WHEN IN 1956 RAYMOND BURR went to audition for CBS’s new courtroom drama series, Perry Mason, a producer took one look at the burly actor and told him to read for the role of the ominous district attorney, Hamilton Burger. But Burr knew better and insisted on a chance to try for the signature role of the dauntless defense attorney. As he entered the room, Erie Stanley Gardner, the author who had created the unbeatable barrister, leaped to his feet and shouted, “Thai’s him! That’s Mason!”
Over Burr’s 35-year TV career, millions echoed Gardner’s verdict. So much so that by the time Raymond Burr died of kidney cancer at his Healdsburg, Calif., farm on Sept. 12, he had become not only America’s lawyer but the world’s. With his weighty (as much as 320 lbs.) demeanor and piercing gaze, Burr made Mason an indestructible monument to the very notion of justice. “When you walked into a room with Raymond, it was an event,” says Barbara Anderson, his costar in a later show, Ironside. “He was a lowering presence.”
But for all the public authority he exuded, in his private life Burr was the most secretive of men. “There was a mysterious side to Ray,” says his friend of 40 years (and Mason stand-in), Lee Miller. Though profiles of Burr refer to three ill-fated marriages and the death of a son, many of Burr’s closest friends seem oddly unfamiliar with them. “Ray said he was married three times,” says Miller. “I never met any of [his wives]. He never brought up that side of his life.” Even John Strauss, his publicist since 1953, says Burr “never mentioned any wives or a son.”
Though gossip columnists touted him as dating young actresses including Natalie Wood, his most significant relationship was with his constant companion and business partner of over 30 years, Robert Benevides, who lived in a house on Burr’s 40-acre Sonoma County ranch. Burr’s close associates still refuse to discuss the rumors that circulated in Hollywood about his private life. “Are [those rumors] tine? I don’t know,’ says Burr’s Ironside costar Don Galloway. “I never discussed with Raymond his sexuality.” In any event, it was while retreating with Benevides to a remote island Burr owned in Fiji that he could be most himself, reveling in his passions for orchids, seashells, art and gourmet food and wine.
Burr’s early years hardly presaged stardom—dramatic, legal or otherwise. Raymond William Stacy Burr was born in New Westminster, B.C., the eldest of three children of William Burr, who owned a hardware store, and his wife, Minerva, a church organist. After his parents separated when he was 6, he attended a military school in northern California, which he would later liken to “purgatory.” There he was a fat kid whose classmates pelted him with rocks and ridiculed him because he was too heavy to ride a horse. “Fortunately, I could fight my way back,” Burr recalled. “But when you’re a little fat boy in any kind of school, you’re just persecuted something awful.” Banished from cavalry parades because of his weight, Raymond went instead on long strolls in a lush, private garden, where he developed what would become a lifelong passion for flowers.
After the Depression hit, he left school at 13, and having worked odd jobs to support his family, he eventually made his way to New York City, where he appeared on Broadway in the 1941 musical Crazy with Heat. In 1946 he made his Hollywood debut in San Quentin and went on to appear in more than 70 movies, often as a heavy (he was a psychotic stalker in 1956’s A Cry in the Night). But as his film career flourished, his personal life—if true to published accounts—was nothing short of disastrous. According to Burr’s bios, his three marriages all ended badly: His first wife, actress Annette Sutherland, was said to have died in a 1943 plane crash; a second marriage, to one Isabella Ward, ended in 1947; and in 1955, Burr’s third wife, Laura Morgan, died of cancer. Yet only the second marriage, annulled after three months, can be verified. Burr’s closest friends and longtime associates say they never met his wives, and throughout his life Burr consistently refused to discuss them. According to his sister Geraldine Fuller, 73, “My mother said he once tried to talk about his first marriage, but that tears came to his eyes and he just couldn’t bring himself to speak.” Two years ago, Burr did talk publicly for the first time about what he said was the death from leukemia of his only child, Michael, at the age of 10 in 1953. In the last year of the boy’s life, Burr told a reporter, he took lime off and “we traveled all around the United Stales together. We had a great year together, my boy and I.” Yet Strauss confirms that Burr actually worked nonstop during that time, and if the boy did exist, neither Burr’s friends—nor his mother and sister—ever saw him.
