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TV's Make-Believe Lawyer

As Perry Mason, the celebrated defense attorney, actor Raymond Burr

"eats, lives and sleeps" his role on the set and off.

By Robert Johnson


   Every now and then Raymond Burr, the actor who this week starts his third season on television as Perry Mason, the famous trial lawyer, receives a letter complimenting him because he looks "just exactly like Mr. Gardner described you."  This is a very neat trick indeed, since not once in the fifty-nine Perry Mason books published to date--eleven of which have run serially in The Saturday Evening Post--has Erle Stanley Gardner really described his hero.

    This dereliction on Gardner's part has been wholly intentional.  "I wanted people to clothe the characters in terms of their own preferences, " he says.  Now, however, the question has finally been resolved, probably for all time.  Gardner himself, along with a television audience estimated by CBS at 30,482,000 will swear that Mason is tall (six feet two and a half inches), solid (210 pounds), impressive man of forty-two, with square jowls, wavy black hair and large, magnetic slightly protuberant blue eyes.  He wears conservative dark suits and a nearly perpetual frown, talks in a deep, resonant voice and moves purposefully--say, from the defense table in court to the witness stand where, before the hour-long show ends at 8:30 Saturday evening, he will have trapped the hitherto unsuspected killer into a damaging admission--if not an outright confession--thereby winning acquittal for a client whom, until then, all the evidence seemed to prove guilty of murder.

    But there is more to Burr than meets the television camera.  In the words of Barbara Hale, who plays Mason's confidential secretary, Della Street, "Ray is a surprise.  You would think he would be quite stern and serious minded, but he's not.  He has a crazy sense of humor.  He has such warmth.  He's just a lovely man."

    Another Burr characteristic that doesn't appear on the television screen is the man's enormous stamina.  It is an indispensable prerequisite on a show which turns out enough film for a feature movie every two weeks--and almost all of it dialogue, with no extended chase scenes, gun fights or jazz interludes to eat up footage.  "The burden on Ray Burr is prodigious," says Bill Talman, who plays Mason's constant antagonist, District Attorney Hamilton Burger.   "If this man didn't have a constitution like a horse, he never would have gotten through."

    Burr's alarm clock buzzes him awake at 3:30 every weekday morning--2:30 if he is staying at his home in Malibu rather than in his bungalow at the studio.  For two or three hours he goes over his lines for the day's shooting with one of two alternating dialogue coaches.  This just leaves him time to shower, shave, dress, eat breakfast and receive the attentions of make-up and wardrobe departments before shooting starts at 8:30.

    With a break for lunch--buttermilk is usually all Burr has--shooting continues until six or eight or sometimes even later.   "An average would probably be 7:30, " says William Hopper.  The son of Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, Bill is the show's Paul Drake--the private detective Mason employs.

    Then, after shooting, Burr says, "I go over to my dressing room, figure out what the problems are for the next day, go over the script and I go over stuff with my secretary, Bill Swan--all the phone calls, all the mail that's important; dictate a number of letters."  After that his time is his own; and because he likes seeing people, talking to friends, it's a rare day that finds him in bed before midnight.

    "When Ray gets through a day," says Ray Collins, the show's Police Lieutenant Tragg, "he's dead; he is really pooped--but he likes to have two or three friends in for a little chatter, couple of drinks."

    "What social life I have, " Burr concedes, "has to be done on my time, for what few hours I can get away.  I have the kind of friends--particularly women friends--that are very understanding.  I could never be married now.  And, of course, it's ridiculous.  No one should work this hard."

    Burr has, as a matter of fact, been married three times; and each marriage ended grievously.  His first wife, Annette Sutherland, an English girl he married just before World War II, was lost on the same plane as Leslie Howard when the Germans shot it down off Portugal in June of 1943.  Her death left Burr with an infant son, Michael Evan, whom the boy's grandparents reared in England until Ray brought him to America after the ear.  "I had a lot of plans for him," Burr says.   The boy died of leukemia in 1953.

    His second marriage, to an American girl named Isabella Ward in 1947, ended in divorce.  And his third wife, Laura Andrina Morga, died of cancer in 1955, shortly before they were to leave for the Bahamas on a  delayed honeymoon.

    To some people Ray's private tragedies help explain the fervor with which he has thrown himself into the Perry Mason show; but Burr is no man to brood over past misfortunes, and the chances are that he accepts the punishing pace because nothing less will keep the show at the high level of quality on which he insists.   He is a perfectionist--but, unlike many perfectionist, Bill Talman notes, "Ray is extraordinarily easy to get along with on the set.  His perfectionism concerns mostly his demands on himself.  He's willing to throw out five hours of memorization and learn a new scene at the last minute if this helps the show."

