Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Raymond Burr's Fabricated Hetero Life

Many gay actors invest enormous amounts of energy to remain closeted, but few deceptions were as convoluted as that of Canadian-born Raymond Burr (1917-1993), known for decades as TV’s Perry Mason. He believed he could conceal his homosexuality by creating an imaginary life to hide his thirty-five-year relationship with Robert Benevides. Burr told everyone he was married three times and had a son who died of leukemia at the age of ten. However, a few years after his death, Burr’s sister admitted that her brother was married only once (the marriage was annulled after a few months) and never had a son.

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.

Nine seasons, 271 episodes, and two Best Actor Emmy wins later, the Perry Mason series came to an end. This gig was followed by the highly successful Ironside NBC series (1967-1975), in which Burr played paralyzed police detective Robert Ironside.













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.

By the mid 1980s, the portly actor and some of his series co-stars returned for the first of twenty-six, two-hour made-for-TV Perry Mason movies. It was about that same time that Burr and Benevides began growing grapes in Sonoma County, California. Their first releases came to market in 1990. To this day, Robert Benevides oversees the award-winning Chardonnay and Cabernets at Raymond Burr Vineyards. These wines have won a number of gold medals and even a Sweeps prize at the 2008 San Diego Wine Competition.

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.




2 comments:

  1. I happened to research on Raymond Burr for a travel article http://travelboldly.blogspot.com/2013/07/fiji-orchid-make-perry-masons-former.html I was writing about the Fiji Orchid guest house on Viti Levu in Fiji. I found Burr's story very compelling especially the lengths he went to conceal his secret life. He was a revered figure in Fiji and the orchid gardens he established are still giving joy.

    Perry Mason reruns continue to be one of my favorite television shows.

    Thanks your post.

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  2. Met Raymond in 1989 at age 16 at the Leonardo Divinci Airport in Rome. He was deplaning and I was on my way to Athena. He was soooooooooooo wonderful and nice. My only regret is that I didn't sit with him for coffee or tea as I was in transit. Missed opportunity! Wish I were born in 1940 so that I could have had the chance to know people like Raymond Burr, Gary Cooper, and Anthony Perkins.

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