Day 18 of Noirvember: The “What a Character!” Blogathon Presents Raymond Burr
(Warning: This post is long. Seriously. You may want to pack a lunch.)
Perry Mason. Ironside. Two fictional characters with whom the name of Raymond Burr is instantly and inextricably linked. But the handsome, hefty actor of stage, screen, and television led a life off-screen that was far more fascinating and complex than even the most fanciful script could supply. An intensely private man, Burr apparently invented much of his past, including several wives, a son, and service in World War II. Renowned for his generosity, numerous accounts abound of the actor’s demonstrations of his compassion for loved ones and strangers alike. And in contrast with his somber television persona, Burr was a notorious practical joker who left his co-workers never knowing what next to expect.
Although he was on the right side of the law during his prolific television career, in films Burr was almost always cast as a villain, and lent his commanding presence to a whopping 10 features from the film noir era: Desperate (1947), Pitfall (1948), Sleep, My Love (1948), Raw Deal (1948), Abandoned (1949), Red Light (1950), M (1951), His Kind of Woman (1951), The Blue Gardenia, and Crime of Passion (1957).
Raymond William Stacy Burr was born on May 21, 1917, in New Westminster, British Columbia, the oldest of three children. His father, William, worked as a hardware store salesman, and his mother, Minerva, a native of Chicago, Illinois, studied music and played the piano in the local symphony orchestra. Minerva also played the piano to accompany the silent movies that were shown at the town’s movie theater, which may have spurred Burr’s initial interest in an acting career.
When Burr was six years old, his mother moved the family to Vallejo, California, where her parents owned a small hotel. Unable to find employment in California, William Burr returned to Canada after eight months, and the couple later divorced. (Some 30 years later, in 1955, William and Minerva would remarry and remain together until Minerva’s death in 1974). After several years, Burr was sent to the San Rafael Military School in Northern California, but it was a miserable experience for the youngster. Burr, who would struggle with a weight problem for most of his life, was ostracized and teased by his classmates, and was reportedly barred by school officials from riding horses in the school’s cavalry parades because of his size. He would later refer to his tenure at the school as “purgatory.”
At the age of 17, Burr dropped out of school to join the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a federally-funded project of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration that was designed to put unemployed youths to work in forests, parks, and range lands. Up until this point, Burr’s acting experiences had been limited to church plays and school productions, but after leaving the CCC, he reportedly met film director Anatole Litvak, who arranged for Burr to act in a summer theater in Toronto. Later, according to published reports, Burr traveled with a repertory company in Britain, then landed a job singing in a Paris nightclub, Le Ruban Bleu. Back in the United States, Burr signed on with the famed Pasadena Playhouse, for which he appeared in several productions, then headed for New York to try his luck on Broadway.
In 1940, Burr debuted on Broadway in Crazy with the Heat, but the play was a flop and his performance went virtually unnoticed. Undaunted, the actor remained in New York, earning his keep by working a series of odd jobs. Three years later, he was back on Broadway, portraying the French patriot, Voulain, in The Duke in Darkness. His critically acclaimed performance attracted the notice of Hollywood agent Lester Salkow, who arranged for a screen test at RKO Studios, where Burr later signed a contract.
Burr’s life at this point becomes somewhat of a mystery. The actor later claimed that he enlisted in the United States Navy in 1943, was assigned to counter-intelligence, and was wounded while aboard a ship in the Pacific that was bombed by Japanese Kamikaze planes. After undergoing several operations, Burr said, he was awarded the Purple Heart. Other published reports declare that Burr was shot in the stomach while in Okinawa. However, no records exist to indicate that Raymond Burr ever served in the United States Navy at all.
This unexplained gap in time notwithstanding, Burr made his film debut in 1946 in RKOs Without Reservations, a rather bland comedy starring John Wayne and Claudette Colbert. He followed this feature with his first role as a villain, portraying an escaped convict in San Quentin (1947), then attracted notice from critics for his performance as a sinister heavy in Code of the West (1947). Later that year, he turned in another menacing performance in his first film noir, Desperate (1947). The film’s star, Steve Brodie, said that he was responsible for Burr’s casting in the role.
“Ray was . . . testing for a biblical part, so I suggested his name to the producer, Michael Kraike, for our picture,” Brodie said. “Kraike liked the idea, and for the next decade villain roles were about the only parts Raymond Burr played.”
