RAYMOND BURR

RAYMOND BURR U.S. Actor

Raymond Burr is so associated with his characterization of television lawyer/detective Perry Mason that his rich and varied career in film, radio, and television is often ignored. His face, in the words of Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner, is cow-eyed. He is broad shouldered, heavy, robust, but excelled at playing introverted rather than extroverted characters. This may be, in part, why Burr accomplished the rare television feat in which actor becomes almost thoroughly identified with character, the performer inseparable from the role. Just as William Shatner is James Kirk, Peter Falk is Columbo, and Carroll O'Connor is Archie Bunker, Burr is Perry Mason.

Burr began as a stage actor who performed small roles in radio. His early film work was remarkable only in the sense that he rarely played anything other than the villain in such films as Raw Deal (1948). Burr even managed to play the "heavy" in comedies, such as the Marx Brothers' Love Happy (1949). When he was in the courtroom drama A Place in the Sun (1951) he assumed the role of the relentless District Attorney. During these movie years Burr continued to work in several radio series such as Pat Novak for Hire (1949) and Dragnet (1949-1950). In 1954 he confirmed his villainous persona with his appearance as the menacing wife-killer Lars Thorwald in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954).

In 1955 when he learned that the lawyer/detective drama Perry Mason was being cast for television, Burr was requested to audition--but for the part of district attorney Hamilton Burger, another "villain". As the story goes the producers at Paisano Productions (the Perry Mason production company) allowed Burr to try for the title role simply to secure his audition for Burger. Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the original Mason novels and co-creator of the television series, is said to have taken a look at Burr during the audition and declared "He's Perry Mason." This was the role Burr played from 1957 to 1966 and reprised in a successful series of Made-for-Television Movies from 1985 until his death in 1993.

At the time of Perry Mason's popularity Burr was one of the highest paid actors in series television, commanding a yearly salary of $1 million. Yet he was well known for his philanthropy. Between television production seasons he would take the time to journey to Vietnam on his own--not to perform but to meet and visit with those serving on the front lines. Burr was comfortable with self-depreciating humor and appeared in numerous television send-ups of his own career and characters on shows such as The Jack Benny Show and The Red Skelton Show.

What happened to Burr was a classic case of an actor being blended with a character he or she successfully plays. During his time on Perry Mason, Burr and his character gradually merged so much that when the series was recast in 1973 with Monte Markham in the title role the audience refused to accept anyone else as Mason. The Markham version was canceled after 15 unsuccessful episodes. The Burr/Mason association was so strong that Burr even received an honorary law doctorate from the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, California.

This connection between character and actor was a burden to Burr. He continued to be associated with Mason, even when he starred as a wheelchair-bound policeman in another successful series, Ironside (1967-75). In this series, Burr portrayed Chief of Detectives Robert Ironside, crippled by an assassin's bullet in the pilot episode. Although urged to retire, Ironside worked to ferret out criminals--this time from the prosecution's side. The show was pure crime drama common to the late sixties, mixed with "hip" dialogue and situations relevant to the time. As Richard Meyers argues in TV Detectives (1988), Ironside was the perfect "armchair detective." It was still rational detection, in the Perry Mason mode, that was his strongest asset.

Burr tried several other series, but after the twin successes of Perry Mason and Ironside he was unable to capture the unity of character that a television series needs. In 1976 he had the title role of (surprise) a lawyer in Mallory: Circumstantial Evidence, a pilot that never went to series. Next he played an investigative reporter in Kingston: Confidential, which aired as a series for less than a season 1977, and another lawyer in The Jordan Chance(1978), also a failed pilot. Through the early to middle 1980s Burr was a pitchman for a number of products such as the Independent Insurance Agents association.

Only when he returned to the role of Mason in the Made-for-Television Movie Perry Mason Returns (1985) was he able to renew his success in American television. He also reprised his role as Chief Ironside in The Return of Ironside in 1993. The original cast returned for what was planned to be a new series of Made-for-Television Movies, but only the first movie was completed. Burr finally succumbed to cancer on 12 September 1993.

To every character, Burr brought a cool calculation and intensity. In his three most notable roles--as Lars Thorwald in Hitchcock's Rear Window, Perry Mason and Robert Ironside--his acting is introspective and low-key. He portrayed Thorwald as stony-faced and deliberate, thoroughly menacing. That same focus was present in his Mason and Ironside but transformed Burr into the hero rather than the villain. While his Thorwald could level a stare across a courtyard to frighten voyeurs looking out their rear window, his Mason could stare down a witness and bring a quick and heartfelt confession. Further, his Ironside could do more acting sitting in a wheelchair than others could do standing. Burr's stare still reveals more than the ranting and pacing of most other actors.

