The night a raging Liz Taylor, in a pink nightie, saved Richard Burton from a gun toting maniac: PHILIP NORMAN reveals a gripping behind the scenes tale 50 years after Where Eagles Dare.
By PHILIP NORMAN for The Daily Mail
By 2am, the vast lobby of the Hotel Osterreichischer Hof in Salzburg had not a single staff member left on duty. No night manager or concierge was around to notice that Richard Burton, one of the finest actors of his generation, seemed in danger of getting himself shot. Burton, dressed in the uniform of a World War II Nazi officer, was shouting furiously at a pudgy American who one would not have looked at twice but for the large black revolver he held pointed directly at the actor’s heart.
Anaesthetised by relays of double brandies, Burton showed no fear for his life. Indeed, he seemed to be enjoying himself. The majestic Welsh voice, perfect for Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, had morphed into the accent of a Chicago mobster.
‘Don’t mess with me, baby,’ he bellowed. ‘Either use that gun or stick it up your...’
It was January 1968 - almost exactly 50 years ago. Burton had come to Austria to make Where Eagles Dare, since acknowledged to be the most exciting of all British war films. I was there to interview his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, then said without much dispute to be the world’s most beautiful woman. In those days, ‘celebrity culture’ was still in its infancy and only a handful of names, mostly from Hollywood, guaranteed a storm of headlines and packs of paparazzi wherever they went.
Unquestioned leaders of this tiny elite were the couple known as ‘the Burtons’: Taylor with her string of husbands (of whom Burton was the fifth), Burton with his drinking and hell-raising. They had fallen in love on the set of Cleopatra, a calamitous screen epic starring Taylor in the title role and Burton as Mark Antony, which almost bankrupted its makers, 20th Century Fox. Their subsequent adulterous affair titillated the whole world and even brought an official denunciation from the Vatican. It had raised Burton from respected classical actor to mega-stardom on a par with Taylor, though many whispered he was sacrificing his formidable talent for the sake of Hollywood big money. To keep up with a wife of such legendary extravagance, he clearly needed it: his recent gifts to her had included a $2 million diamond ring. That January day in Austria had already been an eventful one for this 24-year-old who, not long previously, had been covering whist drives and jumble sales for the Hunts Post, the county newspaper for Huntingdonshire.
I had spent it with the Burtons at the Hohenwerfen Castle, a grim Alpine fortress outside Salzberg in which some of Where Eagles Dare’s climactic exteriors were being shot. Six years on from Cleopatra, their mutual passion was still such that Taylor had put her own massive movie career on hold just to be with Burton on location. I met the 42 year-old Burton first, seated in a smoky workmen’s cafe in which film people and locals were about equally mixed. He was doing The Times crossword, evidently in the throes of a severe hangover.
In the film, he plays a British army officer, Major John Smith, who’s parachuted into the Alps at the head of a commando team disguised as Germans on a seemingly impossible mission. His elite squad is charged with rescuing an American general with intimate knowledge of the D-Day plans, who is being held at an impregnable mountain-top castle which is also a German army headquarters. At the cafe, he was already costumed in Nazi field grey, a high-crowned peaked cap on the seat beside him. His rugged, slightly pockmarked face looked grim. I had no idea how to introduce myself. Then, as luck would have it, he was stumped by a crossword clue to which the answer was a P. G. Wodehouse character. ‘Gussie Fink-Nottle,’ I called out. Burton fixed me with something between a glare and a grin. ‘Young man,’ he said. ‘Come and sit by me.’
‘Bessie’, as he’d taken to calling the world’s most beautiful woman, did not put in an appearance until past noon. Although she wasn’t in the film, she was its undoubted star, walking in with a retinue of PAs, secretaries, hairdressers and make-up artists. Then aged 35, she was hardly a figure of high fashion in her mink coat, baby-blue track suit and white moon boots, a silver scarf pulled over her unruly black pompadour. But you noticed only her eyes, which were deep violet with double rows of spiky lashes like amethysts at the centre of black starfish. Whenever they settled on me, my own eyes seemed to mist over and I felt my heart do a back-flip.
