Raymond Burr‘s (1917 – 1993) Perry Mason character was the creation of lawyer-turned-writer Erle Stanley Gardner in 1933. Mason appeared first in paperback books, and then was the center of a CBS radio show, which was made into a short-lived television series titled The Edge Of The Night. And then, with a new cast and a new focus, the original stories concentrated almost exclusively on the courtroom drama, instead dividing time between the courtroom and the characters’ personal lives, Perry Mason had his own self-titled CBS show which ran from 1957 to 1966. Perry Mason was the first weekly one-hour series filmed for television, and it remains one of the longest-running and most successful legal-themed series in Television History.
Perry Mason reruns have been playing on a Portland, Oregon television station every day for the past 50 years. No another American station has continuously broadcast episodes of Perry Mason as long as KPTV, where the show debuted in syndication just 15 days after ending its nine year run on CBS. It’s among the least expensive shows to buy, even as KPTV has moved from showing it on film reels to one-inch tapes to digital tapes, and now streaming digital with closed captioning. Station Manager Patrick McCreery:
“Most markets don’t want it; they figure that with high-definition digital sets and 5.1 stereo sound, what viewer is going to want to watch an old black and white show? We’ve found very loyal viewers. It’s the linchpin of our daytime programming.”
Living deeply in the closet was never rare in Hollywood, but the backstory of Burr’s career holds special interest to me. Typecast as a “heavy” when he first landed in Hollywood after World War II, his imposing presence and brooding demeanor made him a perfect choice for a bad guy in film noir and crime dramas. Burr perfectly played the chilling homicidal husband across the courtyard from Jimmy Stewart‘s Greenwich Village apartment in Alfred Hitchcock‘s classic Rear Window (1954), and the district attorney who took apart Montgomery Clift‘s testimony in A Place In The Sun (1951).
Burr was never an A-List film actor. He became a big star in the brand new medium of television, with two different series that took up two decades of his career. As the title character on Perry Mason (1957-66) and as a wheelchair bound detective on the popular Ironside (1967-75), he became one of television’s highest paid actors and best known faces. Burr returned to his most famous role in 1985 for the beginning of another decade-long run of made-for-television specials beginning with Perry Mason Returns. That means Burr played Perry Mason in four different decades! Extraordinarily popular, writer Gardner cranked out his Perry Mason books by the dozens. Plus, there were Perry Mason dolls, lunchboxes and board games. Even Ironside had action figures.
The current HBO series is neither a revival nor a reboot. It has a terrific Depression-era Los Angeles setting that is two decades earlier than the CBS show, but is has a lot more in common with the novels by Gardner; and let’s face it Matthew Rhys is no Burr.
Because of the era in which Burr lived and worked, public knowledge of his gayness would most certainly have ruined his career. He was stubbornly, intensely private to the very end. Burr put in an enormous amount of energy in order to remain in the closet. The efforts it took to live the lie took their toll on him physically and psychologically. He believed he could safeguard his privacy by creating an imaginary history to hide his gayness and his long relationship with fellow actor Robert Benevides, 13 years his junior, who he had met on the set of Perry Mason in 1957. He went to the trouble to invent two dead wives, a dead son, and then fabricate reports of his military service during World War II to fill out those blank spaces in his biography. He retold the tales for so long and so often that they even found their way into his obituaries.
In the 1950s, Burr was “romantically” linked to actor Natalie Wood. They were genuinely fond of each other, plus she made a great beard. They remained close friends until her very mysterious death in 1981.
Burr used his long hours on the set as a convenient excuse whenever the subject of marriage was brought up by colleagues or the press:
“I am an unmarried man, as opposed to a single man. A bachelor, according to the dictionary, is a man who has never been married. An unmarried man is not married at the moment. Many of these terms have fallen into disuse. It’s a good thing I am not married because I’m working eighteen hours a day and sometimes don’t come home from the studio at all.”
