One of the essential differences between Burton and Taylor and many of the denizens who infest the current culture of celebrity is that they were neither famous for being famous nor for the way they lived, but most essentially for what they did. When they found each other on the set of "Cleopatra," he was arguably the finest stage actor of his generation and became a formidable film actor through the force of her example. Taylor was a film star who discovered a powerful dramatic persona in the penumbra of Burton's influence.
Bereft of their partnership, both artists were somehow diminished. In 1984, the last year of his life, the 58-year-old Burton left his Swiss retreat and traveled to London to play the role of the party inquisitor who torments Winston Smith in a film adaptation of George Orwell's "1984." Director Michael Radford recalls that the actor was "like an old wounded lion … an old man. I got the impression that he just couldn't wait to die, that life had seeped out of him in some strange kind of way. What was important to him in his life was gone."
What was most important to him, of course, was thousands of miles away in America.
On Aug. 2 of that year, Burton was back in his beloved Swiss chalet in Céligny with his then-wife, Sally, but wrote a final love letter to Elizabeth in Los Angeles. Home, he said, was wherever she was, and he wanted to come home. The next day, his "1984" costar, John Hurt, arrived for a visit, and Burton broke a long period of sobriety to go out drinking with him. Always a quarrelsome drunk, he got into a bar fight and struck his head on the floor. The next evening he went to bed complaining of a headache. He never woke up and died of a cerebral hemorrhage.On the pad beside his bed, a last few lines of Shakespearean verse were scribbled in red ink:
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.…
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…
Our revels now are ended.…
Sally initially declined to invite Taylor to his funeral, then relented when it was too late for her to attend. Elizabeth visited Richard's grave, then his extended family in Wales and, finally, a memorial service in the London church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. When she returned to her home in Bel-Air, she found Burton's last letter waiting for her. Now 78, she has kept it on her bedside table ever since.