Kate Burton and Michael Ritchie spend a quarter of their time living in different cities, a situation that can be difficult for any couple. But they feel it shows the strength of their relationship. Besides, for the first few days of each trip, they can indulge the habits that drive each other crazy. She can leave copies of the New Yorker around the house, for instance, while he can throw away plastic bags.
"Kate will save plastic bags from the grocery, and we'll have 80 of them," Ritchie says, in a voice that meshes his Worcester, Mass., accent with the nasality of Ray Romano. "There's not going to be a moment when we have to pack 80 plastic bags. Can we go down to 10?"
The couple sits in the living room of their impossibly charming though surprisingly low-key house on a narrow, curvy road in Los Feliz. The front door and garage door are a matching light blue, and there's a yard out back, where Ritchie's domain is the potted plants and Burton oversees the garden. Running around somewhere is their excitable lab mix, Phil.
That "surprisingly" is because of their high-profile careers. Ritchie is artistic director at L.A.'s powerhouse Center Theatre Group, which controls three stages, the Ahmanson, Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas, and regularly prepares shows for Broadway. Burton is one of the country's most celebrated theater actresses, once earning two Tony nominations in the same year (2002), for Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man.
Burton initially resisted the profession, in part because of her parents: her mother, actress and theater producer Sybil Williams (now Christopher); her father, Richard Burton; and her stepmom, Elizabeth Taylor. "As much as my parents were delightful and rambunctious, I didn't want to have their lives," she says.
Burton and Ritchie met at age 24, in 1982, when he was stage managing a Broadway production of Noël Coward's Present Laughter, directed by and starring George C. Scott. During auditions, Scott assigned Ritchie to read with Burton, a fresh-faced student at the Yale School of Drama, set to graduate in two weeks. "I thought he was perfectly fine but not the greatest actor on Earth," she says.
"I was horrible," he says, though, "I thought, 'Oh my God, I hope we hire her. I like her.' I put a slow chase on her through rehearsals on up to opening."
The play was a hit, which gave their relationship time to bloom. Scott would come out of his dressing room in a dressing gown, spot them together and yell, "Hello, lovebirds!" They were married three years later.
Ritchie continued as a stage manager before becoming artistic director at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, later shifting to Center Theatre Group in 2005 and finally moving to L.A. in 2006. Burton, meanwhile, claimed more than a dozen Broadway roles, plus choice parts on screen, including a twice–Emmy-nominated part as the title character's mother in Grey's Anatomy.
Her television and out-of-town stage work, along with his business travel, make their schedule chaotic, so every month or so they go to Ritchie's office to hash it out, she with an appointment book and he with a legal pad. He's at one of his theaters about 150 nights a year, but they make time for concerts at the nearby Greek Theatre, a classic movie at the Egyptian or a game between the Angels and his Boston Red Sox.
Ritchie occasionally consults Burton on which directors or actors to hire, and she'll sometimes put a bug in his ear about wanting to do a given play — though there's no bad blood if it doesn't work out. They've worked together a few times, including when he cast her as Hedda Gabler, in a production also produced by her mom. "So this was complete nepotism," she says.
She also once starred with their son, Morgan, now 24, in the play The Corn Is Green. (Their daughter, Charlotte, is 15.)
For the most part, however, they separate work and home. The living room is dotted with theater books, but her posters are in the laundry room.
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Ritchie values this division. At home he can relax into less weighty tasks — like keeping the plastic bags at bay. "I'm constantly adjusting pictures and folding socks a certain way," he says.
"That's the nature of what you do for a living," Burton tells him. "I think that the way you can organize your life at home means there's something you can control. Whereas at work, Michael's had some shows that were set to come in and, in a puff of smoke, they're done."
He agrees. "Work is always in movement," he says. "I can put some order at home that makes sense to me."