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Raymond Burr

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Perry Mason: The Case of the Libelous Locket

Season 6 – Episode 17, Orig. Air Date: 7 Feb 1963, Special Guest Star: Michael Rennie.
Janice Norland comes into Law Prof. Lindley’s office, saying she just killed a man and needs help. However, when they return to the scene, there is no body. When it develops into a case of blackmail, Janice’s stepmother, Maureen, comes to Prof. Lindley and asks for his help. With Perry in the hospital, he must undertake the defence when Janice is accused of murder. Cast: Raymond Burr as Perry Mason, Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as Paul Drake, William Talman as DA Burger, Wesley Lau as Lt. Andy Anderson, Patrice Wymore as Maureen Norland, Ruta Lee as Vivian Cosgrave, John Hoyt as Darwin Norland, Harry Von Zell as Sidney Hawes, Patricia Manning as Janice Norland and Michael Rennie as Prof. Edward Lindley.

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

His early acting career included roles on Broadway, radio, television and in film, usually as the villain.   He won two Emmy Awards in 1959 and 1961 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 Globenominations.   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.   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 on SanibelFlorida.

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

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

Early life

Burr was born Raymond William Stacey Burr in New WestminsterBritish ColumbiaCanada, to William Johnston Burr (1889–1985), an Irish hardware salesman, and his wife, Minerva (née Smith, 1892–1974), a concert pianist and music teacher, who was of English and Scottish descent.   After his parents divorced, Burr moved to Vallejo, California with his mother and younger siblings, Geraldine and James Edmond. He attended a military academy for a while and graduated from Berkeley High School.

In later years Burr freely invented stories of a happy childhood. He told the Modesto Bee in 1986, for example, that when he was twelve and a half years old, his mother sent him to New Mexico for a year to work as a ranch hand. He was already his full adult height and rather large and “had fallen in with a group of college-aged kids who didn’t realize how young Raymond was, and they let him tag along with them in activities and situations far too sophisticated for him to handle.”   He developed a passion for growing things and, while still a teenager, joined the Civilian Conservation Corps for a year. Throughout his teenage years he had some acting work, making his stage debut at age 12 with a Vancouver stock company.

Burr may have served in the Coast Guard, but never in the United States Navy as he and his publicists later claimed.   Nor was he seriously wounded in the stomach during the Battle of Okinawa in the latter stages of World War II.   Other invented biographical details include years of college education at a variety of institutions, world travel, an acting tour of the United Kingdom, and success in high school athletics.   Such claims were accepted as fact by the press during his lifetime and by his first biographer.

Early career

In 1937 Burr began his acting career at the Pasadena Playhouse. In 1941, he landed his first Broadway role in Crazy with the Heat. He became a contract player at RKO studio, playing a film noir villain in Raw Deal (1948).

Burr appeared in over 60 movies between 1946 and 1957. In 1976 Richard Schickel cited his performance in Pitfall (1948) as a prototype of film noir in contrast with the appealing television characters for which Burr later became famous.   He received favorable notice for his role as an aggressive prosecutor in A Place in the Sun (1951), co-starring Elizabeth TaylorMontgomery Clift and Shelly Winters. Perhaps his best-known film role of the period was that of a suspected murderer in the Alfred Hitchcockclassic Rear Window (1954), starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly.   He played the part of reporter, Steve Martin, in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956).

Burr emerged as a prolific television character actor in the early to mid-1950s. He made his television debut on the April 24, 1952 episode “The Tiger” of Gruen Playhouse on the DuMont TV network. (At about the same time, Burr guest-starred on an episode of The Amazing Mr. Malone on ABC.) This part led to other roles in such programs as DragnetChesterfield Sound Off TimeFour Star PlayhouseMr. & Mrs. NorthSchlitz Playhouse of StarsThe Ford Television Theatre, and Lux Video Theatre.

