Raymond “Perry Mason” Burr died 20 years ago today at 76

raymond-burr-ltr1Raymond William Stacey Burr (May 21, 1917 – September 12, 1993) was a Canadian actor,[1] primarily known for his title roles in the television dramas Perry Mason and Ironside.[1]

His early acting career included roles on Broadway, radio, television and in film,[2] usually as the villain.[3] He won two Emmy Awards in 1959 and 1961[4] for the role of Perry Mason, which he played for nine seasons between 1957 and 1966. His second hit series, Ironside, earned him six Emmy nominations, and two Golden Globe nominations.[4] He is also widely known for his role as Steve Martin in both Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and Godzilla 1985.

In addition to acting, Burr owned an orchid business and had begun to grow a vineyard. He was a collector of wines and art, and was very fond of cooking.[5] He was also a dedicated seashell collector whose financial support and gift of cowries and cones from Fiji helped to create the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum in Sanibel, Florida.[1]

After Burr’s death from cancer in 1993, his personal life came into question as details of his known biography appeared to be unverifiable.[6][7]

In 1996, Raymond Burr was ranked #44 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time

In 1956, Burr auditioned for the role of District Attorney Hamilton Burger in Perry Mason, a new courtroom drama based on the highly successful novels written and created by Erle Stanley Gardner that was to air on CBS. William Talman tried out for the title role. The producers of the show allowed Burr to try for the title role and when Gardner, who was present at the audition, saw him he declared, “He is Perry Mason.”[3] Burr eventually won the role with which he was most closely identified.[20] The series ran from 1957 to 1966, and Burr won Emmy Awards[4] in 1959 and 1961 for his performance as Perry Mason. The series has been re-run in syndication ever since and is currently (2012, 2013) running on the Hallmark Movie Channel. {See the HMC program schedule, especially certain weekends.) Beginning in 2006, the series has become available on DVD, with each calendar year seeing the release of one season as two separate volumes. The ninth and final season’s DVD sets became available in 2013. Though Burr’s character is often said never to have lost a case, he did lose two murder cases in early episodes of the series, once when his client misled him and another time when his client was later cleared.[21] In the 1965 episode, “The Case of the 12th Wildcat,” Perry was given the distinction as the title character by his client, owner of a professional football team, whom he had just cleared of murder.

In the early 1960s, Burr narrated one film and appeared in several others sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service. They were designed to educate the public about accident prevention.[22]

Burr moved from CBS to Universal Studios, where he played the title role in the television drama Ironside, which ran on NBC. In the pilot episode, San Francisco Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside is wounded by a sniper during an attempt on his life and is left an invalid in a wheelchair. This role gave Burr another hit series, the first crime drama show ever to star a disabled police officer. The show, which ran from 1967 to 1975, earned Burr six Emmy nominations and two Golden Globe nominations.[4] Burr’s weight, always an issue for him in getting roles, became a public relations problem when Johnny Carson began making jokes about him during his Tonight Show monologues. Burr refused to appear as Carson’s guest from then on and told Us Weekly years later: “I have been asked a number of times to do his show and I won’t do it. Because I like NBC. He’s doing an NBC show. If I went on I’d have some things to say, not just about the bad jokes he’s done about me, but bad jokes he does about everybody who can’t fight back because they aren’t there. And that wouldn’t be good for NBC.”[23] In later life his distinctive physique and manner could be used as a reference that would be universally recognized. One journal for librarians published a writer’s opinion that “asking persons without cataloging experience to design automated catalogs…is as practical as asking Raymond Burr to pole vault.”[24]

NBC failed in two attempts to launch Burr as the star of a new series. In a two-hour television movie format, Mallory: Circumstantial Evidence aired in February 1976 with Burr again in the role of the lawyer who outwits the district attorney. Despite good reviews for Burr, the critical reception was poor and NBC decided against developing it into a series.[25] In 1977, Burr starred in the short-lived TV series Kingston: Confidential, a critical failure that was scheduled opposite the extraordinarily popular Charlie’s Angels. It was cancelled after thirteen weeks.[26] Burr took on a shorter project next, playing an underworld boss in a six-hour miniseries, 79 Park Avenue[27] One last attempt to launch a series followed on CBS. The two-hour premiere of The Jourdan Chance aroused little interest.[28]

In 1985, Burr was approached by producers Dean Hargrove and Fred Silverman to star in a made-for-TV movie Perry Mason Returns.[29] Burr recalled in a 1986 interview, “They asked me to do a new ‘Godzilla’ the same week they asked me to do another Perry Mason, so I did them both.”[30] He agreed to do the Mason movie if Barbara Hale returned to reprise her role as Della Street.[31] Hale agreed and when Perry Mason Returns aired in December 1985, her character became the defendant.[29] The rest of the original cast had died, but Hale’s real-life son William Katt played the role of Paul Drake, Jr.[29] The movie was so successful Burr made 26 more before his death.[1] Many episodes were filmed in and around Denver, Colorado.[2]

By 1993, when Burr signed with NBC for another season of Mason films, he was using a wheelchair full-time because of his failing health. In his final Perry Mason movie, The Case of the Killer Kiss, which ironically was based on the final 60-minute episode, “The Case of the Final Fadeout,” he was shown either sitting or standing while leaning on a table, but only once standing unsupported for a few seconds.[32]Twelve more Mason movies were scheduled before Burr’s death, including one scheduled to film the month he died.[33]

In 1993, as he had with the Perry Mason TV movies, Burr decided to do an Ironside reunion movie. In May of that year, The Return of Ironside aired, reuniting the entire original cast of the 1967–1975 series.[34]Burr’s illness precluded any further such reunions

