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Raymond Burr:

TV's Perry Mason

America's favorite lawyer has been
plagued most of his life by a series of
shattering personal tragedies

By Richard Gehman


   For nearly ten years, a massively built, brooding-eyed film actor named Raymond Burr convincingly played murderers, psychopaths, child molesters, gangsters, cattle rustlers and other assorted antisocial types.   From one picture to the next, he seldom was recognized by the public, because he kept hiding his face behind disguises.

    Then, in 1957, Burr discovered that virtue not only is its own reward, but can lead to other pleasantly tangible rewards as well.   He wiped off his heavy make-up, abandoned his menacing way and changed into the smart business suit of high-minded, quick-thinking Perry Mason, defender of the unjustly accused, hero of the television series of the same name.

    With this switch, he became perhaps the most popular personality working steadily in a dramatic series.  In 1959, the competition of his Saturday -night appearances was a factor in forcing another Perry-NBC's Como-to shift from Saturday to Wednesday.  Burr's average of 3,000 fan letters a week leaped last spring, when it was announced that, due to a dispute over his work schedule, he might not appear as Mason this season.  The news was given extensive newspaper coverage, and his network was flooded with threatening protests from Perry Mason devotees.   Raymond Burr won his case.

    People constantly send him things: sweaters and cuff links they've made, toys and religious medals.  Lawyers beg him to speak at conventions, and last summer, he flew to Australia to address a group of them.

    Burr attracts people of all kinds.  His friends regard this as remarkable, considering that he came out of a broken home, a shy, overweight youth who waddled into one shattering experience after another.  Some how, some mysterious energy enabled this huge (he is 6'2" and weighs 220), somber -faced man to become an interesting amalgam of kindness, mercy, impish humor and integrity.  These qualities, in turn, have made him one of the best-loved people in Hollywood.

    The mention of Burr's name in a group opens a gusher of stories about his selflessness and impulsive acts of charity.  He had heard, for example, in 1959, that George E. Stone, the veteran character actor (he made his first picture in 1924), was sick and had not worked for some time.  Burr, who did not know him, arranged to have him hired as the court clerk on the Perry Mason show, a steady, sedentary job that required no exertion.  Irving Pringle, make-up man on the show, collapsed on the set one day of a hemorrhaging ulcer.  "Burr was the first one at his side," says Gail Patrick Jackson, the pretty former actress who is executive producer.  "He took him to the hospital, checked him in and was up all night with him."

    One day, William Swan, an ex-concert singer who is now Burr's executive secretary read about a little girl in Worcester, Mass., who had been horribly burned.  President Eisenhower had written to the child, the article said, but she wanted a picture of her favorite TV character, Perry Mason.  Burr took off for Massachusetts the following week end, visited the girl-and was furious when photographers turned up at the hospital.  This was not a publicity stunt, he said, and he refused to be photographed.

    Between 1951 and 1955, Burr went overseas to entertain troops seven times.  On one trip to Korea, he remained six months-longer than any other entertainer.  "You just never saw him except at show time," a friend reported.  "The rest of the time, he was visiting the hospital or risking his life in the trenches." In 1956, Burr heard that the missile bases on the West Coast were neglected by the entertainers.  He organized an all-GI show and with them played every isolated base he was permitted to visit.

    Stories from the vast Burr Admiration Society could run on endlessly.  They would tell of the five scholarships he set up for needy college students; of the six orphans he adopted by proxy abroad; of the Malibu Beach fire, two years ago, when he threw open his house to refugees; of his performance in a play last year to raise money for a groups of nuns; and of the William Talman case.

    Talman plays District Attorney Hamilton Burger, Perry Mason's perennial antagonist.  Last year, police raided a party he was attending and arrested him on a charge of vagrant, lewd conduct.  Authorities at the time of Talman's arrest also claimed to have discovered marijuana cigarettes in the apartment, but they agreed there was no evidence to warrant charged against Talman or the other guests on this score.  The network, invoking the clause that says and actor's character must be unblemished, suspended Talman before his case went to court.  The judge threw the case out, but the network still kept Talman on suspension.  Burr bombarded network officials with requests to reconsider and pleaded with its affiliates to put pressure on the high brass.  Finally, Talman was given a new contract.  "It was principally Ray who made them change their minds," Talman says.

