Encore

Creatures of the Nile

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton -- The actors had their scene together for ''Cleopatra'' 29 years ago

By the time 20th Century Fox's production of Cleopatra brought Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton together, the jinxed epic had thrown a major studio into epic chaos. A thoroughly un-Egyptian fog and Taylor's near-fatal pneumonia helped abort work in London, where 12 months of shooting had yielded only 12 minutes of usable footage. When production started anew in Rome, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) took over from Rouben Mamoulian as director, and Richard Burton replaced Stephen Boyd as Cleopatra's doomed lover, Marc Antony.

At first Burton dismissed Taylor as ''Miss Tits,'' but by the time they played their first scene, on January 22, 1962, he had reconsidered. After watching them at work that day, Mankiewicz called producer Walter Wanger. ''I want you to know that I have been sitting all alone on a very large volcano,'' he said.

The Liz and Dick volcano soon erupted publicly, and outrage over the romance was swift: Burton was married to Sybil Williams, and Liz had already earned her home-wrecker badge by stealing husband Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds four years earlier. The Vatican accused Taylor of ''erotic vagrancy,'' and a U.S. congressman called for the revocation of Burton's visa. Mankiewicz joined the media circus when the papers said that he was dating Taylor and using Burton as a decoy. Mankiewicz and Burton called a press conference. ''I said, 'It is time for the real story to be told,''' Mankiewicz recalls. '''I am in love with Richard Burton and he is in love with me — and we are using Elizabeth Taylor, with her consent, as our cover-up.''' With that, he kissed Burton full on the mouth.

Cleopatra cost nearly $40 million ($174 million in today's dollars), and it is probably the most expensive movie in history. The critics hated it at the time, and even Liz called it ''the most bizarre piece of entertainment ever to be perpetrated.'' Still, the movie broke even in four years, and the Liz and Dick show had a longer run. They made 11 movies together, wed and divorced twice, and racked up 12 marriages between them. Over the years they perpetrated an even more bizarre, and in many ways more popular, piece of entertainment just by being themselves.



TIME CAPSULE

Jan. 22, 1962
Another epic, Lawrence of Arabia, is sprawled across screens, while Chubby Checker scuffs up dance floors with ''The Twist.'' Some stay home to watch the No. 1 TV series, Wagon Train, or read such best-sellers as J.D. Salinger's Franny & Zooey, Irving Stone's The Agony & the Ecstasy, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Originally posted Jan 18, 1991 Published in issue #49 Jan 18, 1991 Order article reprints