Burr married actress Isabella (“Bella”) Ward on January 10, 1949. They lived together for less than a year and divorced after four years. Neither remarried.[42] At various times in his career, Burr or his managers offered biographical details that appear spurious or unverifiable. These include marriage to Scottish actress Annette Sutherland, supposedly killed in the same plane crash as Leslie Howard. A son, Michael Evan, was said to have resulted from another disputed possible marriage to Laura Andrina Morgan. Burr’s account provided the only evidence of the boy’s existence and death from leukemia at age 10.[43] As late as 1991, Burr told Parade magazine that when he realized his son was dying, he took him on a one-year tour of the United States. He said, “Before my boy left, before his time was gone, I wanted him to see the beauty of his country and its people.”[1] His publicist knew that Burr worked in Hollywood throughout the year he said he was touring with his son.[44] As with Burr’s claims to have served in the U.S. military, many of these fictions were believed and widely reported.[5][45]

In the late 1950s, Burr was rumored to be romantically involved with Natalie Wood.[6] Wood’s agent sent her on public dates so she could be noticed by directors and producers and so that the actors could present themselves in public as heterosexuals. The dates also helped to disguise Wood’s intimate relationship with Robert Wagner, whom she later married.[46] Burr felt enough attraction to Wood to resentWarner Bros.‘ decision to promote her attachment to Tab Hunter instead. Robert Benevides later said: “He was a little bitter about it. He was really in love with her, I guess.

In the mid-1950s, Burr met Robert Benevides (born 1929), a young actor and Korean War veteran, on the set of Perry Mason. According to Benevides, they became a couple around 1960. Benevides gave up acting in 1963[49][50] and later became a production consultant for 21 of the Perry Mason TV movies.[51] Together they owned and operated an orchid business and then a vineyard,[52] in the Dry Creek Valley. They were partners until Burr’s death in 1993.[51] Burr left Benevides his entire estate, including “all my jewelry, clothing, books, works of art,…and other items of a personal nature.”[53]

Later accounts of Burr’s life explain that he hid his homosexuality to protect his career. In 2000, AP reporter Bob Thomas recalled the situation:[49][54]

It was an open secret…that he was gay. He had a companion who was with him all the time. That was a time in Hollywood history when homosexuality was not countenanced. Ray was not a romantic star by any means, but he was a very popular figure…if it was revealed at that time in Hollywood history [that he was gay] it would have been very difficult for him to continue.

Art Marks, a producer of Perry Mason, recalled Burr’s talk of wives and children: “I know he was just putting on a show….That was my gut feeling. I think the wives and the loving women, the Natalie Wood thing, were a bit of a cover.”[55] In 2006, Dean Hargrove, who worked on Perry Mason Returns, said: “I had always assumed that Raymond was gay, because he had a relationship with Robert Benevides for a very long time. Whether or not he had relationships with women, I had no idea. I did know that I had trouble keeping track of whether he was married or not in these stories. Raymond had the ability to mythologize himself, to some extent, and some of his stories about his past…tended to grow as time went by.”[56]

A 2007 memoir by actor Paul Picerni described several experiences with Burr on the set of Mara Maru, when he felt Burr expressed sexual interest in him. He wrote, “I saw him staring at me. With his big blue eyes. And with this strange expression on his face. For the first time in my life, I felt like a DAME. Then it hit me: He’d been giving me all this bullshit about his wife and his two kids in London, when in fact he was gay, and he was makin’ a move on me!” He remembered Burr “was a great guy and very subtle in his homosexuality.

During the filming of his last Perry Mason movie in the spring of 1993, Raymond Burr fell ill. A Viacom spokesperson told the media that the illness might be related to the malignant kidney that Burr had removed that February.[33] It was determined that the cancer had spread to his liver and was at that point inoperable.[72] Burr threw several “goodbye parties” before his death on September 12, 1993, at hisSonoma County, California, ranch near Healdsburg.[5] He was 76 years old.

Burr was interred with his parents at Fraser Cemetery, New WestminsterBritish ColumbiaCanada. On October 1, 1993, a gathering of about 600 family members and friends of Burr mourned him at a memorial service at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California.[73] The private memorial was attended by Robert Benevides, Barbara HaleDon GallowayDon MitchellBarbara Anderson, Elizabeth Baur, Dean HargroveWilliam R. Moses, and Christian I. Nyby II.

R. William Ide III, president of the American Bar Association, paid tribute to the way Burr’s Perry Mason presented lawyers “in a professional and dignified manner” and helped “to educate many people who previously had not had access to the justice system.” Though lawyers once complained of the character’s implausibly perfect track record, Ide complimented Burr because he “strove for such authenticity in his courtroom characterizations that we regard his passing as though we lost one of our own.”[21] The New York Times added that Mason “made the presumption of innocence real…[and] also made lawyers look good.[21] Not long before Burr died, Mason was named second after F. Lee Bailey in a poll that asked Americans to name the attorney, fictional or not, they most admired.[21]

Because Burr had not revealed his homosexuality during his lifetime, initial press accounts gave it sensational treatment. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that People magazine was preparing a story on Burr’s “secret life” and asked, “Are the inevitable rumors true?”[6][7] Burr’s Ironside co-star, Don Galloway, when asked about Burr’s sexual orientation, told People, “I don’t know. I never discussed with Raymond his sexuality.” The Sunday Mail invented a feminine Burr “wearing a pink frilly apron and doing the ironing. He fussed around like the woman of the house.”[74]

Burr bequeathed his estate to Robert Benevides and excluded all relatives, including a sister, nieces, and nephews. His will was challenged by a niece and nephew, Minerva and James, the children of his late brother, James E. Burr, without success.[75] The tabloids estimated that the estate was worth $32 million, but Benevides’ attorney, John Hopkins, said that was an overestimate.


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