made him a poet or a college professor. In fact, he spent a term at Oxford as a visiting professor, and he was very close friends with another great Welshman, the poet Dylan Thomas.

The story goes that Burton once engaged in a bet with Robert F. Kennedy, over cocktails at a Manhattan restaurant, about who could recite the most poetry. It wasn’t your usual competition, because they were reciting the poems backwards, and Burton won.

Aside from being married to Taylor, the only other thing people might remember him for is a reputation for drinking. But since this is in the context of St. Patrick’s Day, when the Irish drink their green beer, well, they’re in no position to lecture the Welsh about alcohol.

Burton’s last film was “1984,” an English production of George Orwell’s famous novel. In it, he played O’Brien, the party fanatic who brought Winston Smith to destruction. It was a role that many of his admirers regretted was his last, because, even though he wasn’t very political, he certainly wasn’t a fascist.

If you’d like to learn more about this great Welshman, I recommend a good biography: “Richard Burton: A Life,” by Melvyn Bragg (Little, Brown & Co., 1988). It’s a story of a life well-lived, by a talent that hasn’t been duplicated since.

Enjoy your St. Patrick’s Day, and I’ll be glad to share a green beer with you, but it will be in honor of a great Welshman the Irish just can’t match.

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<*P><*J><*I>Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.