   Yet it is the amount of memorizing the part calls for, more than anything else, that makes Burr's role so arduous.  He appears in something like 90 per cent of every show; and in the average of twelve pages of script which must be got through each day, the greater part of the dialogue is generally his.  Moreover, as Bill Russell, one of the show's several directors, says, "Usually in dialogue, the person's lines before yours has a hook--a connection that brings forth your line," but in the courtroom scenes at least, this is rarely true.  Worse still, as Bill Talman explains, "Every story has something like fifteen or sixteen characters in it, and they've all got names--two names--which are different from last week's, but not necessarily different enough.  You also have street names, place names, company names; and you have room numbers, telephone numbers, street addresses, times of day, dates of month; and all of this stuff is always intermingled with a lot of medical or technical jargon."

    Understandably tension on the set sometimes builds up to a fairly nerve-twitching pressure, but, "Whenever things get a little tense, Ray always comes up with the right kind of practical joke," says Gail Patrick Jackson, the former actress who is now executive producer of Paisano Productions, which put the show together.  "Paisano brings the product," Gail says;  "CBS brings the money"-- specifically, $78,000 for production costs each week, plus $90,000 worth of air time.

    Barbara Hale is generally the target for Burr's off-screen gags.  "She's a remarkably fine object for jokes of all kinds," Bill Talman explains.  "In the first place, she never fails to bite; in the second place, she screams louder and jumps higher then anybody else in town."

    In addition, she encourages at least a certain class of gag by her habit of using  Mason's table in the courtroom for homework chores between takes.   "She has her income tax, her Christmas list, the birthday cards," Burr says.  "She pays her bills--makes out checks.  So every time they say, 'Ready for a take,' she shoves all this stuff in the drawer of the table."

    This drawer offers a challenge which Burr is no man to ignore.  On one occasion, for instance, he and Barbara got involved in a cigarette feud.  He had stolen her cigarettes on location one day, distributing them among the rest of the company, and nobody would give Barbara one.  For days thereafter she harped on Ray's meanness; so he bought a whole carton for her--only he cut every cigarette into small pieces, which he then distributed to every conceivable nook and cranny of her dressing room, even putting some in the toe of a stocking she had washed out and hung up to dry.

    A few mornings later, when he came to work, he found the stocking with the cigarette bits tied around the knob of his dressing-room door.   "This gook was all white in the toe of the stocking," Burr says, "so I thought, 'H'm-m.'  And I sent one of the boys down to a pet shop and I got a white mouse.  I took the cigarettes out of the stocking and put the mouse in, and it looked just like the little pile of cut-up cigarettes.  So I took the stocking and slipped it in the drawer; when she went to put her stuff away, she opened the drawer, saw the stocking with what looked like a little pile of cigarettes in it and started to laugh.   And all of a sudden it stood up.  Well, you have never seen anybody leave a place so fast in your life."

        "Someday I shall get even," Barbara swears.  "But you know, seriously, the show is of a serious nature, and with work being like it is, these little gags break the tension that otherwise would be absolutely unbearable."

    Burr pulls gags with this in mind, of course--although he does genuinely love a good joke.  But it's important to him, both as an actor and as a person, that people enjoy working on the Perry Mason set.  "We work extremely hard," he says, "probably harder than any other show that's ever been done; and yet in over two years' time we have never had one point of dissension, or any one time when any actor of our permanent group felt he was being put upon.  We love working together, and I love working with this crew.  It's like walking into your own home when you walk on the stage here."

    This is a factor not to be minimized, since Burr at least spends far more time on the sound stage then he does at his own home--a friendly, relaxed house with polished cement floors, white brick walls and open-beamed ceiling, on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, some fifteen miles up the cost from the town of Malibu.   With the hours he works it is scarcely practical for him to commute to the studio--an hour's drive each way--so except during the summer layoff, he rarely sees his house between weekends.

    Each week's show requires six shooting days, plus one day of preparation; thus, if preparation day falls on a Monday, shooting will start Tuesday and run through the following Tuesday, and Wednesday will be the next preparation day, with shooting running from Thursday through Thursday.  And so on, week after week--with work on each episode extending over approximately ten calendar days, counting weekends.

    The first (1957-1958) season they made thirty-nine shows, finishing work around the end of May--having started the previous April fifteenth--and began production for the second season four weeks later.  Even with so short a layoff time, however, Paisano managed to squeeze out only thirty shows before air-time deadlines overtook production output; the rest of the season was fleshed out with reruns.  And for the present third season shooting began July thirteenth, with a target of twenty-eight new shows, plus twelve reruns--for a series extending forty weeks.

    But even as tight as the shooting schedule must be to turn out an hour-long show every ten days, actually one of Paisano's greatest problems is the difficulty of cramming a Perry Mason story into the space of an hour--or rather, forty-nine minutes and forty second, after subtracting commercials and whatnot--without sacrificing much of the characteristic flavor.

    It's a tossup whether this was more of a challenge during the first season, when all the shows were taken from actual books, or now, when Paisano has run out of original Gardners and must find new script material.  Either way, however, Gardner says, "I think on the whole they've kept very faithful to the general background of Perry Mason."

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