Raymond Burr (Raymond William Stacey Burr)
Raymond William Stacey Burr was born in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada, to William Johnston Burr (1889–1985), a hardware salesman, and his wife, Minerva Annette (née Smith, 1892–1974), a concert pianist and music teacher. His mother was born in Chicago, Illinois; Burr’s ancestry included Irish, English, Scottish, and German. After his parents divorced, Burr, then 6 years old, moved to Vallejo, California, with his mother and younger siblings, Geraldine and James Edmond, while his father remained in New Westminster. He attended a military academy for a while and graduated from Berkeley High School. In later years, Burr freely invented stories of a happy childhood. He told The Modesto Bee in 1986, for example, that when he was twelve and a half years old, his mother sent him to New Mexico for a year to work as a ranch hand. He was already his full adult height and rather large and “had fallen in with a group of college-aged kids who didn’t realize how young Raymond was, and they let him tag along with them in activities and situations far too sophisticated for him to handle.” He developed a passion for growing things and, while still a teenager, joined the Civilian Conservation Corps for a year. Throughout his teenaged years, he had some acting work, making his stage debut at age 12 with a Vancouver stock company. Burr may have served in the Coast Guard, but never in the United States Navy as his publicists and he later claimed. He had claimed he was seriously wounded in the stomach during the Battle of Okinawa in the latter stages of World War II. Other invented biographical details include years of college education at a variety of institutions, two marriages, and a son who died as a teenager, world travel, an acting tour of the United Kingdom, and success in high school athletics. Such claims were accepted as fact by the press during his lifetime and by his first biographer.
In 1937, Burr began his acting career at the Pasadena Playhouse. In 1941, he landed his first Broadway role in Crazy with the Heat. He became a contract player at RKO studio, playing a film noir villain in Raw Deal (1948). In 1946, he had a regular part in Jack Webb’s first radio show, Pat Novak for Hire, playing Webb’s nemesis Detective Heilman. Burr appeared in over 60 movies between 1946 and 1957. In 1976, Richard Schickel cited his performance in Pitfall (1948) as a prototype of film noir in contrast with the appealing television characters for which Burr later became famous. He received favorable notice for his role as an aggressive prosecutor in A Place in the Sun (1951), co-starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winters. His most notable film role was that of a suspected murderer in the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window (1954), starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. He played the part of reporter Steve Martin in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956). Burr emerged as a prolific television character actor in the early to mid-1950s. He made his television debut on the April 24, 1952, episode “The Tiger” of Gruen Playhouse on the DuMont Television Network. (At about the same time, Burr guest-starred on an episode of The Amazing Mr. Malone on ABC.) This part led to other roles in such programs as Dragnet, Chesterfield Sound Off Time, Four Star Playhouse, Mr. & Mrs. North, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, The Ford Television Theatre, and Lux Video Theatre. During this time, Burr’s distinctive voice also could be heard on network radio, appearing alongside Jack Webb in the short-lived Pat Novak for Hire on ABC radio, as well as in early episodes of NBC’s Dragnet. He also made guest appearances on other Los Angeles-based shows, such as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and landed a starring role in CBS’s Fort Laramie (1956), which depicted 19th-century life at old Fort Laramie. One year later, Burr became a television star as Perry Mason.