This gripping, Anthony Mann-directed thriller focuses on Steven Randall (Brodie), who drives a truck and whose newlywed wife, Anne (Audrey Long), is expecting their first child. Anxious to add to his income, Steve is enticed by an old neighborhood chum, Walt Radak (Burr), into hauling a shipment of perishables, but balks at the job when he that his cargo consists of stolen goods. When Steve signals a passing cop, gunfire is exchanged, killing the policeman and leaving Walt’s kid brother, Al (Larry Nunn), charged with murder. Steve flees the scene and goes on the lam with his pregnant wife, tracked relentlessly by Walt – and the cops. Although a small film, Desperate did modest business at the box office, and Burr’s menacing characterization of Walt was one of the highlights of the picture.
The following year, Burr was seen in three films noirs, Sleep, My Love (1948), Raw Deal (1948), and Pitfall (1948). In the first, Sleep, My Love, the actor was only briefly seen as a police sergeant, but he logged more screen time in his next noir of the year, Raw Deal. This well-done feature starred Dennis O’Keefe as Joe Sullivan, a gangster imprisoned for a crime committed by his boss, Rick Coyle (Burr). It is Coyle who aids Joe’s escape from prison, but his motivation is far from chivalrous: “He was screaming he wanted out,” Coyle tells his underlings. “When a man screams, I don’t like it. Especially a friend. He might scream loud enough for the D.A. to hear. I don’t want to hurt the D.A.’s ears. He’s sensitive.”
Directed by Anthony Mann, Raw Deal was praised by one critic for its taut action and “slambang finale,” but Burr’s notices were mixed; while the critic for the Motion Picture Herald noted his “good performance [as] a sinister and sadistic criminal boss,” the actor was dismissed in Variety as “reminiscent of the late Laird Cregar in bulk and manner but . . . deficient in a sinister quality.” But Burr elicited none of these ambiguities in his final noir of the year, Pitfall, where he was a standout as a psychotic detective named Mack MacDonald. The film’s action centers on married insurance agent Johnny Forbes (Dick Powell), whose dull, suburban life gets an unexpected jolt when he meets a beautiful blond, Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott). Planning to retrieve stolen items Mona received from her embezzler boyfriend (Byron Barr), Johnny falls for her instead, becoming ensnared in a web of lies at home, and running afoul of MacDonald, whose pursuit of Mona knows no bounds. Burr was universally hailed for his portrayal of the nefarious detective – in the Los Angeles Daily News, Frank Eng wrote that the character was “beautifully underplayed to its unctuous hilt by Raymond Burr,” and the critic for the New York Times raved: “As the heavy, literally and figuratively, a newcomer named Raymond Burr does a sinister and fascinating job. He is a big man and unless we are mistaken, his weight, histrionically and otherwise, will make an impression on the screen in days to come.”
During the next three years, Burr was seen in a variety of features, including Bride of the Gorilla (1951), a campy, low-budget horror film which saw the actor transform into a gorilla-man, and A Place in the Sun (1951), which featured one of the screen performances for which he is best remembered – the unyielding district attorney whose vehement prosecution sends Montgomery Clift to the electric chair. Also during this period, Burr added four more noirs to his dark repertoire: Abandoned (1949), Red Light (1950), M (1951), and His Kind of Woman (1951). The first of these, Abandoned (touted as “the year’s most sensational picture”), focused on a baby-stealing racket headed by a kindly-looking middle-aged woman, Mrs. Donner (Marjorie Rambeau), and Kerric (Burr), described by one character as “the cheapest private detective in town, [who] specializes in framing divorces and frightening little children.” Although Abandoned was perhaps the weakest of Burr’s nine films noir, it was labeled “a melodrama with sock” by one reviewer, and Burr was singled out for his “magnificent performance of [a] sharply etched character.”
Burr’s next noir, Red Light, begins with a foreword that tells the audience: “A prison is a place where crime usually ends, but in our story this is where it began.” The mastermind of the crime in question is Nick Cherney (Burr), who was sent to prison for embezzling from his former boss, trucking magnate Johnny Torno (George Raft). With the assistance of a soon-to-be-paroled buddy (Henry Morgan), Nick exacts revenge on Torno by arranging the murder of his beloved brother, an Army chaplain who recently returned from the war. Once again, Burr was lauded for his performance – in the Los Angeles Examiner, Sara Hamilton gushed: “A special line goes to Raymond Burr for his superb work as the scheming embezzler. Here’s an actor you’ll be asking about long after you’ve come out of the theater, so let’s have more of Burr in roles like these, please.”
