Sunday, November 27, 2011
Raymond Burr's Fabricated Hetero Life
Burr was leading a secret gay life at a time in Hollywood when an acknowledged homosexuality was career suicide, so he fabricated a tragic biography for himself in which he was mythologized as a heartbroken husband and father. There was even an invented affair with a teenage Natalie Wood, 21 years his junior.
At the height of his popularity in television and film, he frequently gave speeches to the American Bar Association, by virtue of his famous portrayal of lawyer Perry Mason. Burr was driven to embellish this elaborate façade when he found out in 1961 that a member of the American Bar Association had given the FBI documents indicating that Burr was "a noted sex deviate." Burr’s response was a classic case of gay panic.
Burr’s television persona, Perry Mason, was a defense attorney who was the main character in works of detective fiction by celebrated author Erle Stanley Gardner. Burr played this role for an astonishing five decades. He won fame, fortune, and numerous awards for portraying Mason for nine years on TV, followed by 26 made-for-TV movies. When TV Guide asked Burr shortly before his 1993 death to name a single regret, he answered, “It was accepting the role that made me famous: Perry Mason. It dominated my life. Perry took over, and it became a burden.”
In 1993, Burr’s close friend, actor Charles Macaulay, told Mary Murphy of TV Guide, “Raymond Burr really was Perry Mason. The two were one and the same.” Maybe so, but Raymond Burr had other interests. He was an innovative breeder of orchids, an award-winning vintner, a respected Beverly Hills art dealer, and foster father to more than twenty children.
The 6'3" actor began work as a teenaged lounge singer, and soon thereafter Dragnet’s Jack Webb gave him work as a radio actor, which led to theater work. At age twenty, Burr became a member of a Toronto-based repertory theater. However, his real fame was achieved as a TV and movie actor.
In 1954 he played the menacing wife-killer Lars Thorwald in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, Rear Window. Two years later, the tall, rotund actor appeared in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the first of the Godzilla movies. That same year Burr auditioned for the title role in CBS’s upcoming Perry Mason series. At the audition, Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner witnessed Burr’s reading and exclaimed “He’s Perry Mason.”
After the CBS drama premiered in 1957, Raymond Burr was suddenly a big star and one of television’s highest paid actors. He spent much of his income to support a philanthropic lifestyle. Burr famously opened his home and wallet to out of work actors. As well, he supported more than twenty foster children. Without publicity, and at his own expense, Burr made trips to Korea and Vietnam to support and speak with our soldiers serving on the front lines. He was awarded an honorary law doctorate from the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, California, on the basis of his association with the role of TV lawyer Perry Mason.
Burr’s generosity took other forms, as well. When William Talman, who played the forever losing prosecutor Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason, was busted during a raid at a pot party (in the nude no less), he was fired by CBS. They used the morals clause in their contract to dump him. But Burr tirelessly worked on behalf of Talman to get his job back. Burr refused to remove Talman’s coffee mug from the rack on the set and forbade Talman’s dressing room to be cleaned out or his space on the studio parking lot to be reassigned. Eventually the executives at CBS relented and Talman was back on the show, but his career would have been finished if it had not been for Burr’s intervention.
It was on the set of Perry Mason that Burr first met Robert Benevides, the man who would become his companion and partner. Burr and Benevides discovered a mutual interest in the hybridization of orchids. Together they started a nursery with orchid ranges in Fiji, Hawaii, the Azores and Southern California. Over a twenty-year period, their hybridization was responsible for more than fifteen hundred new orchids being added to the worldwide catalogue. Also with Benevides, Burr opened a successful Rodeo Drive art gallery.
Diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 1992, Burr retreated with Benevides to their Sonoma Valley ranch, where the TV icon spent his final days dispersing his wealth through charities, gifts to friends, and the development of grant and trust programs. In the last two weeks of his life, Raymond Burr hosted farewell parties for his friends and foster children. He was buried in New Westminster, British Columbia, the town where he was born, now home to the Raymond Burr Performing Arts Center.
Fred Steiner, composer of the Perry Mason theme, died this past June at the age of 88. He wrote numerous TV themes, including music for the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, Gunsmoke, The Danny Thomas Show, and “Park Avenue Beat,” the name of the Perry Mason theme music. Have a listen to this distinctive composition.