The Ingrid Pitt column: losing Richard Burton

Ingrid recalls the day she heard the news that Richard Burton had died. She was supposed to be in a film with him at the time...

I was leafing through my birthday book, seeing if I had forgotten to send a card to anyone, when I came across the name of Richard Burton. Not that I was about to send him a cringing ‘Sorry I forgot your Birthday’ card but the day of his death is one of those I never forget. Like the day I learned that the war was over, Kennedy’s assassination and the day I lost my cherry.

The first was while I was still hiding out in the Polish forest and a bunch of American Red Cross workers turned up and told us the eye-popping news. The second event occurred on my mother’s birthday. The news spoiled the party we had laid on. And the day the cherry dropped off my ice cream and lost itself in the folds of my white dress, making a nasty mess, was the day I went to the White House to see my first husband receive a medal.

I heard that an old mate Euan Lloyd was about to make a film so I rang him and chatted him up. He knew why I had called and told me that he had a nice little cameo for me. I was a bit disappointed. I had hoped for a leading roll. He sensed my disappointment and eased it by telling me that the lead woman had to be an American actress to sell the film in the States. He then told me that Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Scott Glenn were the male leads and my part was a tasty East German terrorist posing as a hooker. Type casting! I rather fancied doing another film with Richard. I checked the money, accepted the job and read the script. It meant spending some time in Berlin but I guessed I could bear it for a couple of weeks.

First stop was Budapest in Hungary. Coming over in the plane I had read through my part again and came up with a really spectacular end to my death scene. In the script I was supposed to be hunted down by the Glenn Scott character and shot by Richard Burton. It would be much more dramatic if I were cornered in the courtyard of the houses where I was to get shot but whipped out a knife, which I had strapped to my thigh, and had a knife fight. When I arrived I eagerly told Euan about my idea. He wasn’t at all happy. He said the script was the Bible and if I didn’t like it I knew what I could do. Not very sporting I thought but he did have a lot on his mind.

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I didn’t have a lot to do and met a couple of American soldiers in the bar. During conversation I mentioned that I was interested in Grand Prix racing and they offered to show me the Hungaroring that had recently been constructed just outside Budapest.

Unfortunately, without the roar and excitement of the powerful race cars burning the track up at 200 miles an hour the circuit is just a strip of tarmac in a piece of very attractive countryside. The Yanks dropped me off at the hotel and I made sure that I had everything ready for the shoot the following day. Just as I was going to go down for dinner the telephone rang. It was one of my newfound friends. He asked me if I had heard the news. Richard Burton was dead? I was stunned. Evidently he had been having a booze-up with John Hurt and had fallen down dead in the kitchen. It all seemed so pointless.

But I had to eat so I went down to the restaurant. On the way I met the producer Euan Lloyd. When I commiserated with him about the death of his leading man he thought it was some sick joke. Suddenly I wondered if the joke was on me. I had been rather laying it on about the closeness between Richard and me and perhaps the call had been a bit of a leg-pull. I watched as Euan scampered off to find a telephone and wondered what I had done. But I was right. Richard was gone and there we were, all set up and nowhere to go. Euan called a little meeting and explained the position. We would shoot around the Burton role while he sorted out another leading man. That was a relief.

The scene I was shooting the next morning was the death scene. I had to run through the streets with Scott Glenn after me, run into a courtyard with no exit route, take out a pistol and blaze away atGlenn before getting a shot in the chest. The firearms expert wired me up with a blood bag and I was left to await my call in the Winnebago. I guess I shouldn’t have moved. Without warning there was a load bang and the front of my T-shirt erupted in a fountain of blood. I was terrified. In the enclosed space the sound was ear splitting. And I wasn’t at all sure that the claret spread liberally all over the walls wasn’t mine own. The armourer came running. I was afraid until he lifted up my shirt and assured me that the armoured padding he had fitted behind the blood cartridge had absorbed the detonation. I thought he was very complacent considering he had almost wrecked my prime assets. And my eardrums felt as if an over enthusiastic Gene Krupa had been at them. The show must go on so I was re-wired and went and shot the scene. What a trouper!

News came through the next day that Euan had managed to persuade Edward Fox to take over the Burton role. A good choice in many ways but the script had been written for Burton and there wasn’t time to rework it. It was a burden Edward had to live with.

So we all moved off to Berlin for some of the street scenes with Laurence Olivier. As soon as I arrived I got a call from Charles Wheeler. He was in Germany doing a documentary for the BBC on Berlin and the Wall and wanted me to give him the flavour of working behind the Iron Curtain. I did it in front of the Wall and it wasn’t very pleasant. It brought back all sorts of unhappy memories.

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But there were compensations. Although I didn’t have any scenes with him I did have dinner with Olivier. He was very old and frail by this time but very gallant. He even told me that he had seen me in Eagles and thought it was one of the most entertaining war films of all time. I said I thought his Henry V was the best war film ever and I think he agreed with me.

I’m afraid the substitution of Fox for Burton without rewriting the dialogue rather spoiled the film. Wild Geese had been fairly successful and those who saw it expected the sequel to be more of the same. Sadly it didn’t come up to expectations. But I had a good time.

Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.