You are hereMagazines 1980-1989 / Raymond Burr
BY TOM SOTER
from VIDEO, September 1986
Raymond Burr is big-perhaps 300 pounds-with blue cow eyes that seem to stare into your soul. At 69, his hair is short-cropped and gray and he wears a trim goatee that covers his oval face. He is talking about Perry Mason, which is not surprising, since the lawyer-detective has recently catapulted Burr back into the limelight. In 1985, he played the late Erie Stanley Gardner's creation-as he had 271 times before-in Perry Mason Returns, an NBC TV-movie. It was the most-watched television film of the year, beating everything (including The Cosby Show). In May, he returned in Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun, and is presently working on three more Masons. "I begged CBS [the original producer of Mason] to let me do a two-hour movie for nine years," he says. "They wouldn't. When NBC offered me this, I jumped at it."
He has always believed in the principles of Perry Mason, which he sees as a reaffirmation of the world's best justice system. He would probably agree with Gardner's assessment of Mason's appeal: "Mason is for the underdog. People want to know that there is someone out there looking out for their rights."
That identification helped make the series one of the most successful in TV history and earned Burr a pair of Emmy awards. Among the top-rated programs during its CBS run (1957-1966), it has never left the airwaves, showing without interruption in over 70 countries and in hundreds of cities throughout the United States. Taping and collecting all the episodes has become a popular hobby for fans.
Surprisingly, Burr was no one's first choice for Mason. Between 1946 and 1956, he had appeared in 60 movies, usually – because of his imposing bulk – as a villain. He threatened the Marx Brothers in Love Happy, chased Lex Barker in Tarzan and the She-Devil, stalked Natalie Wood in A Cry in the Night, and stared across a courtyard at Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's Rear Window, where he was both moving and menacing as the pathetic wife murderer. He appeared in virtually anything, from Godzilla (inserted, as American reporter Steve Martin, into the 1954 Japanese film) to George Stevens' A Place in the Sun, where he was memorable as the limping district attorney opposite Montgomery Clift.
Despite their varied significance, all these films were essential to his craft. "Acting is just another form of communication, " he says. "And if you can not communicate-if you don't have the opportunity-then you could be the world's greatest actor, but it means nothing."
He grew tired of playing heavies, however, and decided that TV was his ticketout. When Perry Mason came up, he was asked to audition for the role of district attorney Hamilton Burger. He insisted they let him try out for Mason as well. When Erle Stanley Gardner saw him he said, "That's Mason," and Burr beat out Fred MacMurray and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. for the part.
Burr threw himself into the role with the dedication of a true believer, although he now claims, "I prepared for it the way I prepare for any role." He talked with "countless" judges and "countless" lawyers and then went to "countless" courtrooms to see the system at work. During the series, he double-checked each script with six appellate judges. During production, he lived in a bungalow near the set, usually rising at 3 AM to study his part.
It paid off. Perry Mason was a hit, as formulaic as Greek tragedy but much more entertaining. As TV historians Harry Castelman and Walter J. Podrazik observed, "Perry Mason was a triumph of technique over format, because every episode in the series was identical ... The series was a straight whodunit, complete with a full range of suspects and clues that allowed the viewer to become an armchair detective." The shows (which had such colorful titles as "The Case of the Treacherous Toupee" and "The Case of the Grinning Gorilla") usually climaxed with exchanges like this:
Mason (pausing, then staring thoughtfully at the witness): "All right, Miss Howard, let's get down to cases. Mr. Granger gave you the gun, the weapon used to murder George Lutz. You returned a different gun. You knew Mrs. Granger was going to be on that hilltop. You destroyed evidence. If you are not trying to protect someone, then you murdered George Lutz!"
Witness: "No! No! I didn't! It was an accident! It was Mrs. Granger, she was supposed to be the one ..."
Mason: "You mean you deliberately aimed at Mrs .Granger and Lutz got in the way?"
Witness: "No! I didn't say that! I didn't shoot Mr. Lutz!"
Mason: "Then who did?"
Witness (pointing to a man in the courtroom): "He did it! Herbert! Herbert Dean!" (Gasps from the gallery.)
Burr remembers if all with a brooding sadness. His usually booming voice lowers as he stares straight ahead. "The only regret I have in my whole life is that I did Perry Mason for too long. I should have gotten married, had children. Had a life." He doesn't mention that he was married three times, that two wives died suddenly and that a third divorced him. He doesn't talk about his only child, either, who died of leukemia. AlIne does say is: "I was so tied up with that show. I built one of the most beautiful homes in California, and I never lived there."
The show wasn't all that occupied him. .With it came a commitment to do good, to carry the character over into real life. And so this Canadian hardware merchant's son who took up acting after seeing Philip Merivale onstage in Death Takes a Holiday became a real-life crusader for justice. He made thirty goodwill trips to Korea and Vietnam during the wars there, visiting the wounded and conveying messages home; provided financial support to foster children in five countries; delivered scores of speeches before lawyers and law enforcement groups; arid engaged in ceaseless fundraising and lobbying activities for the Cerebral Palsy Association, National Safety Council, B'nai B'rith, and the March of Dimes. It was such a crusade that led him to Ironside.
"After Perry Mason, everybody said I would never work another day in anything," he remarks. "And the writing was on everybody's wall that you would never be able to make a success doing a show about a handicapped person. And I thought, 'All the handicapped people out there-if they're being told this every minute of every day, what is that doing to them?' "
Ironside was almost as big a success as Mason, running from 1967 through 1975. Burr's company produced it, and he made it more personal: the crippled chief of detectives was plainly vulnerable, fighting his physical pain and helplessness by crusading against injustice. Burr was soon on the road campaigning for the rights of paraplegics. "I have been to forty states, and we changed the laws in every one," he notes. "If you look into it, you'll find that people in wheelchairs can't vote because they can't get through the polling booth. Or into government offices. Try going to City Hall in a wheelchair. Or anywhere. We've gotten curbs lowered so handicapped people can go down in the street. Handicapped people want to do it for themselves."
He is still obsessed with work. To him, it equals living. And yet he seems to be searching for something. Respect? Truth? People? He remembers Pope John XXIII, whom he knew and portrayed in a TV drama. He talks about Henry the Navigator, "one of the most significant figures in history. Without him, Columbus wouldn't have discovered America. This country might not have been discovered for another 200 years."
He seems to know so much, to do so much, to still want so much more. All types of people fascinate him. ''I am most at home with the Fiji Islanders and the Portuguese," he notes. 'They have a great deal of respect for each other. As perfect strangers, they respect their fellow men more than any other nationals in the world." Until recently, he owned a 4000-acre Fiji island, where he raised orchids and helped build a school. These days, when he is anywhere for long, it's southern California.
He resents every wasted minute. "There are two things I cannot stand. One is people who lie to me and people who are late. That's the most disrespectful thing in the world. I don't care when you make the but 1 have no idea what to do with my if you're half an hour late. Arid the time you're late, I'm not going to be there."
The threat is tempered with a laugh, and the moment sums up much of what Burr is about: generosity mixed with impatience, selflessness with sarcasm, confidence with insecurity. He recalls a painter who asked him to pose for a portrait. The actor consented, but only if the artist would paint both the canvas, showing Burr's front and back. There's a chuckle in his eyes as explains. "I don't like my face, and I to be able to turn it to the wall." He smiles, adding, "I think it's a wonderful idea – to just have your back to the room."