Nineteen years and nine Broadway shows into her career, stardom has finally found Kate Burton. It arrived, by post, in a snapshot. A pal, struck by the Ambassador Theatre marquee, took a picture of it and mailed the evidence to her in Williamstown, Mass. And there it was, for God and everybody to see: her name resting, quite convincingly, above the title. “I got down there a couple of weeks later,” confesses this season’s Hedda Gabler. “I was in town for three hours, and I thought, ‘Well, I must go see this.’” She shakes her head in disbelief. “I’ve had other leading roles on Broadway, but this has never happened to me.”
Being a Burton, it was probably predestined. Richard’s fiery-haired first-born grew up on the frayed fringes of celebrity—if not directly in a goldfish bowl, then in an annex of that goldfish bowl—somewhat removed from the withering glare of world scrutiny.
It couldn’t have been easy—the clash of overlapping triangles during the turbulent filming of Cleopatra, followed endlessly by the fallout of fame—but Kate more than survived the chaos; it made her a centered, accessible, nice human being. Her feet still touch the ground. She maintains warm relationships with the second, third and fourth Mrs. Burtons and with Jordan Christopher, who subsequently married her mother, Sybil Williams.
Understandably, given this upbringing, Kate figured she was headed for a great career in diplomacy and attended Brown University to that effect, but a history professor there suggested she give acting a shot so, in her senior year at age 21, she took a right turn.
“To me, it seemed ridiculous—but I approached it slowly. I knew I needed to go to drama school. I knew, particularly being Dad’s daughter, I needed to go to a training program because I didn’t simply want to be Dad’s daughter.” She chose Yale Drama School, and, on graduating, she hit the ground running. “It was like a Ruby Keeler movie,” she admits gleefully. “I graduated on a Monday from Yale, and I started rehearsing Present Laughter on a Tuesday for Broadway with George C. Scott, Nathan Lane and Dana Ivey.” Even luckier, the fellow she read with, stage manager Michael Ritchie, subsequently became her husband and is now the producer of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. They have two children—Charlotte, almost 4, and Morgan, 13, who just debuted in Williamstown’s Street Scene. (“He doesn’t want to be an actor, but he’s a natural,” critiques Mom.)
“I was so perfectly castable when I came out of Yale—the quintessential ingenue. I got Present Laughter, “Alice in Wonderland,” Winners—three really different kinds of parts. I knew I wanted to focus on stage to start with because I wanted to be a serious actress. And, quite honestly, I wasn’t ready to go to California. Looks-wise, my face was like the Campbell’s soup kid—round, round cheeks—and I didn’t photograph all that well at first.”
Winners won her a Theatre World Award as one of 1982’s most promising newcomers, and, sweetening the victory, it was presented to her by her dad, who was doing Private Lives with double-ex Liz Taylor on Broadway at the time and plainly proud to find his daughter coming out of the theatrical starting-gate. “I got to spend an enormous amount of time with him for those first few years that I was a professional actress,” she says. “He saw me in plays, and we’d meet after the show for dinner. It was great having him in New York.”
He was also there for her first two experiences in film, playing The White Knight to her “Alice in Wonderland” for TV and her father in the CBS miniseries “Ellis Island.” Two weeks after filming the latter, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 58. But she’s still learning from his example. He proved, in Equus, that true stars lose no luster when they replace in a Broadway run, prompting her to do likewise in An American Daughter and The Beauty Queen of Leenane. The latter she took, boldly, to Ireland and England.
At Christmas of ’99, prior to leaving on her Leenane tour, she got Hedda Gabler as a gift from her mother (who runs Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theatre), her husband and an old friend, Nicholas Martin (who was the Dormouse to her Alice and is now artistic director of Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company). All three offered their facilities for Kate to play an iconic role she considers the female equivalent of Hamlet (a role, not incidentally, her dad did to a fare-thee-well).
This is quite a Hedda on her lovely shoulders—lighter than is usually the case, with none of the grinding manipulation and malevolence that drove the play to melodramatic heights. Adapter Jon Robin Baitz goes for the jocular, mining sardonic humor in what previously was feminist festering. On the first day of rehearsal, he uncorked the character by telling Kate, “Hedda is the smartest and funniest person in the room.” Seconds director Martin: “Her tragedy is she’s the only woman in Scandinavia with a sense of humor.”
The levity levels the character and allows Kate to have what one critic called an “impressively natural, almost flippant take on Hedda.” Said another (Ben Brantley, making a foray into Boston for The New York Times): “Kate Burton is giving one of those rare benchmark performances that redefine both a classic character and an actress. In daring to be life-size in a traditionally larger-than-life role, Ms. Burton demystifies one of the most formidable heroines of Western drama without sacrificing a shred of the character’s fascination.”
Life-size has always been Kate’s style. “There’s a whole group of actors I’m very close to—Cherry Jones, J. Smith-Cameron, Linda Emond, Jayne Atkinson—and it’s important to us to have lives and to be something other than actresses. We’re of a different generation. The actresses I grew up with—Rachel Roberts, Tammy Grimes, Elizabeth Taylor—were larger-than-life personalities. I thought, ‘I’m not like that, so I’d better not be an actress.’”
Happily, Kate Burton gave the matter a second thought. Now, she has a role scaled to fit her. “I’ve always had people say, ‘You got where you are because of your father.’ Well, this time I got where I am because of my mother, my husband and my Dormouse.”