The actor was mostly overlooked, however, in his seventh noir, M, the remake of the 1931 Fritz Lang classic. As a whispery-voiced mob captain, Burr was overshadowed both on screen and in reviews by David Wayne’s role of the film’s child-killer, but he played a more significant role in his next film noir, His Kind of Woman. Here, Burr was Nick Ferraro, a syndicate boss exiled in Italy, who conjures a plot to murder and assume the identity of professional gambler Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum). Despite a first-rate cast, His Kind of Woman was a disappointment at the box office, and critics were generally unimpressed, with the reviewer from the New York Times labeling it “one of the worst Hollywood pictures in years . . . probably the only one since the advent of Vitaphone that needs sub-titles.” (I’ve found it to be great fun, though – not to mention one of the campiest noirs around.)
Around this time, Burr embarked on the first of seven overseas USO tours to visit soldiers fighting in the Korean War. He took the trips during the next four years, often turning down lucrative film roles, and in 1953, he headed a contingent that remained in the Far East for six months, longer than any other group. During these visits, Burr not only emceed the nightly shows, but also insisted on going to front lines, according to Army commander Maj. Stan McClellan, who said that the actor went “in and out of bunkers, weapons positions, half-destroyed trenches, ammo supply points.”
“I can’t describe the open-mouthed amazement with which he was greeted by every soldier we met!” McClellan said in The Saturday Evening Post. “He stopped and talked to each of them. It did more than anything else to convince the men of this fighting outfit that the ‘folks at home’ were really not so far away after all.” After returning home from his overseas visits, Burr would frequently telephone the parents of the soldiers he had visited, in order to tell them how their sons were doing. And when the conflict ended in 1955, Burr continued his commitment to the country’s servicemen, coordinating shows for bases along with West Coast and visiting veterans’ hospitals on a regular basis. Asked on one occasion why he engaged in such activities, Burr replied that it was “because I think it should be done, and there aren’t enough people doing it.”
Career-wise, Burr was seen in a mixed-bag collection of films, including his ninth film noir, The Blue Gardenia (1953). In this feature, Burr essayed yet another bad-guy role, playing a sleazy ladies’ man named Harry Prebble. Although his relatively minor role earned little mention, Burr was singled out by Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote that the actor was “particularly successful as a heavy.”
The following year, Burr played perhaps the best-known role of his screen career, a hen-pecked jewelry salesman who strangles and dismembers his wife in Rear Window (1954). In addition to this first-rate feature, Burr was seen in Gorilla At Large (1954), an entertaining 3-D melodrama in which the actor portrayed another wife-killer; Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), the classic Japanese monster movie, in which Burr held the distinction of being the only non-Japanese cast member; A Cry in the Night (1956), featuring Burr in a standout role as the psychotic kidnapper of Natalie Wood; and Crime of Passion (1957), the actor’s film noir swan song. This feature starred Barbara Stanwyck as Kathy Doyle, a bored housewife who becomes preoccupied with furthering the career of her police detective husband, Bill (Sterling Hayden). When Kathy learns that Bill’s boss, Inspector Tony Pope (Burr) plans to retire, she seduces him, using the occasion of their one-night stand to exact a vow that he will name Bill as his successor. For his standout performance as Pope, Burr earned high praise from critics, including the reviewer from the New York Times, who wrote: “In a mighty ticklish role, Mr. Burr, as a man with a conscience, is excellent.”
By now, Burr had expanded his performing repertoire to include both radio and television. Since 1947, he had been on numerous radio broadcasts, including a starring role in 1956 on the CBS radio production of Fort Laramie. And beginning in the early 1950s, he guested on such television shows as Family Theatre, Sound-Off Time, and Lux Video Theatre. But in 1957, he accepted the television role for which is perhaps best associated – the unbeatable, implacable defense attorney, Perry Mason, based on the series written by Erle Stanley Gardner. Ironically, though, Burr was not the first choice for the role – he was originally considered for the role of district attorney Hamilton Burger.
“Fortunately for us, he said he would test for Burger only if we tested him for Mason, too,” former actress and show producer Gail Patrick Jackson said in a 1959 Saturday Evening Post article. “When Erle saw Ray’s tests, he said, ‘That’s Perry Mason.’”
For the next nine years, Burr starred in 271 episodes of the popular series, appearing on-screen in 90 percent of each episode, and earning Emmy Awards in 1958-59 and 1960-61 for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Series (Lead). Throughout the run of Perry Mason, the conscientious actor lived primarily in a bungalow on the studio where the show was shot, rising at 3:30 a.m. to learn his numerous lines, and working until 7:30 p.m. each weekday.
