March 19, 1990 Number 124
The man known as Perry Mason takes the stand and proves
to be the toughest witness of all: terse, opinionated and mysterious
BY RODERICK TOWNLEY
Della," booms Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) as he heads into court, "how many times have we done this?"
The faithful Della Street (Barbara Hale) shoots him a wry smile. "Every time's like the first time for me."
That's a lot of first times. He was 40 when he began playing Mason; the original Perry Mason series ran for nine years on CBS, from 1957 to 1966. Then, five years ago, Mason returned to outwit malefactors on a number of high-rated NBC TV movies. The latest, entitled Perry Mason: The Case of the Paris Paradox, airs this month.
To the American public, Raymond Burr is Perry Mason. But he was also, from 1967 to 1975 on NBC, the wheelchair-bound Robert Ironside, former chief of detectives for the San Francisco Police Department. And film buffs vividly recall his brooding presence as the murderous husband in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 classic Rear Window.
he retains an impish sense of humor, Burr, 72, has not had an easy
life. The eldest of three children of a hardware dealer in British
Columbia, Canada, Burr moved to California with his mother after his
parents divorced when he was seven. The sensitive, overweight boy
was sent to military school where he was often teased. "I was
allowed to have some [tropical] fish," he recalls, " which were
killed by an older boy. I was put upon because I was
When the Depression hit, he herded sheep and did other jobs instead of going to high school, then joined the navy and fought in World War II. His first wife, actress Annette Sutherland, died in a plane crash in 1943. A second marriage, to Isabella Ward, ended in divorce; and his third wife, Laura Andrina Morgan, died of cancer in 1955. (Burr is unwilling to talk about this part of his life or about his only child, Michael Evan, who died of leukemia at the age of 10 in 1953.)
After the war Burr plunged into acting, playing murderers and other bad guys before landing the ultimate good-guy role of Perry Mason in 1957. He had so much dialogue to learn that he slept in a bungalow on the lot, heading home on weekends. According to Hale, 67, Burr was exhausted by the nine-year stint as Mason. "Later," she says, "he boasted to me, 'I went right on and did another series called Ironside.' 'Yeah, you sure did,' I said, 'but you had to do it in a wheelchair!'"
After Ironside Burr increasingly turned his back on Hollywood. With longtime friend and business partner Robert Benevides, he bought an island in Fiji, raising orchids, coconuts and livestock. In 1984 he sold his paradise and moved his operation to Sonoma County, California, where he develops orchid hybrids, breeds sheep and grows grapes for wine.
During a recent lunch in New York City, Burr's extensive knowledge of wine proved useful as he spoke of Fiji, Hitchcock, Godzilla and, inevitably, his nemesis and alter ego, Perry Mason.
Why did you return to Perry mason after two decades? Did you need the money?
No, not at all. When the show was canceled I told CBS, "If you ever want to do a movie or a two-hour show, I'm available."
No one took you up on that?
Not until five years ago. [Executive Producer] Fred Silverman asked me to breakfast one morning and said, 'Would you do a two-hour Perry Mason?' I said, 'Can you get Barbara Hale?' He said yes and I said yes. Three seconds was all it took.
It must have been a strange feeling working with Barbara Hale again.
It happened that the very first scene we shot was in the courtroom. And we looked at each other and started to laugh, because there is no other way of wiping 25 years off of your life. Suddenly all the terrible things that have happened are gone and you are doing all the lovely things you did long ago.
You and Hale have remained friends through the years, haven't you?
I have been very fortunate. I don't have 25 friends, but the ones I have...
Yes. It's just that I'm brilliant about finding people who are patient with me. Don Galloway of Ironside is still one of my closest friends. And Barbara certainly. When we started, if she wasn't married I'm sure we would have been married now.
In real life?
In real life. If you have a very close friend as attractive as Barbara Hale you try everything in the world to marry her. But she was very happily married and still is.
You don't talk much about your personal life. Are you saving it for your autobiography?
They've offered me a million advance to write an autobiography. The first thing they want is a list of all the women I slept with, aside from the ones I married.
And you wouldn't write that book?
My book would have none of that. What I'm grateful to see in my business is a lot of young [entertainers] who say, 'I'll give you any kind of interview, but I'm not going to talk about my private life.' And they stick to that. And they should. You have to have some place to retreat.
Another subject people ask about is your weight. People like Orson Welles and Luciano Pavarotti had and have a certain impressive presence. Do you find any advantages at all...
No advantages whatsoever. Orson Welles would have been better off if he'd lost weight. Pavarotti has lost a lot of weight. And I would be better off if I lost weight.
Can you tell me what you weigh now?
No. I won't tell you how much money I have, and I won't tell you how much I weigh. It's a weakness, my being heavy. Why are you probing my weakness?
I can see this is not your favorite topic. And people like Johnny Carson have been doing jokes...
I have been asked a number of times to do his show, and I won't do it.
Because I like NBC. He's doing an NBC show. If I went on I'd have some things to say, not just about the bad jokes he's done about me, but bad jokes he does about everybody who can't fight back because they aren't there. And that wouldn't be good for NBC.
Okay, let's talk about your career. When you started in films you were playing a lot of--excuse the term--heavies.
Right, well in those early days I was mostly in B pictures. In them the "heavy" was as black as those shoes. And I always put gray in them. I used to get a lot of fan mail because I reminded somebody of their uncle or brother. And here I had just killed 12 people.
You do a lot of acting with your eyes. Mason has those wonderful inward moments where he suddenly understands.
That's one of the great things about film. Very few actors can do that from the stage. Very few actors can register thinking.
When did you first know you wanted to do this work?
I was very young, in elementary school. I went to the theater and thought it was the most marvelous thing I had ever seen.
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