They settled on me first with concern at the sight of my flimsy Carnaby Street jacket amid the Austrian snows. ‘Didn’t you bring an overcoat,’ she asked, like a scolding mum. ‘No,’ I confessed. (For, truth to tell, I didn’t own one.) ‘Honey, you’ll freeze. Let me see if Wardrobe can lend you something.’ So it was that I spent the afternoon wearing the gold-epauletted greatcoat of a Wehrmacht field-marshal. Nowadays, with stars of such magnitude — if there still were stars of such magnitude — at least two PR people would have been on hand to regulate my access to them. In 1968, I was under no such constraints. I could go wherever I pleased on the set, other than in front of the camera, and talk to whomever I liked.
I effectively became a part of the Burtons’ entourage with special responsibility for carrying their one-eyed pekingese, E’en So, from one set-up to the next. Where Eagles Dare differs from other classic British war films, such as The Colditz Story and Albert R. N., in being Technicolor rather than sombre black and white, and having spectacular action sequences including a stomach-churning fight on a mountain cable car.
That afternoon, Burton had to do a scene involving a motorcycle chase round and round the castle’s snowy courtyard, watched by Taylor from a turret window. In one corner of the dungeon-like room she’d set up a portable griddle on which to make toasted sandwiches and hot dogs for other cast members and the film crew.
I can still see her chubby fingers — one of them wearing that $2 million diamond ring — folding a wedge of bread around a frankfurter and handing it to me. Now and again, she’d rush to the window, wave a mink-clad arm at Burton below and shout ‘Hi, Boofy!’ in a squeaky little-girl voice.
What with one thing and another, there had been no time for our interview, so when the day’s filming ended, she suggested I should ride back to Salzburg with her in her limo. There would be just the two of us apart from her Basque-bereted chauffeur, Gaston Sanz, and E’en So, the one-eyed peke. The journey down the mountain consisted of one after another steep hairpin bend, which Gaston took at top speed. The car’s heater was on full-blast, every window was shut and E’en So did not smell his freshest. I have always been prone to car sickness and my only defence against rising nausea was to keep my gaze firmly fixed on the road ahead. After a few miles, I realised the world’s most beautiful woman must think it strange I should be asking her questions without once meeting those incredible violet eyes. ‘Please don’t think me rude for not looking at you,’ I said, ‘but if I do, I’m afraid I’ll be sick.’ Any other Hollywood diva would probably have thrown me out of the car. But she gave a loud guffaw. Back at the Hotel Osterreichischer Hof, Burton — still wearing his Nazi officer’s uniform — invited me to have dinner with Taylor, himself and some of the Where Eagles Dare supporting cast. I sat next to a then little-known (and, to me, rather uninteresting) young actor named Clint Eastwood.
The company also included Anton Diffring, Victor Beaumont and Ferdy Mayne, all three so firmly typecast as screen Nazis that it was hard to imagine them saying anything other than ‘I must varn you... escape from Colditz is impossible’ or ‘Ve haf vays of making you talk’. They, too, still wore the uniforms in which they’d battled Burton’s heroic commandos all day. It was strange to hear them, in their Iron Crosses and SS flashes, talking like typical British luvvies about agents and producers, and the theatrical impresario ‘Binkie’ Beaumont. But the main attraction was Burton and Taylor, sharing the head of the table, alternately canoodling and verbally sparring. She proved as big a P. G. Wodehouse fan as he was, able to quote whole passages of Jeeves & Wooster dialogue verbatim. It also emerged that before marrying Burton, she’d taken the trouble to learn Welsh (just as before marrying his predecessor, singer Eddie Fisher, she’d converted to Judaism). ‘I love speaking Welsh,’ she told me. ‘It’s such a great language for swearing in.’ At midnight, she stood up with an abrupt ‘Come on, Dicon’ — the Welsh diminutive of Richard. But Burton waved her away to bed on her own and ushered a group of fellow Nazi uniform-wearers, plus me, to a circle of armchairs in the hotel lobby, where he ordered a round of large brandies.