    If efforts such as this possess Burr completely, so does his role as Perry mason, which is one of the most exhausting in the history of TV.  His secretary once calculated that Burr speaks 107 words of dialogue on the average script page, as against nine words for all the other actors combined.  He rises every morning at 3:30 to begin studying his lines for the day's shooting.  He works six days a week, some days until 1a.m.  Before this season's series got under way, he abruptly announced that he would not appear.  There was speculation that he wanted more money, or a financial interest in the show, which is owned by Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, along with his former literary Agent, Cornwell Jackson, and his wife, Gail Patrick Jackson.  Burr wanted neither.  What he wanted-and finally got-was time to rest.  In the past five years, physical exhaustion and illness have sent him to the hospital 28 times.

    He is disturbed, too, by memories he cannot erase or keep captive.  He has experienced a great deal of personal grief.  His parents separated when he was six, and after that , he began to grow fat-playmates taunted him about his size.  At military school, his teachers would not let him ride a horse in parades, because his rotund figure made the neat military line uneven.  All his life, he says, his weight has gone up and down according to the fluctuations of his emotional security.  The shelves of his pantry bear testimony to his compulsion, first to eat and then to diet.  They are lined with gourmet foods such as truffles, snails and hearts of artichoke, side by side with cans of a diet formula.

    Burr has been married three times, and two marriages ended tragically.  His first wife, British-born Annette Sutherland, was a passenger on the aircraft in which actor Leslie Howard lost his life off the coast of Portugal in 1943.   It presumably was shot down by Nazis.  Burr spent months trying   unsuccessfully to learn the details.  A son by that marriage, Michael Evan, died of leukemia when he was ten.  Burr was married a second time in 1947, to Isabella Ward.  They were divorced.  He married Laura Andrina Morgan in 1950.   They were about to go on a delayed honeymoon, when she died of cancer.  In 1955, he met Natalie Wood.  He was 38; she was 17.  Studio executives were intent on building a career for her, and they felt that a romance with a man more than twice her age would destroy the image of the all-American girl they were trying to create.   Gradually, she and Burr stopped seeing each other, and he has not been seriously interested in a woman since then, although he says he hopes to get married again.   "How could I ask a woman to start a marriage while I'm on this schedule?" he said to me.

    These facts were drawn from Burr with difficulty.  Just as he still is sensitive to comments about his huge size, so he is about intrusions into his past.  "Please, we don't talk about that," he will say when he is asked a question about the chronology of his life.  He does not care how many people know that he is 44, but is exasperatingly vague about when certain events in his career occurred.

    He was born Raymond William Stacy Burr on May 21, 1917, the eldest of three children of a hardware dealer in British Columbia.  His brother now conducts the Los Angeles Police Department band, and his sister is a housewife in Fairbanks, Alaska.  After his parents separated, his mother took the children to live with her parents, who were running a hotel in Vallejo, Calif.  She helped support her family by playing the organ for a Presbyterian church on Sundays and in movie houses on weekdays.  "Even though we had no father at home," Burr told me, "we had a fine family life."

    Still, the boy had to quit school and go to work.  At 13, he signed on as a ranch hand in Roswell, N. Mex., at 25 cents a day.  After a year, he returned to Vallejo for a variety of jobs.  He took care of his brother and sister and cooked their meals while his mother was at the theater.

    Mrs. Burr, who with her son's encouragement has since remarried Burr's father, told me not long ago that Raymond showed some acting talent almost as soon as he was able to talk.  When he was 19, he met Anatole Litvak, the film director, who sent him to a summer theater in Toronto.  The next year, he traveled with a repertory company in Britain, and then he landed a job singing in a Paris night club, Le Ruban Bleu.

    Next he went through four frustrating, harrowing years in New York, doing odd jobs.  When finally, in 1943, he landed a part in a play called The Duke in Darkness, he returned jubilantly to the cheap hotel where he had been living, only to find that the had been locked out.  For days, he rehearsed wearing the same shirt, socks, suit and shoes.  The play did not last long, but he got good reviews.   An agent made a conditional Hollywood contract for him, but by the time he reached the West Coast, the film had been canceled.

    At this time, World War II was going on, and Burr, discouraged about films, enlisted in the Navy instead.  There, his life was filled with despair, compounded by the loss of his wife in the plane crash and worry for the safety of their son, who was living with his grandparents in a part of England that was under constant bombardment.  By the time he was discharged, worry had sent his weight up to 340 pounds.  He shut himself into a cheap boardinghouse in downtown Hollywood, and for two solid months, he never saw a soul he knew.  He left the room only to exercise and existed on nothing  but a 750-calorie diet of cottage cheese and fruit.   By chain-smoking, he kept his appetite down and eventually lost 130 pounds.   He still smokes nearly three packs a day.

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