In 1956, Burr auditioned for the role of District Attorney Hamilton Burger in Perry Mason, a new CBS-TV courtroom drama based on the highly successful novels by Erle Stanley Gardner. Impressed with his courtroom performance in the 1951 film, A Place in the Sun, executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson told Burr he was perfect for Perry Mason, but at least 60 pounds overweight. Over the next month, Burr went on a crash diet. When he returned, he tested as Perry Mason and won the role. Gardner reportedly saw his audition and declared, “He is Perry Mason.” William Hopper also auditioned as Mason, but was instead cast as private detective Paul Drake. Also starring were Barbara Hale as Della Street, Mason’s secretary; William Talman as Burger, the district attorney who loses nearly every case to Mason; and Ray Collins as homicide detective Lieutenant Arthur Tragg. The series ran from 1957 to 1966, and Burr won Emmy Awards in 1959 and 1961 for his performance as Perry Mason. The series has been rerun in syndication ever since. Beginning in 2006, the series has become available on DVD, with each calendar year having the release of one season as two separate volumes. The ninth and final season’s DVD sets became available in 2013. Though Burr’s character is often said never to have lost a case, he did lose two murder cases in early episodes of the series, once when his client misled him and another time when his client was later cleared. In the early 1960s, Burr narrated one film and appeared in several others sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service. They were designed to educate the public about accident prevention.
Burr moved from CBS to Universal Studios, where he played the title role in the television drama Ironside, which ran on NBC. In the pilot episode, San Francisco Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside is wounded by a sniper during an attempt on his life and is left an invalid in a wheelchair. This role gave Burr another hit series, the first crime drama show ever to star a disabled police officer. The show, which ran from 1967 to 1975, earned Burr six Emmy nominations and two Golden Globe nominations. Burr’s weight, always an issue for him in getting roles, became a public relations problem when Johnny Carson began making jokes about him during his Tonight Show monologues. Burr refused to appear as Carson’s guest from then on and told Us Weekly years later: “I have been asked a number of times to do his show and I won’t do it. Because I like NBC. He’s doing an NBC show. If I went on I’d have some things to say, not just about the bad jokes he’s done about me, but bad jokes he does about everybody who can’t fight back because they aren’t there. And that wouldn’t be good for NBC.” In later life, his distinctive physique and manner could be used as a reference that would be universally recognized. One journal for librarians published a writer’s opinion that “asking persons without cataloging experience to design automated catalogs…is as practical as asking Raymond Burr to pole vault.”
NBC failed in two attempts to launch Burr as the star of a new series. In a two-hour television movie format, Mallory: Circumstantial Evidence aired in February 1976 with Burr again in the role of the lawyer who outwits the district attorney. Despite good reviews for Burr, the critical reception was poor and NBC decided against developing it into a series. In 1977, Burr starred in the short-lived TV series Kingston: Confidential as R. B. Kingston, a William Randolph Hearst-esque publishing magnate, owner of numerous newspapers and TV stations, who, in his spare time, solved crimes along with a group of employees. It was a critical failure that was scheduled opposite the extraordinarily popular Charlie’s Angels. It was cancelled after 13 weeks. Burr took on a shorter project next, playing an underworld boss in a six-hour miniseries, 79 Park Avenue One last attempt to launch a series followed on CBS. The two-hour premiere of The Jourdan Chance aroused little interest. In 1985, Burr was approached by producers Dean Hargrove and Fred Silverman to star in a made-for-TV movie Perry Mason Returns. Burr recalled in a 1986 interview, “They asked me to do a new ‘Godzilla’ the same week they asked me to do another Perry Mason, so I did them both.” He agreed to do the Mason movie if Barbara Hale returned to reprise her role as Della Street. Hale agreed and when Perry Mason Returns aired in December 1985, her character became the defendant. The rest of the original cast had died, but Hale’s real-life son William Katt played the role of Paul Drake, Jr. The movie was so successful, Burr made a total of 26 Perry Mason television films before his death. Many were filmed in and around Denver, Colorado. By 1993, when Burr signed with NBC for another season of Mason films, he was using a wheelchair full-time because of his failing health. In his final Perry Mason movie, The Case of the Killer Kiss, which ironically was based on the final 60-minute episode, “The Case of the Final Fadeout”, he was shown either sitting or standing while leaning on a table, but only once standing unsupported for a few seconds. Twelve more Mason movies were scheduled before Burr’s death, including one scheduled to film the month he died. In 1993, as he had with the Perry Mason TV movies, Burr decided to do an Ironside reunion movie. In May of that year, The Return of Ironside aired, reuniting the entire original cast of the 1967–1975 series. Like many of the Mason movies, it was set and filmed in Denver. Burr’s illness precluded any further such reunions.
