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RODERICK MANN

Kate Burton : Casts Her Own Shadow

October 25, 1986|RODERICK MANN

"The other day Ian McKellen asked me, 'Will this be your Broadway debut?' " said Kate Burton. "I had to tell him, 'No. I've done four plays in New York.' He seemed quite surprised."

Understandably. Burton, now appearing at the Ahmanson Theatre with McKellen, that consummate British actor, in the pre-Broadway run of "Wild Honey" seems to have crept up on everyone with her career.

For this blue-eyed daughter of the late Richard Burton is, after all, just 29. And that's early to have notched up that many New York credits.

"Most people are surprised when they see how much I've done," said Burton when we talked this week. "When I made my one and only film (the ill-received "Big Trouble in Little China" starring Kurt Russell), the director John Carpenter asked, 'Have you played drama before?' 'Often,' I told him. 'Oh,' he said, 'I didn't know.' "

The name, you would have thought, would have registered in people's minds.

"I know," she said, "maybe it's because Dadda (Richard Burton) was such a famous person--though he always insisted, 'I'm not famous; I'm notorious'--that I tend to get lost beneath his shadow. But here I am, working away."

Married to stage manager Michael Ritchie and close both to her father's most celebrated wife, Elizabeth Taylor, and her own mother, Burton's first wife, Sybil, who now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Jordan Christopher, Kate Burton did not set out to be an actress.

"Not at all. My father wanted me to be a writer. He kept saying how well Kate Burton would look on a book jacket. But I didn't have the talent. Me, I wanted a career in diplomacy or international relations. That's why I learned Russian. At the United Nations school in New York I had to choose another language when I was 13 so I took Russian. I'd just read 'Nicholas and Alexandra' and I was a very romantic child so it seemed a good idea.

"I studied it on and off for nine years, winding up by taking an intensive language course at a school in Vermont. The CIA was always there on the lookout for recruits. They didn't approach me though. I can pass quite well for a Russian. As Dadda used to say, 'We have good peasant faces.'

"When Michael and I got married, we spent part of our honeymoon in the U.S.S.R. And in Leningrad a woman came up to me and said, 'Is your friend an American?' looking at Michael. She actually took me for a Russian."

Going to the Soviet Union, she says, was the biggest thrill of her life.

"I'd studied Russian history and knew so much about the place and, suddenly, there we were. At the airport there were all these tourists and we were getting shunted about. All of a sudden I opened my mouth and out came all this Russian. It was terrific."

But it was that crash course in the language in Vermont that convinced her she was not cut out for the foreign service--in Moscow or anywhere else.

Instead she decided to take a crack at acting. "After all," she said, "it was in the family."

She went to the Yale School of Drama with her parents' blessing and has never regretted it.

She appeared with George C. Scott in "Present Laughter" the day after her Yale graduation. She went on to play Alice in "Alice in Wonderland." She got fine notices for her work in "Winners"--which earned her her father's seal of approval. She did "Doonesbury," her first musical. And she has appeared in a couple of TV miniseries--"Ellis Island," which gave her a chance to work with her father, and "Evergreen."

"I've had every kind of review," she said, "from great to terrible. One of the worst was for 'Alice in Wonderland' on Broadway. Frank Rich (New York Times critic) wrote that I wasn't yet ready for a lead role on Broadway. I agreed with him, but my father was quite upset. Which is odd because he never took the slightest notice of his own reviews.

"But it wasn't a good production. And I was 20 playing 7. Playing young is one thing; playing 7 quite another."

I asked her how she felt about the coming publication of sections of the private diaries that her father--who died two years ago at the age of 58--kept through most of his adult life?

"That's a hard question to answer," she said. "I've talked to Sally (Burton's widow who has control of the diaries) and she says she's only using parts of them. For myself I would have thought quite a lot was unpublishable. Dadda was very fond of flowery language, you know."

She has not yet talked with Melvyn Bragg, the British writer who is editing the diaries. And since neither Elizabeth Taylor nor Sybil Burton Christopher appears ready to talk to Bragg, the proposed diaries would seem incomplete.

"The real question is whether Dadda would have wanted the diaries published," she said, "and nobody knows that. All I hope is that they don't just pick out the sensational bits about his life. He deserves better than that."

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