He was known for his title roles in the television dramas Perry Mason and Ironside however he had an extensive career in film noir in the 1950s.
Earl of Puddlestone
Code of the West
I Love Trouble
Sleep, My Love
Fighting Father Dunne
Walk a Crooked Mile
Bride of Vengeance
Key to the City
His Kind of Woman
The Whip Hand
Bride of the Gorilla
The Magic Carpet
Meet Danny Wilson
The Bandits of Corsica
The Blue Gardenia
Serpent of the Nile
Tarzan and the She-Devil
Casanova’s Big Night
The Immortal City
Gorilla at Large
They Were So Young
You’re Never Too Young
Count Three and Pray
A Man Alone
Please Murder Me
Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
Great Day in the Morning
Secret of Treasure Mountain
A Cry in the Night
The Brass Legend
Affair in Havana
Desire in the Dust
1962 (educational shorts)
“When Sally Fell”
Tomorrow Never Comes
Out of the Blue
Airplane II: The Sequel
Showdown at Williams Creek
Raymond Burr was never nominated for an Academy Award
Try and live your life the way you wish other people would live theirs. ~ Raymond Burr
Raymond William Stacy Burr was born May 21, 1917, in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada. His father, William Johnston Burr (1889–1985), was a hardware salesman; his mother, Minerva Annette (née Smith, 1892–1974), was a pianist and music teacher who was born in Chicago, Illinois.
When Burr was six, his parents divorced. Burr’s mother moved to Vallejo, California, with him and his younger siblings, Geraldine and James. His father remained in New Westminster. Burr attended San Rafael Military Academy in San Rafael, California, for a while and graduated from Berkeley High School.
Growing up during the Great Depression, Burr hoped to study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, a renowned community theater and school in Pasadena, California, but he was unable to afford the tuition. In 1934, he joined a repertory theatre group in Toronto that toured throughout Canada, then joined another company that toured India, Australia and England. He briefly attended Long Beach Junior College and taught for a semester at San Jose Junior College, working nights as a radio actor and singer. He began his association with the Pasadena Playhouse in 1937.
Burr moved to New York in 1940, and made his first Broadway appearance in Crazy With the Heat, a two-act musical revue produced by Kurt Kasznar that quickly folded. His first starring role on the stage came in November 1942, when he was an emergency replacement in a Pasadena Playhouse production of Quiet Wedding, directed by Lenore Shanewise. He became a member of the Pasadena Playhouse drama faculty for 18 months, and he performed in some 30 plays over the years. He returned to the Broadway stage for Patrick Hamilton’s The Duke in Darkness (1944), a psychological drama set during the French Wars of Religion. Burr’s performance as the loyal friend of the imprisoned protagonist led to a contract with RKO Radio Pictures.
Burr appeared in more than 50 feature films between 1946 and 1957, creating an array of villains that established him as an icon of film noir. Film historian Alain Silver concluded that Burr’s most significant work in the genre is in these ten films: Desperate (1947), Sleep, My Love (1948), Raw Deal (1948), Pitfall (1948), Abandoned (1949), Red Light (1950), M (1951), His Kind of Woman (1951), The Blue Gardenia (1953) and Crime of Passion (1957). Silver described Burr’s private detective in Pitfall as “both reprehensible and pathetic”, a characterization also cited by film historian Richard Schickel as a prototype of film noir, in contrast with the appealing television characters for which Burr later became famous.
Other titles in Burr’s film noir legacy include Walk a Crooked Mile (1948), Borderline (1950), Unmasked (1950), The Whip Hand (1951), FBI Girl (1951), Meet Danny Wilson (1952), Rear Window (1954), They Were So Young (1954), A Cry in the Night (1956) and Affair in Havana (1957). Beyond noir, Burr’s villains were also seen in Westerns, period dramas, horror films and adventure films.
“I was just a fat heavy,” Burr told journalist James Bawden. “I split the heavy parts with Bill Conrad. We were both in our twenties playing much older men. I never got the girl but I once got the gorilla in a 3-D picture called Gorilla at Large. I menaced Claudette Colbert, Lizabeth Scott, Paulette Goddard, Anne Baxter, Barbara Stanwyck. Those girls would take one look at me and scream and can you blame them? I was drowned, beaten, stabbed and all for my art. But I knew I was horribly overweight. I lacked any kind of self-esteem. At 25 I was playing the fathers of people older than me.”
Burr’s occasional roles on the right side of the law include the aggressive prosecutor in A Place in the Sun (1951). His courtroom performance in that film made an impression on Gail Patrick and her husband Cornwell Jackson, who had Burr in mind when they began casting the role of Los Angeles district attorney Hamilton Burger in the CBS-TV series Perry Mason.
Working steadily in radio since the 1940s, often uncredited, Burr was a leading player on the West Coast. He had a regular role in Jack Webb’s first radio show, Pat Novak for Hire (1949), and in Dragnet (1949–50) he played Joe Friday’s boss, Ed Backstrand, chief of detectives. Burr worked on other Los Angeles-based series including Suspense, Screen Directors Playhouse, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Family Theater, Hallmark Playhouse and Hallmark Hall of Fame. He performed in five episodes of the experimental dramatic radio anthology series CBS Radio Workshop and had what is arguably his best radio role in “The Silent Witness” (1957), in which his is the only voice.
