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Richard Burton as Hamlet: Portrait of an ‘Avenging Angel’

LIFE photographer George Silk recounts taking what Richard Burton called "the best pictures he had ever had taken of him."

In 1993, John Loengard asked George Silk—a New Zealander who had been a staff photographer for LIFE from 1943 until the magazine stopped publishing as a weekly in 1972—if, in his long career, Silk had been “willing to pose pictures.” Silk’s reply is worth setting down here in full:

Oh, sure, if it’s called for, yes. I did some great pictures of Richard Burton doing Hamlet. [Praising his muscular performance as the Dane, LIFE wrote that, at one point, Burton storms to his mother Gertrude’s chamber “like an avenging angel.”] I’d only done one theater photo call in my life before. They are intimidating. You’ve got all these tired people after a performance. Burton said, “What do you want?”

“I’d like you to act out three or four scenes for me,” I said. He just stood there. “No—act it out,” I said.

“What do you mean? You’re taking stills, aren’t you?” he said.

I said, “Yep.”

And he said, “You goddamn New Zealanders. We can’t beat you at rugby, and we can’t beat you on the photo call.” Then he says, “Let’s do what the Kiwi wants.” By then, you know, we’re like that, and I just went all over him as he did his fencing and stuff. The pictures were great, and he got the word back to me that they were the best pictures he had ever had taken of him. LIFE used one on the cover and five or six pages of him inside the magazine. Why am I telling you this? Because you asked if I posed. There’s the answer.”

[Buy the book, LIFE Photographers: What They Saw (Bulfinch Press, 1998)]

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