August, 1965 Midwest Edition Vol. 64, No.3
To his vast army of admirers, Raymond Burr is "a big man who does things in a big way." True, his life has been overcast by shadows of immense tragedy, and yet his appetite for all the joys and splendors of life is of such heroic proportions that it has become a legend.
It is only natural that such a man should be a gourmet and connoisseur of fine food and art and, to satisfy both these passions, should emerge as a cook par excellence as well as one of the notable art collectors in show business. Friends have said of Ray Burr that, even with respect to fame, "he thinks in the round and on a large scale--he tries continually to make his high position as an actor serve the good of the greatest number of people." So nobody was surprised that, when he set out to regain the pleasure of being a father--his ten-year-old son died of leukemia in 1953-he adopted not one or two children, but seventeen, from all parts of the war-torn world, through the Foster Parent's Plan and the Save A Child Plan. In the course of time, six of these children have reached the age where they are able to support themselves, but Ray still assumes responsibility for the upkeep and education of eleven.
In a recent interview, Ray affirmed, "No matter what losses and wounds life inflicts on people, they needn't be lonely. Most lonely people are that way by choice. They choose to be non-contributors. Everyone can find something to do for others...
"I believe in the old saying--it's better to give then receive. I consider three important factors in any service--family, country and the world at large. You can't be a complete and fulfilled person if you don't try to give to all three..."
Ray's first adoptees were Korean. One of them, named Lincoln White, has become an officer in the Korean Army. "I'm very proud of him," says Ray, and adds simply, "When he writes to me, I feel pretty good about myself. All the kids make me feel that I haven't wasted my life."
Shortly after he made a trip to Italy, in April, 1959, he adopted Franciso Corvino. (At one time, he was weighing the idea of bringing a couple of his adoptees into his own home, and helping to raise them there. Being a bachelor, however, and one who is wound up in an extremely busy career, he concluded this just wasn't practical!)
For all his size, accomplishments and prestige, Raymond Burr is generally thought of as "a selfless man who tries to fade into the background.' That Ray prefers to do his good turns unseen, unknown and with nary a whisper of fanfare, is no secret in Hollywood. These facts of his life, a series of tormenting blows that would have crushed a lesser man, are also familiar, though he himself almost never speaks of them. Born May 21st, 1917, eldest of three children of a hardware dealer in British Columbia, Ray's traumatic shocks began when he was only six. His parents separated, and Ray seemed to suffer much more hurt and loss of security than might have been expected of a child that young. It was then that he began putting on weight. His playmates spared him no insult, and his humiliation grew with his girth.
At this time, his mother decided to move her family to Vallejo, California, where her parents ran a hotel. She helped provide for herself and children by playing the organ in church on Sundays and in movie houses on weekdays. "Even without a father," Ray recalls, "we had a decent family life under the inspiration of my mother and grandparents." Still, it became necessary for Ray to quit school at thirteen in order to contribute to the support of the family.
The stage beckoned him when he reached nineteen, and he began traveling through Britain with a repertory company. He also landed a job singing in a Parisian nightclub. While in England he met and married Annette Sutherland, an actress. His work called him back to the United States and he reluctantly departed, leaving his wife and infant son behind. The war had started and Burr was anxious to be on hand, should his country call him up for service. Shortly after his return, he received the heartbreaking news that Annette had been killed in the same plane crash that ended the life of famed movie star Leslie Howard.
Fears for his son
Ray joined the U.S. Navy. His constant worry was not the dangers hanging over his own head but the knowledge that his son, living with his maternal grandparents in England, was under ceaseless enemy bombardment.
Two years after victory, in 1947, Ray Burr took a second wife, Isabella Ward, but the marriage proved a failure, and again he felt a quake of the old insecurity. He tried again in 1950, marrying Laura Andrina Morgan. His large serious face, which one fan has described as "a perfect image of justice at work," literally shone with renewed hope of happiness. They were about to sail off on a delayed honeymoon, when Laura died of cancer.
In 1953 came the culminating tragedy. His adored son died of leukemia. "If ever I wanted to lie down and just quit, it was then." he is reported to have said during this crisis.
More recently, Ray has said he would like to marry again. He usually explains that the demands of the Perry mason show are such that it leaves him no time for dating, let alone romance. Nevertheless, there are some who brush this explanation aside. "Ray's terrified that the jinx that fouled up three marriages might strike again," they theorize. The truth is, most of his time and energy are used up in various projects aside from the show. He still travels each Christmas and during the summer to far-flung places to entertain our troops. He appears regularly on charitable telethons, benefits and other fund-raising events. He is active on the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild an on the board of the Freedom Foundation.
Meanwhile, he likes to elaborate on his belief that "romance isn't only love for a woman...it can also be found in the thrills and joys of fatherhood." If this is so, Ray's life has been filled with much tender joy. He keeps in touch with all his adopted kids and they with him. The love that radiates between them is "the kind that happens once in the life of a man." The letters from his "children" give ample proof of this.
As a sample, there is his correspondence with Francisco Corvino, the Italian boy. His father died of peritonitis at thirty-two; the mother earned $10.00 a month doing laundry. They were on the town's poor list and the family existed on occasional food packages and free medical aid. Now fifteen, Francisco wrote to Ray when he was only ten: "Mama used your Christmas check to buy my school books. We started to study geography and the problem there is the two Americas. I saw a film whose title I don't remember but the artist starring in it was Raymond Burr and I am now thinking perhaps my foster father is an artist. What joy seeing him. I greet you dearly. Your foster son, Francisco."
