During the course of my career, I have worked with the famous and near famous - the mercurial flashes and the human institutions. I never cease to be surprised by the discrepancy between expectation and reality.
In this instance, I expected Hell from the moment the production company booked our recording studio. The session was booked two weeks in advance, and not a day seemed to pass by before the advance people called with yet another question - all of them falling somewhere between the categories of Silly and Obnoxious.
“Will Mr. Burton have to enter the building from the front door or will he be afforded a private entrance?"
We only had one (civilized) entrance and we were not going to knock out bricks for some uppity actor's grand private entrance.
“Will Mr. Burton have to ascend steps or will there be a private elevator?”
We had a freight elevator but it housed a long-neglected Hammond organ, giant Leslie speaker and what looked like the mothball fleet from WWII.
"Will lunch be ordered in advance from a local restaurant?"
Our studio was located in the heart of Skid Row and the only nearby lunch source was St. John's Hospice - the Burton party would not exactly qualify for their services.
I was beginning to hate the man before he had set foot through our solitary and decidedly celebrity-unfriendly portal.
When the day of the session arrived, I mechanically went through the same set-up procedures I would tend to for a far lesser God - like a car dealer reading his own radio commercial or a demo for a Bar Mitzvah singer. I tried to erase all pre-conceived animus towards Mr. Burton and act like the professional I am (or should be)... although I deliberately left a rickety stool in place specifically for Mr. Burton's discomfort, figuring it could always be moved if he wasn't a Dick (as it were). My anger at his advance people was still apparent.
Punctually, a small crowd of what I assumed were useless camp followers ascended on me from the ground floor. In actuality, they turned out to be functional and pleasant members of the Dallas production company whose project Burton was about to grace. Straggling near the end of the line, slowwwly, was Burton himself. A serious back problem (as I found out later) had etched a pained expression into his face, and he seemed to wince with each step he attempted.
I introduced myself as we shook hands, and the evident pain was briefly masked by a modest but seemingly authentic smile. I was already put off – not by Burton but my own prejudices. I led him into Studio "A" where $4,000 mic and broken $2 dollar stool awaited. At its most functional, the stool demanded the balancing prowess of a Walenda but at this most critical of moments it threatened total collapse. “Let me change stools,” I quickly offered. “No, No, don’t bother – I’ll be fine,” Burton responded in a voice that briefly quivered in harmony with his jostled torso. I was in full moral retreat, for in preparation for the evil Mr. Burton (the one who didn't show up), I had deliberately left the Death Trap in place. Who was this man? Certainly not the one I had secretly planned to kill.
Burton's narration was to be used in an upcoming episode of NOVA. The subject of the episode was a then new phenomenon known as a Trauma Center. The Nova producers had focused on the extraordinary medicine being practiced at a recently opened facility in Dallas.
The 50-page script beautifully written but grueling for any announcer to record. The words had been written by a young copywriter from the Dallas-based production company. He was one of the three additional bodies standing behind me in the event of a sudden trauma emergency with the existing script. The writer was a hard man to ignore - unless he turned sideways, in which case he would have disappeared. Physically, he was a cross between a malnourished mountain man and one of those unflattering artist depictions of Howard Hughes in his final days - foot-long fingernails and all. Yet, the man's appearance betrayed his talent, which was ample. His well-chosen words were crafted with Burton in mind, and flowed with a musical and quasi- poetic meter. But there were problems.
Much of the medical jargon demanded the Americanized pronunciation of common English words, but Burton’s Welsh brain had natural difficulty reprogramming life-long habits. He was quickly frustrated with himself after "mispronouncing" a word one too many times. Finally, he said, “Wally, would you mind pronouncing the word over the talkback and in American English just before I have to say it? Perhaps that will expedite the proper reading.” With ample doubt in my voice, I responded, “Isn’t that going to derail your own train of thought?”. “No," he answered –"I'm sure I can make it work.”
And he did make it work - magnificently, even with me talking into his ears.
And so began my brief, but shining career as Richard Burton's voice coach.
While the subject was not exactly Henry IV, Burton's reading elevated each utterance to that high place few mortals ever attain. After a particularly fine turn of a paragraph, we would all wax rhapsodic in the control room only to hear Burton say, "Would you mind if I read that again, Wally - I know I can do better for you." He would say that a lot, and with each re-do he would deliver on his promise.
In acute juxtaposition to my pre-existing notions, Richard Burton was, without a doubt, the most uncomplaining, unflappable and consummate professional I had ever worked with - at any level of talent.
And to make me feel even guiltier, Richard Burton was a very nice and kind man.
Just how kind I would soon discover.
Weeks later the producer called from Dallas just to thank me for my own performance and tell me how thrilled everyone was with the final product, from the hospital staff to the Network execs. During our brief chat, he shared an inside story about our famous actor.
Burton had been paid $50,000 (in 1980 dollars) for his three hours of work and donated his entire fee to the Dallas trauma center.
I immediately threw out the damn stool with the gusto of Jack Lemon throwing out James Cagney's potted palm tree in "Mr. Roberts."
So that was the Richard Burton I knew.
My prize student.
For one brief, shining moment, Philadelphia's Skid Row had become Camelot.