In 1973, Burr starred in one-hour television drama, Portrait: A Man Whose Name Was John. He portrayed Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, as he tried to prevent the forced return of Jewish children from Istanbul to Nazi Germany. Burr co-starred in such TV films as Eischied: Only The Pretty Girls Die, the miniseries Centennial, and Disaster On The Coastliner (all in 1979), The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb and The Night the City Screamed (both 1980), and Peter and Paul (1981). He also had a supporting role in Dennis Hopper’s controversial film Out of the Blue (1980) and spoofed his Perry Mason image in Airplane II: The Sequel (1982). Burr reprised his 1956 role in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in Godzilla 1985: The Legend Is Reborn. The film won Burr a nomination for a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actor. Burr delivered the film’s closing lines: “For now, Godzilla – that strangely innocent and tragic monster – has gone to earth. Whether he returns or not, or is never again seen by human eyes, the things he has taught us remain.” Burr also worked as media spokesman for the now-defunct British Columbia-based real estate company Block Bros. in TV, radio, and print ads during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1983, he made a rare stage appearance when he starred in the thriller Underground at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto and after a UK tour, at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London. On January 20, 1987, he hosted the television special that later served as the pilot for the long-running series Unsolved Mysteries.
During the filming of his last Perry Mason movie in the spring of 1993, Raymond Burr fell ill. A Viacom spokesperson told the media that the illness might be related to the malignant kidney that Burr had removed that February. It was determined that the cancer had spread to his liver and was at that point inoperable. Burr threw several “goodbye parties” before his death on September 12, 1993, at his Sonoma County ranch near Healdsburg. He was 76 years old. Burr was interred with his parents at Fraser Cemetery, New Westminster, British Columbia. On October 1, 1993, a gathering of about 600 family members and friends of Burr mourned him at a memorial service at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California. The private memorial was attended by Robert Benevides, Barbara Hale, Don Galloway, Don Mitchell, Barbara Anderson, Elizabeth Baur, Dean Hargrove, William R. Moses, and Christian I. Nyby II. R. William Ide III, president of the American Bar Association, paid tribute to the way Burr’s Perry Mason presented lawyers “in a professional and dignified manner” and helped “to educate many people who previously had not had access to the justice system.” Though lawyers once complained of the character’s implausibly perfect track record, Ide complimented Burr because he “strove for such authenticity in his courtroom characterizations that we regard his passing as though we lost one of our own.” The New York Times added that Mason “made the presumption of innocence real … [and] also made lawyers look good. Not long before Burr died, Mason was named second after F. Lee Bailey in a poll that asked Americans to name the attorney, fictional or not, they most admired. Because Burr had not revealed his homosexuality during his lifetime, initial press accounts gave it sensational treatment. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that People magazine was preparing a story on Burr’s “secret life” and asked, “Are the inevitable rumors true?” Burr’s Ironside co-star, Don Galloway, when asked about Burr’s sexual orientation, told People, “I don’t know. I never discussed with Raymond his sexuality.” The Sunday Mail invented a feminine Burr “wearing a pink frilly apron and doing the ironing. He fussed around like the woman of the house.” Burr bequeathed his estate to Robert Benevides and excluded all relatives, including a sister, nieces, and nephews. His will was challenged by a niece and nephew, Minerva and James, the children of his late brother, James E. Burr, without success. The tabloids estimated that the estate was worth $32 million, but Benevides’ attorney, John Hopkins, said that was an overestimate.
- May, 21, 1917
- New Westminster, British Columbia
- September, 12, 1993
- Healdsburg, California
Cause of Death
- Fraser Cemetery
- New Westminster, British Columbia