Although the lobby at that stage was still fairly crowded, he had no bodyguard or hotel security man with him. The nearest to it was a young assistant director from the film unit who’d been detailed to look after him for the evening. For the next two hours, the brandies kept coming and Burton kept up a stream of hilarious, beautifully enunciated stories, about Noel Coward, ‘Larry’ Olivier or ‘Johnny’ Gielgud, many of them beginning nostalgically: ‘When I was on Broadway, playing Hamlet...’ Suddenly, there was an awkward pause. A pudgy middle-aged man had crossed the now-empty lobby and was hovering on the edge of our armchair-circle. He wore a Tyrolean hat with a feather and carried a raincoat in both arms like a bundle of dirty washing. He did not introduce himself, only that he was an expatriate American, living in Salzburg. And he wanted to say what an admirer he was of Mr Burton’s work. Burton responded graciously enough but, instead of withdrawing, the man pulled up an embroidered stool and sat down with us, arranging his raincoat carefully on his lap. The assistant director told him politely this was a private party and that he was intruding, but to no effect. Finally, Burton boiled over and requested him to go away in words of one syllable. At this, the man delved into his raincoat and brought out a bulky black object so like a toy gun, it was difficult to believe it was real.
Below: Burton speaks to another representative of the British press - Daily Mirror reporter Donald Zec
A heated altercation ensued, with Burton daring him to pull the trigger and still no hotel employee in sight. It ended with the man ordering all of us to sit side-by-side on a bench with our hands up. I felt for the poor young assistant director, in terror that the main asset of Where Eagles Dare might be assassinated on his watch. He was on his knees before the man, literally praying: ‘Please put the gun down... please, please put the gun down.’ The bedrooms at the Osterreichischer Hof are along open galleries above its lobby, seemingly rising to infinity. Glancing up, I saw a flash of bright pink descending gallery by gallery. Elizabeth Taylor was coming back downstairs to see what all the commotion was about. Clearly just roused from sleep, she was barefoot, in a pink chiffon nightdress with an old leather coat clutched around it. But there was no sleep in those amazing violet eyes. Just fury. ‘Richard,’ she hissed. ‘Whatever is going on? Your voice is echoing all over this hotel.’
The man gazed at her in stupefaction, then stuffed away the gun and held out his hand. ‘Oh,’ he gasped. ‘This is such a pleasure...’ Both she and Burton ignored him and began screaming at each other. In Welsh. It did seem a great language to swear in. Finally, Taylor turned on her (bare) heel and started stomping up the staircase. ‘Either come now,’ she called over her shoulder, ‘or don’t bother to come at all. Ever!’
The man gazed after her for a dumbstruck moment, then got his gun out again and ordered Burton to rejoin us on the bench and re-raise his hands. The drama fizzled out into an anti-climax one could never put into a movie. A few moments later, he said he had to go to the toilet and told us not to move. As soon as his back was turned, we bolted to the lifts. Waking next morning beneath an unfamiliar down quilt, I seriously thought I might have dreamed the whole thing. Later, I was in the lobby to see the Burtons leave for Paris with their secretaries, hairdressers, manicurists and one-eyed peke. As they passed, Taylor kissed me on the cheek and Burton gave me a wink. ‘It was real,’ he said, meaning the gun. ‘A Webley .455.’ During this coming 50th anniversary year of Where Eagles Dare, I will of course watch it again for the umpteenth time. But, as you can imagine, I’ll be thinking more about what happened off-camera.
My sincere thanks to Kevin Wilkinson for providing me with this insightful story.