TV Radio Mirror
October, 1957 Atlantic Edition Vol. 48, No.5
Paging PERRY MASON
Physically, Raymond Burr
fits Erle Stanley Gardner's description
to a T. Emotionally, he has
lived the lives of ten exciting men
By PAULINE TOWNSEND
When mystery fans all over the country turn their television sets to CBS channels for the debut of the network's long heralded Perry Mason series, they will see in the title role a man whose life has been as colorful, as adventure-packed as that of Erle Stanley Gardner's famed fictional attorney-sleuth himself.
His name is Raymond Burr. He is forty-one, his 185 pounds tightly stretched along a massive six-foot-two frame. Piercing blue eyes challenge you from beneath expressive, dark eyebrows. He controls his voice in conversation (otherwise, it would boom at you). About his long and varied life, he talks easily and confidently.
"I never doubted that I would succeed," he says, after recounting a series of moments in his life when he had come close to the depths of failure.
About the dramatic highlights of his personal life, he is more reticent. New to the rarefied atmosphere of TV stardom, where every breath a man draws is legitimate news, he opens with reluctance the chapters of his life--some of them tragic, all of them dramatic--preceding the present triumphant one, which finds him a gentleman-rancher enounced in a magnificent adobe-block house on a bluff over the Pacific above Malibu.
There's a year's pressing, highly paid work for the weekly Perry Mason hour ahead of him, and the incoming mail basket is crowded with
offers of work in films, the theater, television, radio--most of which he must, for the moment, turn down. "The Mason job," he says, "will mean twelve hours of work a day, seven days in the week. As the star, I have a tremendous stake in the success of the show; it has to have number one priority."
He may be able to squeeze in the Fort Laramie radio series for CBS, in which he has starred so successfully in the past. Despite the fact that, to many of his viewers, Raymond Burr will be a "new" face on their screens, he has had a long and impressive career as an actor. And has sandwiched jobs in between incidents of crisis-studded personal life which only a man of his physical energy--and enthusiasm--could have survived.
Raymond was born in New Westminster, British Columbia, the first child of William Johnston Burr, a thriving import-export merchant, and Minerva Smith Burr, a concert pianist of repute, but he was to spend less than a year in the peace and security of a stable home before life began to get complicated.
When Raymond was just a year old, his parents moved to the Orient. The family were never in any one place for long. They hopped from Chefoo to Shanghai, from Peiping to Hong Kong, and back again. Since no consistent schooling was available, Raymond--and his two brothers and young sister--were educated by tutors. When Ray was eleven, they returned to Canada.
That was the black year of 1929. Suddenly, after affluence, there was no money. The strain of events produced a more personal tragedy. William and Minerva Burr were divorced, Ray's mother departing, with her four young children, for northern California.
There was ultimately, however, a happy ending: The elder Burrs were re-married last year--after twenty-six years of separation. "They both realized they had been very foolish," Raymond says. "They live very modestly now--my father works for a very low salary in a hardware store. But they're happy."
These later years have provided another happy conclusion to a tragic experience for Raymond's mother. "She was blind for a number of years," he says," and suffered an agonizing series of operations. Now she can see, enough to teach. And she is a magnificent teacher, both of the piano and the pipe organ."
Upon settling in California, Mrs. Burr enrolled her son in the exclusive San Rafael Military Academy. Annapolis, she hoped, would be the next stop for Ray. But soon "no money" became less than no money. Ray had to go to work.
He was never to go regularly to school again, not even to finish high school. But, many years later, after successfully passing college entrance
examinations at Long Beach Junior College, he proceeded to plow through what amounts to about six years of college education. "I have a degree in psychology from the University of California," he says, "and a degree in English Literature from McGill." And he has taught, in the theatrical field, "at Amherst, Columbia, the Pasadena Playhouse." He himself has never had one hour of formal dramatic training.
That necessary first job, at twelve, was a poser for young Raymond Burr. He had no saleable skills, no "pull" anywhere. But he was big for his age, and brawny. He lit out for Roswell, New Mexico, and hired out as a ranch hand. When he returned, in two years, with a hunger for a more cerebral kind of life, he was bigger. And brawnier. Still with no definite goal in mind, he began drifting from job to job. Mostly sales jobs.
Raymond Burr apparently could have been a very rich salesman. But, along about here, he stumbled onto radio--and knew definitely, and at once, what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He wanted to be an actor.
Since his dramatic force was immediately apparent, he moved quickly from radio to the legitimate theater--first, summer stock, then a go at Broadway. In the late '30's, he went to England to star in "Night Must Fall,"and subsequently toured Australia and then New Zealand with the company.