In 1956 Burr was the star of CBS Radio’s Fort Laramie, an adult Western drama produced, written and directed by the creators of Gunsmoke. He played the role of Lee Quince, captain of the cavalry, in the series set at a post-Civil War military post where disease, boredom, the elements and the uncharted terrain were the greatest enemies of “ordinary men who lived in extraordinary times”. The half-hour transcribed program aired Sundays at 5:30 p.m. ET January 22 – October 28, 1956. Burr told columnist Sheilah Graham that he had received 1,500 fan letters after the first broadcasts, and he continued to receive letters praising the show’s authenticity and presentation of human dignity.
In August 1956, CBS announced that Burr would star in the television series Perry Mason. Although the network wanted Burr to continue work on Fort Laramie as well, the TV series required an extraordinary commitment and the radio show ended.
Known for his loyalty and consciousness of history, Burr went out of his way to employ his radio colleagues in his television programs. Some 180 radio celebrities appeared on Perry Mason during the first season alone.
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 (27 kg; 4.3 st) overweight. Over the next month, Burr went on a crash diet. When he returned, he tested as Perry Mason and won the role. While Burr’s test was running, Gardner reportedly stood up, pointed at the screen and said, “That’s Perry Mason.” William Hopper also auditioned as Mason but was cast instead as private detective Paul Drake. Also starring were Barbara Hale as Della Street, Mason’s secretary; William Talman as Hamilton Burger, the district attorney who loses nearly every case to Mason; and Ray Collins as homicide detective Lieutenant Arthur Tragg.
The series ran from 1957-66. Burr received three consecutive Emmy Award nominations and won the award in 1959 and 1961 for his performance as Perry Mason. The series has been rerun in syndication ever since and was released on DVD between 2006 and 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.
Burr moved from CBS to Universal Studios, where he played the title role in the television drama Ironside, which ran on NBC from 1967 to 1975. In the pilot episode, San Francisco Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside is wounded by a sniper during an attempt on his life and, after his recovery, uses a wheelchair for mobility, in the first crime drama show to star a police officer with a disability. The show earned Burr six Emmy nominations—one for the pilot and five for his work in the series—and two Golden Globe nominations.
After Ironside went off the air, 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 Jordan Chance aroused little interest.
On January 20, 1987, Burr hosted the television special that later served as the pilot for the long-running series Unsolved Mysteries
In 1985, Burr was approached by producers Dean Hargrove and Fred Silverman to star in a made-for-TV movie, Perry Mason Returns. The same week, Burr recalled, he was asked to reprise the role he played in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), in a low-budget film that would be titled Godzilla 1985.
“When they asked me to do it a second time, I said, ‘Certainly,’ and everybody thought I was out of my mind,” Burr told Tom Shales of The Washington Post. “But it wasn’t the large sum of money. It was the fact that, first of all, I kind of liked ‘Godzilla,’ and where do you get the opportunity to play yourself 30 years later? So I said yes to both of them.”
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 principal cast had died, but Hale’s real-life son William Katt played the role of Paul Drake, Jr. The movie was so successful that 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, 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.
As he had with the Perry Mason TV movies, Burr decided to do an Ironside reunion movie. The Return of Ironside aired in May 1993, reuniting the entire original cast of the 1967–75 series. Like many of the Mason movies, it was set and filmed in Denver.
Burr married actress Isabella Ward (1919–2004) on January 10, 1948. They met in 1943 while Ward was a student at the Pasadena Playhouse, where Burr was teaching. They met again in 1947, when Ward was in California with a short-lived theatre company. They were married shortly before Burr began work on the 1948 film noir, Pitfall. In May 1948 they appeared on stage together, in a Pasadena Playhouse production based on the life of Paul Gauguin. The couple lived in a basement apartment in a large house in Hollywood that Burr shared with his mother and grandparents. The marriage ended within months, and Ward returned to her native Delaware. They divorced in 1952, and neither remarried.
In the mid-1950s, Burr met Robert Benevides (born February 9, 1930, Visalia, California) a young actor and Korean War veteran, on the set of Perry Mason. According to Benevides, they became a couple around 1960. Benevides gave up acting in 1963, and later became a production consultant for 21 of the Perry Mason TV movies. Together they owned and operated an orchid business and then a vineyard, in California’s Dry Creek Valley. They were partners until Burr’s death in 1993. Burr bequeathed to Benevides his entire estate, including “all my jewelry, clothing, books, works of art … and other items of a personal nature.” Benevides subsequently renamed the Dry Creek property Raymond Burr Vineyards (reportedly against Burr’s wishes) and managed it as a commercial enterprise. In 2017, the property was sold.
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 renal cell carcinoma (malignant kidney tumor) 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.
The day after Burr’s death, American Bar Association president R. William Ide III released a statement: “Raymond Burr’s portrayals of Perry Mason represented lawyers in a professional and dignified manner. … Mr. Burr 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 reported that Perry Mason had been named second — after F. Lee Bailey, and before Abraham Lincoln, Thurgood Marshall, Janet Reno, Ben Matlock and Hillary Clinton — in a recent National Law Journal poll that asked Americans to name the attorney, fictional or not, they most admired.
Burr was interred with his parents at Fraser Cemetery, New Westminster, British Columbia. On October 1, 1993, about 600 family members and friends paid tribute to Burr at a private memorial service at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Although Burr had not revealed his homosexuality during his lifetime, it was an open secret and was reported in the press upon his death.
Burr bequeathed his estate to Robert Benevides, and excluded all relatives, including a sister, nieces, and nephews. His will was challenged, without success, by the two children of his late brother, James E. Burr. Benevides’s attorney said that tabloid reports of an estate worth $32 million were an overestimate.
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