On the professional front, one screen role—as the gimlet-eyed prosecutor in 1951’s A Place in the Sun—was a harbinger of Burr’s breakthrough as the somber Mason. As the relentless attorney, Burr would bore in on some smug, guilty witness, invariably clinching a last-minute confession (usually with the help of his confidential secretary, Della Street, played by Barbara Hale, and sidekick Paul Drake, played by William Hopper).
Burr made Mason’s destruction of seemingly airtight cases look almost easy, but offscreen he was compulsive in preparation, rising most days at 3:30 a.m. during the series’ nine-year run to practice his courtroom monologues. Obsessed with his performance, he lived in a bungalow on the studio lot. He eventually became the highest-paid actor on TV, earning a reported $18,500 an episode.
After Mason went off the air in 1966, Burr returned the next year as the sharp-witted paraplegic chief of detectives in NBC’s Ironside. For the next eight years, wheelchair-bound Chief Robert T. Ironside and his squad of crimebusters captured another generation of viewers. Despite attempting another series (Kingston: Confidential), Burr never found the right role and escaped often—and happily—to Naitaumba, his 1,830-acre island in Fiji, which he bought in 1963 with Benevides. There he indulged his remarkable green thumb, cross-breeding thousands of rare orchids, raising cattle and running a coconut and dairy farm, all of which he sold in 1984 for $2 million. “It was his paradise,” says Calloway. “His own Shangri-la.”
As Burr’s career waxed and waned, so did his weight. When first cast as Mason, the 6’2″ actor had successfully trimmed off 130 lbs. to a linebacker-lean 210. But Burr, who suffered from arthritis aggravated by his weight, grew to Welles-ian proportions during the ’70s, ballooning to a massive 320 lbs. “I don’t overeat,” he insisted. “I only eat one meal a day…but my body has been one of those that has almost perfect assimilation, so everything I eat is assimilated, not lost.”
In 1985, Burr agreed to revive Perry Mason in an NBC movie, but he insisted that his close friend Hale reappear with him. Perry Mason Returns was a surprise hit, and he and Hale churned out 26 in the years that followed. Even though told late last year that he would be jeopardizing his life, he delayed surgery for a cancerous kidney. “He said he had earmarked his earnings from the upcoming movies to his various charities and he didn’t want to disappoint anyone,” says his doctor, Selvyn Bleifer. In December, Burr refused to cancel the filming of an Ironside reunion movie. “I didn’t even know he was taking chemotherapy,” says Anderson, “until I saw him shaking uncontrollably.” His kidney was removed in February, but in March, Bleifer told him that the cancer had spread and he had no hope of recovering. “He never asked how much time he had left,” says Bleifer. “He only spoke about how many things he still had unfinished.” In May, Burr flew to Denver, reporting to the set at 5 a.m. in a wheelchair to film his last Mason movie, The Case of the Killer Kiss, scheduled to air Oct. 22.
Burr then returned to his Sonoma County farm where he and Benevides bred exotic sheep and grew grapes for his private wine stock. With his body deteriorating, “He didn’t want to see friends and receive flowers,” says longtime friend Charles Macaulay. “That was too funereal.”
As the cancer moved to his lungs and eventually to his brain, Burr often refused morphine for his pain, wanting to be alert enough for the fall harvest. When the chardonnay grapes ripened four weeks ago, he and Benevides toasted on the terrace with a vintage champagne.
In the week before his death, Burr, 50 lbs. lighter but still a hefty 230, had himself wheeled outside to sit in the sunshine and gaze at his vineyards. He hoped to see his precious cabernet sauvignon grapes come of age. But in the final days, the pain became intolerable. Sedated and bedridden, he lapsed into a coma only hours before his death. “He rarely lost a battle, but he knew that this was one he simply couldn’t win,” says Macaulay. “It was a peaceful end after all the torment he endured.”
DORIS BACON in Los Angeles