Francisco's first letter had already told Ray how happy he was to have a foster father. "You cannot imagine my joy because it is like having my own father again."
Another of Ray's "sons" is Filipino, Christano T. David, born April 12th, 1954. Ray had visited the Philippines at Christmas, 1963, stopping to entertain troops in Vietnam and Korea before moving on to the Islands. While there he went to several orphanages and entertained at a fund-raising benefit. Upon his return to the States, he applied for a Filipino foster child and Christano was assigned to him. His first letter was as follows:
"Before anything else I send my hearty and fondest greeting to you, dear Foster Father, and to your generous family. We are all fine here and healthy too with God's mercies and your kind help to us, Mr. Raymond Burr. You make our lives happy. You can assure that I'll study harder to make you happy too..."
In 1964, Ray received a letter from eleven-year-old Ciro Onza one of his six adopted Italian children. The letter said in part: "I love you so much, even though I do not know you in person. I inform you I always look at your photo and you are really so handsome."
During his trip abroad in 1963, Ray
visited Rosario R.
Palcotelo, a little ten-year-old Filipino girl.
She was only two when bother her
parents died of tuberculosis. She now lives with her aunt and uncle, who have three
children of their own. Ray took her shopping and bought her clothes and other
necessities. Writing through her aunt, Rosario sent Ray the following:
"We were so grateful for the Christmas money you gave us and so proud and happy to
meet you. The morning after your appearance on the TV show, Rosario proudly told all
her friends her foster Daddy was a great star."
Duk Hwa Lee is a Korean boy of ten whose father lost both legs during the Korean war. He is one of three children and Ray adopted him in 1960. Visiting the family on New Year's Day, 1964, Ray became interested in making Mr. Lee self-supporting. He spoke to Frank Ryan, Director of the Plan in Korea, and Ryan suggested training Mr. Lee in poultry raising, a subject he already had some knowledge of. Ryan gave Ray the details and Ray okayed the cost. It came to $23.16 for building materials; $18.53 for baby chicks: $14.67 for chicken food; $54.68 for additional feed; and $17.37 to pay off all Mr. Lee's debts. The total expenditure to bring financial independence to the Lee family amounted to $132.41, and Burr's comment with his check to Ryan was: "Worth every single cent..."
When Ray's first check through the Foster Parents Plan arrived, Duk Hwa's mother wrote back. "Our Duk Hwa would not be able to go to school if there were no help from you." Burr points to this and other letters as evidence that "they all want to be self sufficient and not lean on charity. They all have pride and would rather help themselves than just take money..."
"Because I have you..."
Lest it be imagined that Burr restricts his adoptions to Italians, Koreans and Filipinos, we have the case of Maria Kurayanni, a Greek girl adopted in December of 1963. Living in the village of Stylis near Lamia in the central part of Greece, Maria's mother was left destitute when her father died. Mrs. Kurayanni gave her youngest girl out for adoption and does not know the child's present whereabouts. She works as a charwoman and earns about $10 a month, not enough for survival. They live in a two-room hut, lit by kerosene lamp and heated by kerosene.
Maria's letters are in Greek and forwarded to Ray through the Foster Parents Plan. Her first letter, sent in December 1963, began "Hello" and went on to say, "I am delighted you have undertaken my support. I would like to get an education and become a good person and I will do this with your help. This month we are celebrating the holiday of Christmas. I will be happier this year because I have you."
With a touch of satisfaction, Ray explains that Maria is now in the fourth grade and is the best student in her class. No one would ever guess from his obvious pride that this child is not his own flesh and blood. On her "name-day," August 15, he sent her a cash gift. She replied by thanking him and adding: "My name-day is the feast-day of the Virgin Mary. I very much thank you again!"
Through the medium of Save The Children Federation, Burr has also adopted several children, including Andrea Di Biase, born July 7th 1954, and in the fifth grade, and Elvira Palastro born December 18th, 1950, in Messina, Italy. The youngest of five girls, Elvira had polio at three. Then there is Carmel Peditto of Messina, born January 25th, 1955. One of four children, the boy is the only one of his family who has escaped tuberculosis.
But from Ray himself there is the customary reticence with regard to his "good works" and a faint air of deprecation as to publicizing them. "If it will help the various Plans along in their good work, I don't mind being used any way they like. But I'd rather not let my left hand know what my right is doing. After all, giving $10 a month to keep a deserving kid out of the quicksands of poverty and illness is a very small effort to make. I'm not proud of the little I give compared to what I've gotten in return! The letters and love of those children--why, they've repaid me a hundredfold in ways that no human can buy with money or success. Anyway, maybe I'm fulfilling a selfish need in myself. I need their affection. I enjoy hearing about their progress. I'm happy in the knowledge that my contributions are giving them a start in life. And then I believe our country gains so much when Americans help others on a person-to-person basis."
Perhaps, above and beyond these needs, there is another, greater and more urgent, that motivates the kindly actor. That boy of his own blood, lost to him forever but whom he never stops seeking in the faces of other children--that son's undying memory is marvelously revived with each new child that his father takes under his wing. And this is undoubtedly something Raymond Burr knows, but never would confide to the world....