During this time Burr’s distinctive voice also could be heard on network radio, appearing alongside Jack Webb in the short-lived Pat Novak for Hire on ABC radio, as well as in early episodes of NBC’s Dragnet.   He also made guest appearances on other Los Angeles-based shows, such as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and landed a starring role in CBS‘s Fort Laramie (1956), which depicted 19th-century life at old Fort Laramie.   One year later, Burr became a television star as Perry Mason.

Perry Mason and Ironside

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.”   Burr eventually won the role with which he was most closely identified.   The series ran from 1957 to 1966, and Burr won Emmy Awards in 1959 and 1961 for his performance as Perry Mason. The series has been re-run in syndication ever since.   Beginning in 2006, the series has become available on DVD, with each calendar year seeing the release of one season as two separate volumes. 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.

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.

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.   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.”   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.”

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.   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.   Burr took on a shorter project next, playing an underworld boss in a six-hour miniseries, 79 Park AvenueOne last attempt to launch a series followed on CBS. The two-hour premiere of The Jourdan Chance aroused little interest.

In 1985, Burr was approached by producers Dean Hargrove and Fred Silverman to star in a made-for-TV movie Perry Mason Returns.   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.”   He agreed to do the Mason movie if Barbara Hale returned to reprise her role as Della Street.    Hale agreed and when Perry Mason Returns aired in December 1985, her character became the defendant.  The rest of the original cast had died, but Hale’s real-life son William Katt played the role of Paul Drake, Jr.   The movie was so successful Burr made 26 more before his death.   Many episodes were filmed in and around Denver, Colorado.

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, he was shown either sitting or standing while leaning on a table, but only once standing unsupported for a few seconds.  Twelve more Mason movies were scheduled before Burr’s death, including one scheduled to film the month he died.

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.  Burr’s illness precluded any further such reunions.

Other work

In 1973, Burr starred in one-hour television drama, Portrait: A Man Whose Name Was John. He portrayed Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, as he tried to prevent the forced return of Jewish children from Istanbul to Nazi Germany.

Burr co-starred in such TV films as Eischied: Only The Pretty Girls Die, the miniseries Centennial, and Disaster On The Coastliner(all in 1979), The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb and The Night the City Screamed (both 1980), and Peter and Paul (1981). He also had a supporting role in Dennis Hopper‘s controversial film Out of the Blue (1980) and spoofed his Perry Mason image in Airplane II: The Sequel (1982).

Burr reprised his 1956 role in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in Godzilla 1985: The Legend Is Reborn.   The film won Burr a nomination for a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actor.   Burr delivered the film’s closing lines: “For now, Godzilla – that strangely innocent and tragic monster – has gone to earth. Whether he returns or not, or is never again seen by human eyes, the things he has taught us remain.”

Burr also worked as media spokesman for the now-defunct British Columbia-based real estate company Block Bros. in TV, radio, and print ads during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1983, he made a rare stage appearance when he starred in the thriller Underground at the Royal Alexandra TheatreToronto and after a UK tour, at the Prince of Wales TheatreLondon.

On January 20, 1987, he hosted the television special that later served as the pilot for the long-running series Unsolved Mysteries.

Personal life

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.   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.   As late as 1991, Burr told Parademagazine 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.”   His publicist knew that Burr worked in Hollywood throughout the year he said he was touring with his son.  As with Burr’s claims to have served in the U.S. military, many of these fictions were believed and widely reported.

In the late 1950s, Burr was rumored to be romantically involved with Natalie Wood. 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.   Burr felt enough attraction to Wood to resent Warner 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.”

Sexual orientation

In the mid-1950’s, 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 about 1960. Benevides gave up acting in 1963 and later became a production consultant for 21 of the Perry Mason TV movies. Together they owned and operated an orchid business and then a vineyard, in the Dry Creek Valley. They were partners until Burr’s death in 1993.   Burr left Benevides his entire estate, including “all my jewelry, clothing, books, works of art,…and other items of a personal nature.”

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:

“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.”  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.”

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.”

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