“To live at the studio was the only way I could do the job,” Burr said in a 1988 interview with TV Guide. “I had no life whatsoever, except the show. We did 39 shows in our first season alone. . . . The tension to make it right week after week could get to you.”
To lighten the often-stressful atmosphere on the set, Burr became notorious for playing practical jokes on his co-stars. A favorite target was Barbara Hale, who played Mason’s faithful secretary, Della Street. According to the actress, Burr’s pranks included putting a baby alligator in a drawer that she opened during a courtroom scene, having all of her dressing room furniture removed and deposited at her house, hiding a small white mouse in the toe of a stocking that Hale had washed and hung up to dry, and nailing her shoes to the floor. (“Someday I shall get even,” Hale said in 1959.)
During his tenure on the Perry Mason show, instances of Burr’s overwhelming generosity and compassion continued to mount. In one case, Burr learned that a veteran screen actor, George E. Stone, had fallen ill and had not worked for several years. Burr, who had not previously met the actor, arranged for him to be hired as the court clerk on Perry Mason, a steady job that required no exertion. In another case, Burr learned of a little girl in Worcester, Massachusetts, who had been severely burned in a fire, and had requested a picture of her favorite television character, Perry Mason. The following weekend, Burr flew to Massachusetts to visit the child in the hospital and, incensed when the press showed up, refused to be photographed. Another instance involved the show’s makeup man, who collapsed on the set one day, suffering from a hemorrhaging ulcer.
“Who took him to the hospital? Ray,” Gail Patrick Jackson told TV Guide. “And was up all night with him.”
Cast member William Talman, who portrayed prosecutor Hamilton Burger, relayed yet another story.
“How many guys do you know who would throw their houses open to refugees? Two years ago, when they had the big Malibu fire, Ray insisted on them bringing people to [his house],” Talman said in a 1961 interview. “This is just an open-hearted guy. His personal life reflects his utter dedication to causes, to serving his fellow man.”
As the popularity of the show increased with each passing season, Burr began to receive thousands of fan letters on a weekly basis, was frequently asked to address lawyer’s conventions, and was awarded an honorary law degree from the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. Not all litigators were fans, however. Many lawyers objected to Mason’s unbeaten track record, claiming that the show made prosecuting attorneys look “ridiculous.” (Contrary to popular belief, Mason did not win all of his cases on the show; in a fall 1963 episode, entitled “The Case of the Deadly Verdict,” the jury found Mason’s client guilty.) And in a well-publicized case, a North Carolina judge once refused to attend a local Bar Association convention because Burr was scheduled as the featured speaker.
In concert with Burr’s exploding popularity with the public, countless articles began to appear about the actor, providing details of his professional career and his personal life. Nearly every published account of Burr focused on the tragedies of his troubled personal life, stating that the actor had been married three times. According to these articles, Burr’s first wife, Annette Sutherland, was a British (or Scottish) actress with whom he had a son, Michael Evan. Sutherland reportedly died in the 1943 plane crash that also killed actor Leslie Howard and young Michael was sent to relatives in England, but he died of leukemia in 1953, at the age of 10. Meanwhile, the reports state, Burr married again in 1947, this time to Isabella Ward, whom he had met while both were performing at the Pasadena Playhouse. This marriage later ended in divorce. And Burr’s third wife, Laura Andrina Morgan, reportedly died of cancer just weeks after their wedding in 1950 (or 1954, depending on the account).
This chronicling of Burr’s tragic loves and losses makes for engrossing reading, but apparently it contains little truth. According to Burr’s sister, Geraldine Fuller, the actor was married only once, to Isabella Ward, but the union was annulled after just three weeks. And none of the actor’s friends or relatives ever reported having met or even seen a photograph of his son. The sole rationale for these contrived tales was that they served to cover up the reality of Burr’s personal life.
“It was an open secret towards the middle and end of his career that he was gay . . . That was a time in Hollywood history when homosexuality was not countenanced,” celebrity biographer Bob Thomas said in a 2000 documentary on Burr’s life. “To have that revealed would be a career-ending move. Ray was not a romantic star by any means, but he was a very popular figure . . . If it were revealed at that time in Hollywood history, it would have been very difficult for him to continue.”