-J. Dennis Bounds

 


Raymond Burr

RAYMOND BURR. Born in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada, 21 May 1917. Attended Stanford University, University of California, Columbia University, and University of Chungking. Married 1) Annette Sutherland, 1941 (died, 1943); children: Michael and Evan (died, 1953); 2) Isabella Ward, 1947 (divorced); 3) Laura Andrina Morgan, 1953 (died, 1955). Served in California Conservation Corp. and Forestry Service. Began stage career as teenager, eventually performing on Broadway in Crazy with the Heat, 1941, and The Duke in Darkness, 1944; director, Pasadena Community Playhouse, 1943; started film career in 1946; cast often as villain, notably in A Place in the Sun, 1951, and Rear Window, 1954; television actor, appearing as title character in Perry Mason, CBS, 1957-66, and Ironside, NBC, 1967-75; returned to television as Perry Mason in 1985-86 made-for-television movie, which led to 25 subsequent Perry Mason made-for-television movies on NBC; started Royal Blue Ltd., television production company with business partner Robert Benevides, 1988. Recipient: Emmy Awards, 1959 and 1961. Died, in Dry Creek, California, 12 September 1993.

TELEVISION SERIES

1957-66 Perry Mason
1967-75 Ironside
1977 Kingston: Confidential

TELEVISION MINISERIES

1977-9 Park Ave
1978 Centennial
1978 The Bastard

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1967 Ironside: Split Second to an Epitaph
1971 The Priest Killer
1976 Mallory: Circumstantial Evidence
1977 Kingston: The Power Play (pilot)
1978 The Bastard (narrator)
1978 The Jordan Chance
1979 Love's Savage Fury
1979 Disaster on the Coastliner
1980 Curse of King Tut's Tomb
1980 The Night the City Screamed
1981 Peter and Paul
1985 Perry Mason Returns
1986 Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun
1986 Perry Mason: The Case of the Shooting Star
1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Lost Love
1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Murdered Madam
1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel
1987 Perry Mason: The Case of the Sinister Spirit
1988 Perry Mason: The Case of the Avenging Ace
1988 Perry Mason: The Case of the Lady in the Lake
1989 Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin
1989 Perry Mason: The Case of the Lethal Lesson
1989 Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder
1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Desperate Deception
1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Poisoned Pen
1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer 1990 Perry Mason: The Case of the Defiant Daughter
1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Mobster
1991 Perry Mason: the Case of the Ruthless Reporter
1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Glass Coffin
1991 Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Fashion
1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Framing
1992 Grass Roots
1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Reckless Romeo
1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Heartbroken Bride
1993 The Return of Ironside
1993 Perry Mason: The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host
1993 Perry Mason: The Case of the Skin-Deep Scandal
1993 Perry Mason: The Case of the Killer Kiss

FILMS

Without Reservations, 1946; San Quentin, 1947; Code of the West, 1947; Desperate, 1947; I Love Trouble, 1947; Fighting Father Dunne, 1948; Pitfall, 1948; Raw Deal, 1948; Ruthless, 1948; Sleep My Love, 1948; Station West, 1948; Walk a Crooked Mile, 1948; The Adventures of Don Juan, 1948; Abandoned, 1949; Black Magic, 1949; Bride of Vengeance, 1949; Love Happy, 1949; Red Light, 1949; Borderline, 1950; Key to the City, 1950; Unmasked, 1950; Bride of the Gorilla, 1951; His Kind of Woman, 1951; M, 1951; The Magic Carpet, 1951; New Mexico, 1951; A Place in the Sun, 1951; The Whip Hand, 1951; Horizons West, 1952; Mara Maru, 1952; Meet Danny Wilson, 1952; Bandits of Corsica, 1953; The Blue Gardenia, 1953; Fort Algiers, 1953; Serpent of the Nile, 1953; Tarzan and the She-Devil, 1953; Casanova's Big Night, 1954; Gorilla at Large, 1954; Khyber Patrol, 1954; Passion, 1954; Rear Window, 1954; Thunder Pass, 1954; Count Three and Pray, 1955; A Man Alone, 1955; They Were So Young, 1954; You're Never Too Young, 1955; The Brass Legend, 1956; A Cry in the Night, 1956; Godzilla: King of the Monsters, 1956; Great Day in the Morning, 1956; Please Murder Me, 1956; Ride the High Iron, 1956; Secret of Treasure Mountain, 1956; Affair in Havana, 1957; Crime of Passion, 1957; Desire in the Dust, 1960; P.J., 1968; Tomorrow Never Comes, 1977; The Return, 1980; Out of the Blue, 1980; Airplane II: The Sequel, 1982; Godzilla 1985, 1985; Delirious, 1985.

STAGE

Night Must Fall; Mandarin; Crazy with the Heat, 1941; The Duke in Darkness, 1944.

FURTHER READING

Hill, Ona L. Raymond Burr: A Film, Radio and Television Biography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.

Kelleher, Brian, and Diana Merrill. The Perry Mason Show Book. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Margolick, David. "Raymond Burr's Perry Mason was Fictional, But He Surely Was Relevant and, Oh, So Competent." The New York Times, 24 September 1993

Martindale, David. The Perry Mason Casebook. New York: Pioneer, 1991.

Meyers, Richard. TV Detectives. San Diego: A. S. Barnes, 1988.

 

See also Perry Mason