By this time, Hollywood had pricked up its ears, and he was summoned for a screen test. But he became seriously ill. "I guess I'd been living it up too much," he says. He turned his back on Hollywood, and joined the U. S. Forestry Service--for whom, for two years, he conducted a weather bureau and snow survey in Oregon. They were lonely years, with plenty of time for contemplation. He recovered his health. He took up writing and, much to his surprise, sold several of his articles and stories to magazines. But the lure of the theater was still dominant, and he returned to the stage, appeared in a New York musical-comedy hit, "Crazy With the Heat"--and "twelve million radio dramas."
Once, briefly, he was an explorer: "I went to Yucatan with some archaeologically minded friends of mine. One day, I fell in a hole and accidentally discovered some ancient Mayan ruins."
Archaeology is fascinating, but Raymond--with responsibilities for many people other than himself (once there were eleven relatives living in his house)--had to get back to work.
Once again: Hollywood calling. R.K.O. tested him, signed him, agreed to pay him $450 a week, and then--the old story again--forgot him. Raymond Burr had never been so rich, nor so unhappy.
Out of frustration, he ate--and drank--until his heft rose to a dangerous 325 pounds. (Burr is a great cook and an avid gourmet, and gaining weight is easy when he lets himself go.) Disgusted with Hollywood, and himself, he asked for and received his release from the studio and started over the old path--radio, to stage, back to movies.
The official record takes up after the war. ("I did a stint in the Navy in the Pacific.") On January 14, 1947, he married an actress, Isabella Ward. "It was my second marriage." he says, expressionless. "My first wife went down in the same plane with Leslie Howard. Our son, just a year old when she died, died three and a half years later of leukemia."
About his more recent marriage, he is equally taciturn. "We were separated after a year, divorced in Maryland in 1952. We had no children."
Since the war years, Raymond Burr has worked steadily and profitably--and with the character actor's usual anonymity--in films, some of them very big: "A Place in the Sun, " "Rear Window," "Cry in the Night."
And he has given more time and energy than any other performer to entertaining the Armed Forces overseas. At one time, he spent a sold six months with a troupe in Korea--giving up about $75,000 in available jobs in order to do it.
With the discipline and satisfaction of work, the pounds that used to haunt him melted away, until Burr--today--has a leading man's physiognomy and character actor's skill and finesse.
Erle Stanley Gardner has described Perry Mason like this: "Tall, long-legged. Broad powerful shoulders. Rugged faced, clean-cut, virile features; patient eyes. Heavy, level eyebrows. Well-shaped hands, strong fingers. Hand could have a grip of crushing force should occasion require. Wavy hair....Fighter, happy-go-lucky, carefree, two-fisted--a free-lance paid gladiator. Creed-results."
This could be a description of Raymond Burr himself.
At the top of the heap, at last, Raymond Burr is living the rich, full life of the man "who has got it made," in his rambling ranch house over the sea. He loves it there, seldom ventures into the city except to work--that means frequently now, of course, and sometimes he has to arise at 2:30 A.M. to make the hour's drive into the studio in time for early rehearsals of Perry Mason. (Barbara Hale plays Della Street to Raymond Burr's Perry; Bill Hopper is Paul Drake, Mason's detective ally.)
Raymond's house is dream stuff. From the front terrace, stone stairs--built, stone by stone, by Raymond himself--lead to a luxuriant grassy slope to the edge of the bluff over the sea. Old trees give welcome shade. New flowers bloom in
profusion everywhere. To the rear of the house is the "working area"--kennels for Ray's pure-blooded Australian Silky dogs, pens for chickens, ducks, geese. "We don't eat the birds, we're too fond of them," he says. "Just the eggs."
The house has an informal but beautiful living room, a den, several sea-facing bedrooms. But the center of life is the big cheerful kitchen. "Come on into the kitchen" is the usual greeting. There, with chairs drawn up to an enormous roughhewn table, you can share one of Ray's chilled, expertly mixed gimlets and then choose between hot and cold canapes.
To Raymond Burr--who has been all over the globe, more than once--this spot above Malibu is the loveliest place in the world, and truly his "home" base from now on.
"I don't want to live like a rich man. Come to think of it, I'm not a rich man. I've made a lot of money in my life, but managed to give it all away. Big money, for me," he adds wryly, "will mean only that I won't leave owing anybody."
If Perry Mason catches on--as there is every reason to believe that it will--Raymond Burr will keep on living it up on his beautiful seaside bluff, the country squire at home, for a long, long time.