Sunday, May 21, 2017

Birthday: the man who made a fictional character real

I am an unmarried man, as opposed to a single man. A bachelor, according to the dictionary, is a man who has never been married. An unmarried man is not married at the moment. Many of these terms have fallen into disuse.

raymond burr.jpg

Raymond William Stacy Burr (1917-1993)
Actor, philanthropist

He played heavies- literally and figuratively- his entire career, joking that he and William Conrad had a lock on all the fat villain parts in Hollywood after World War II. He was one of the busiest actors ever, with 5,000 radio plays, 200 stage productions ranging from community theater to Broadway, 90 movies, innumerable television roles and two of the most popular TV series ever.

Raymond Burr was a Canadian-born character actor who caught the eye of some Hollywood casting directors after he played a hard-driven prosecutor in the 1951 film A Place in the Sun. They invited him to read for the role of Hamilton Berger, the district attorney in Erle Stanley Gardner’s best-selling crime novel series.

Burr didn’t get the part, but the producers offered him another shot if he slimmed down. Sixty pounds lighter, he reappeared and read for the defense attorney part in the TV show.

Born in British Columbia, Raymond Burr was a fat kid whose parents divorced in 1927. His mother took the family to southern California. There, Burr- who grew up fast and could play parts older than his years, started getting community theater roles at twelve. At seventeen he joined a Canadian touring company that covered the UK, Australia and India; taught acting at some California community colleges, and moved effortlessly- and successfully- into radio as an actor and singer. He had a series of Broadway roles in the 1940s, which led to a dizzying decade making over fifty movies in the new film noir genre. The critic Richard Schickel noted Burr’s ability to wring remarkably nuanced performances from wooden roles, making his villains at once “pathetic and reprehensible.”

Burr was rarely one to refuse a role, which is how he won enduring camp fame as the American broadcaster in the 1956 rollout of an eternal franchise, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” (Burr, far from distancing himself from his schlockier gigs, always insisted he loved the movie: so much so that thirty years later he replayed his role in a 1985 remake).

But it was Perry Mason that made Raymond Burr, and Raymond Burr who made his character, and the books from which it sprang, everlasting. With a strong, harmonious cast, great writers, and Gardner’s watchful eye (he played the judge in the last episode), the series won Emmy nominations three years in a row- winning two) and ran for eleven years.

Burr then jumped from CBS to NBC and launched another successful series, Ironside. The first crime drama to depict a disabled star (Burr played a cop-turned-police-consultant paralyzed after an on-duty shooting), the show ran for eight years and scooped up another sackful of nominations and awards.

After twenty years of weekly TV, Burr’s screen persona seemed to have run its course: three late 1970s’ series launches all failed. But in 1985 he returned to his Perry Mason role in what became 26 successful TV movies spanning the rest of his life.

For one so much in the public eye, Burr remained a surprisingly unknown character. He was a gifted fabulist and spun an impenetrable- at least during his life- web of stories about himself: that he’d spent a year as a kid working on a ranch in New Mexico; he’d served in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Depression. Sometimes he was a Coast Guard veteran; others, an injured Navy combatant at Okinawa. He’d been married several times; widowed twice, and fathered a son who died young.

None of it was true, but it was how gay actors survived in postwar Hollywood. And if they toed the line, the studios helped out with their publicity machines.

Burr also helped himself by being, by acting standards, as extraordinarily kind man. He was a tireless USO performer and looked out for his colleagues on every production. As radio faded in the 1950s, for example, he went out of his way find roles for former costars. Over 180 got work on the show. When Ray Collins, who played Lt Tragg, experienced failing health and memory late in the Mason series, Burr worked the episodes around what he could still do.

He gave away vast sums of money to charities, supported foster children, and starred in a juror orientation film that played in American courthouses for decades. With his partner, Robert Benevides, Burr developed a successful worldwide orchid business- becoming experts in hybridization- and then a winery. He imported, bred and popularized Portuguese water dogs, which enjoyed a renewed surge of popularity over the last decade as the White House pets of the Obama family.

Burr, co-star Barbara Hale, and Benvenides

Burr kept working to near the end of his life, doing his last Mason movies from a wheelchair. Diagnosed with kidney cancer, he threw himself a series of farewell parties and died at 76, on September 12, 1993. He left his estate of $15 million to Benvenides; an irked niece and nephew challenged the will and lost.

Benvenides, now 87, continued the nascent winery, christening the Sonoma property Raymond Burr Vineyards. He put it on the market last year.

The Perry Mason series has remained in syndication on TV for over fifty years.

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