Burr was in nearly every scene of all 271 episodes of Perry Mason. He had to memorize more than 15 pages of dialogue every day. The courtroom scenes were especially tough to shoot. He usually slept about four hours a night at the studio during the week, getting up just before daybreak to go over that day’s lines. A cute young actor, Paul Kennedy, stayed with him, working as his “dialogue director”. Perry Mason was so popular with viewers that CBS went to great lengths to make their star happy, giving him a furnished three-room bungalow on the lot, complete with all the amenities, including Kennedy and a “personal secretary”, Bill Swann, a former concert singer. Burr:
“Let’s just say that the part isn’t conducive to leisurely living the way I once knew it. I only hope that I can regain my own identity, once I decide that Perry Mason and myself have come to the parting of the road. Perry Mason has become a career for me. All I know is that I work, eat and sleep Perry Mason. It’s a lucky thing I’m not married now. No woman would understand my work schedule.”
On his rare time off, Burr would volunteer for USO tours in Korea and military bases around the Western USA. I am not certain what sort of act he had or how he could compete with Ann-Margret for the sailor’s and soldier’s attention. On one of the tours, Burr brought back a souvenir named Frank Vitti, described by the gossip rags as “Burr’s nephew”. Vitti, a former sailor, lived at Burr’s Malibu house, where, apparently, he had his own bedroom. Later, Vitti became the curator of Burr’s Beverly Hills art gallery. When you are in the closet, there is no better cover than owing an art gallery.
Burr dealt with the press by seldom granting interviews. When a magazine would do a feature on Burr’s personal life, it was always a “Raymond Burr At Home” story featuring his petting zoo in Malibu, and the gourmet meals he cooked for his close friends. Burr always said that he way too busy to date anyone anyway.
The Perry Mason cast was extremely close, noted as one of the tightest-knit ensembles in showbiz. Burr treated castmates Hale, Talman, Collins, and William Hopper (son of gossip queen Hedda Hooper) as family. Burr was especially close to Hale, who played Perry Mason’s assistant Della Street on all nine seasons of the series and 30 television movies. Burr named one of his hybrid orchids for her. Hale left this world in 2017, gone at 94 years old.
His coworkers had to have known about Burr’s gayness and they protected him. Hedda Hopper had extra incentive to ensure that Burr was not the subject of gay rumors. Maybe because he worked in television instead of films, Burr seemed to have been able miss the scrutiny brought to Rock Hudson and Cary Grant.
Throughout his life, Burr was unfailingly generous to charities and he gave away much of his time when he wasn’t keeping his grueling work schedule. He was especially kind to guest-stars and crew. Although he didn’t know him, when Burr heard that character actor George Stone was sick, nearly blind and unable to find work, he hired him to play the Perry Mason court clerk, a role that only required Stone to sit at a desk and look busy. When makeup artist Irving Pringle collapsed on the set from a hemorrhaging ulcer, Burr drove him to the hospital and stayed all night at his side. When he heard that a little girl who had been horribly burned in an accident had requested an autographed photo of her hero Perry Mason instead of a letter from President Dwight Eisenhower, Burr flew to the East Coast to visit her in the hospital. He was furious when press photographers showed up for the event and refused to let his picture be taken with her.
Burr and Benevides shared a passion and a business for orchids, which they bred on their private island in Fiji. Later they owned and ran a successful vineyard in Sonoma. At their home in Palm Springs, the couple was known to throw all-male pool parties along with their pal Rock Hudson. The couple was together for 36 years. When Burr was diagnosed with that damn cancer in spring 1993, he threw a series of summer goodbye parties at their place in Sonoma and then took that final curtain call in September. He died with Benevides at his side at their home. 92-year-old Benevides continues to run the Raymond Burr Winery.
“I don’t have much of an ego, but I have a great deal of confidence!”
Perry Mason theme by Fred Steiner; Best Theme Song Ever?