Rather than the marriages described in Burr’s biographical accounts, the actor had a longtime relationship with actor Robert Benevides, who met Burr in 1955 when he delivered a script to his house. The two formed a business and personal partnership that would last until Burr’s death in 1993. In 1965, Burr and Benevides purchased a remote island in Fiji, on which they raised dairy and beef cattle, became part-owners of a local newspaper, and established a business cultivating rare orchids. With his typical compassion, Burr also built a school for the native children of the island and in later years, he arranged for 30 Fijians to come to the United States, where he paid for their education. In the mid-1980s, Burr would sell the island and, with Benevides, purchase a vineyard in Sonoma, California, where he would continue to raise his orchids and eventually begin cultivating wine. The Raymond Burr Vineyards is still in operation today.
Career-wise, after nearly a decade, Perry Mason finally defended his last case in 1966. Despite his lengthy association with the show, however, Burr did not experience a pleasant parting. Burr later revealed that, after urging from CBS executives, he had verbally agreed to a 10th and final season, only to read in the newspaper that the series had been cancelled.
“Nothing about the end was nice,” he told TV Guide in 1988. “I remember finishing my last scene at 10 in the morning and going to my dressing room to take my makeup off. I had a watch on that they’d bought for Mason five or six years before, which I wore on the show, and I was in my dressing room for no more than 10 minutes before they came over and asked for the watch. . . . I thought it was bad manners [to ask for it] before I even had my face washed – like I was going to steal it. . . . I gave them the watch and never saw any of them again.”
Burr wasted little time before leaping into another television series. In 1967, he was back on the small screen in the title role of Ironside, an hour-long series about a former chief of detectives who was confined to a wheelchair after being paralyzed during an assassination attempt. Like Perry Mason, the show was a runaway hit and ran for eight successful seasons, finally ending in January 1975 after 199 episodes. Two years later, Burr embarked on another series, Kingston: Confidential, on which he portrayed investigative reporter R.B. Kingston. But for Burr, the third time wasn’t the charm, and the series was cancelled after 13 episodes.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, in addition to his work on Ironside, Burr managed to find time for other television projects, guesting on a variety of popular series. He also formed his own company, Harbour Productions, producing and starring in, among other projects, the 1973 made-for-television movie, A Man Whose Name Is John, based on the life of Pope John XXIII.
In 1985, at age 68 and nearly three decades after filming the final episode of Perry Mason, Burr reprised his role as the daunting defense attorney in a two-hour television movie, The Return of Perry Mason. He was joined by Barbara Hale, who had played his secretary, and Hale’s son, actor William Katt (best known for his roles in Carrie (1976) and on television’s The Greatest American Hero) portrayed the son of Mason’s private investigator Paul Drake.
“I like to work,” Burr said in 1988 of his return to the role. “And I like the growth in Mason, the change in him and his personality. . . . I think people always like seeing their system of justice affirmed – and it always is with Mason. The innocent go free. The guilty get caught. And Mason is the guy who does it all.”
The Return of Perry Mason was the highest-rated television movie of 1985, and Burr went on to star in 25 more Perry Mason movies over the next eight years. By 1992, however, Burr’s health had begun to fail, and in January 1993 he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. With his typical selflessness, Burr delayed an operation in order to complete filming on two television movies, another in the Perry Mason series and The Return of Ironside.
“He wanted to make sure that he finished the show for everybody else,” Robert Benevides said in 2000. “He was an amazing man.”
By the time the movies were completed, however, Burr’s cancer had spread and was inoperable. The actor spent the next several months at his home in Sonoma, overseeing the dispersal of his estate through various charities, gifts to friends, and the creation of grant and trust programs. During the last several weeks of his life, Burr hosted farewell parties for his friends and family, as well as for the approximately 23 foster children whom he had supported over the years.
On September 12, 1993, with his life companion Robert Benevides at his side, Raymond Burr died at his Sonoma Valley home. His death saw the end not only to a fine acting career that had spanned six decades and encompassed radio, stage, screen, and television but, more importantly, the life of a man who thought more of others than he did himself.
“He worked with Errol Flynn at one point, and Flynn told him, ‘If I died with more than $10 in my pocket, I haven’t done a good job.’ I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what he said,” Robert Benevides said. “And Raymond lived by that. And when he died, he didn’t have any money. He had nothing. Because he had given everything away. He had done so much, for so many people – it’s amazing. . . . I’ll never know another man like that.”
This post (a version of which appeared in my 1998 book, Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir) is part of the What a Character! Blogathon, presented by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club.
Click the pic to the right to check out the great posts offered as part of this annual event! You only owe it to yourself.
(And join me tomorrow for Day 19 of Noirvember!)