Gay History: Raymond Burr’s Secret Life

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Raymond Burr was in excruciating pain as he filmed the final “Perry Mason” episodes in 1993. Almost no one on the set knew he was dying of cancer. Biographer Michael Seth Starr is not surprised. According to Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr (published by Applause), secrecy was second nature to the actor. He became one of the world’s most familiar TV stars during the original run of “Perry Mason” (1956-1966) and went on to another popular if less remembered series, “Ironside” (1967-1975). And there he was, instantly recognizable and in the public eye, a gay man who kept his sexuality concealed.

Any admission of homosexuality would have poisoned his career at any time before the 1980s. Times changed but Burr kept his own counsel through the end. He was actually once married, briefly, and went on to invent no less than two dead wives and even a dead son to fill out the blank spaces in his life story. Along with false reports of his service during World War II, he repeated these additions to his autobiography so long and so often that they found their way into his obituaries. In the 1950s he was “romantically linked” with rising starlet Natalie Wood. They were genuinely fond of each other but sparks never flew. Burr met his life companion, onetime actor Robert Benevides, in 1957 on the “Perry Mason” set. They were together through Burr’s death.

The story of a deeply closeted Hollywood lifestyle isn’t entirely unique; the backdrop of Burr’s career adds to its interest. Typecast as a “heavy” when he drifted into Hollywood after World War II, his hulking presence and brooding scowl made him ideal for film noir and crime dramas generally. He played the furtive murderous husband across the courtyard in Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window (1954) and finally stood on the right side of the law as the district attorney dismantling Montgomery Clift’s testimony in A Place in the Sun (1951). Never considered an A-list movie actor, he became a star in the emerging medium of television. Playing the title role in “Perry Mason,” he became one of TV’s best paid and best known faces. Later, as the wheelchair-riding detective in “Ironside,” he might even have spurred the drive toward ramps and accessible facilities for the handicapped.

Starr notes that throughout his public life Burr was unfailingly generous to charities and gave much of his time (when he wasn’t keeping a grueling work schedule) to public service of one sort or another. That the author only assembled a relatively slender volume out of Burr’s life probably indicates that the actor carried many of his secrets to the grave.

11 things you might not know about Raymond Burr

Learn how the ‘Perry Mason’ star links to orchids, Godzilla, wine and the history of synthesizers.

Top image: AP Photo

Raymond Burr is synonymous with Perry Mason. Yet the Canadian-born actor was far more than television’s greatest defense lawyer. Of course, he played the titular wheelchair-bound police consultant on Ironside, too. Early in his film career, he was a natural in film noirs. Beyond the screen, Burr was a horticulturist, an oenophile and a seashell collector.

Burr’s fascinating biography was filled with fabrication and speculation, as he and his publicists obscured his private life. Here are things you might not know about Raymond Burr.

1. He starred in the radio program ‘Fort Laramie’ and read his lines from a wheelchair

Image: radiospirits

Gifted with a rich, resonating voice, Burr naturally found work in radio. In the 1956 program Fort Laramie, Burr starred as Cavalry Cpt. Lee Quince. In a foreshadowing of his Ironsiderole, he had to record much of his lines while confined to a wheelchair, after injuring his leg during the filming of Crime of Passion.

2. He was considered for the role of Marshal Matt Dillon.

Though his roots were in noir, he could have been a Western star, and not just on the radio. Burr was up for the lead role of Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, though he was deemed too overweight for the role, as was William Conrad, the man who played the Marshal on the radio. Producer-director Charles Marquis Warren was reported to have proclaimed, “When he stood up, his chair stood up with him.”

3. He was asked to lose weight for the role of Perry Mason.

Thankfully, the creators of Perry Mason found the right man for the role. Though the 40-year-old’s weight would again be an issue with producers. Burr beat out around 50 actors who auditioned for the gig, according to the book Raymond Burr: A Film, Radio and Television Biography. One catch: They made him take a crash diet, dropping his weight to 210 pounds.

4. He was in a Godzilla movie, but never interacted with the Japanese actors.

Image: Toho Company

The arrival of Godzilla in 1954 shook the film industry. In 1956, Jewell Enterprises took the monster movie and re-edited it for American audiences. Burr was cast as an American reporter, and footage of him was deftly inserted into the original to make it seem as if he were interacting with the other actors, who had completed their work two years prior. It was rumored that all his scenes were filmed in one day, but that seems to have been debunked, as his work likely was shot over the course of six days.

5. He portrayed Perry Mason in four different decades.

Just how popular was Perry Mason? After the series’ original run from 1957–66, Burr returned to the role for a string of 30 TV movies that aired from 1985–95. Burr headlined 27 of them, up until his death in 1993. The character was around in the 1970s, too, in the flop series The New Perry Mason, with Monte Markham playing the ace lawyer.

6. He was the original host of ‘Unsolved Mysteries.’

Image: NBC

Robert Stack, sporting his trench coat, is well remembered as the host of Unsolved Mysteries. He was not the first choice, however. On January 20, 1987, he hosted the NBC special that became the pilot for the series, though his services would prove to be too costly for the network to keep him on as host.

7. He made wine.

Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Raymond Burr Vineyards are located in Dry Creek County, California. The operation started in 1986 with the planting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Portuguese grapes.

8. His show ‘Ironside’ featured the first synthesizer-based TV theme.

Legendary producer Quincy Jones composed the killer theme to the 1967 crime series, about a consultant to the SFPD who had been paralyzed from the waist down by a bullet. If you’re unfamiliar, you might recognize the siren-like synthesizers from the Kill Bill movies. Jones later included a longer version of the tune on his 1971 album Smackwater Jack

9. He lived on a small island in Fiji.

Looking for privacy? You’ll find it on the tiny island of Naitaba, Fiji. Burr and his partner raised coconuts and cattle on the Pacific getaway.

10. He grew orchids and named a hybrid after his ‘Perry Mason’ costar

Another of Burr’s passions was flowers. He was a skilled grower of orchids, and with his partner, Robert Benevides, he hybridized approximately 1500 varieties. One hybrid was named for Barbara Hale, the actress who played Perry Mason’s loyal secretary, Della Street.

11. His partner was an actor, too.

Image: The Outer Limits / MGM Home Entertainment 

Benevides had experience on television, as well. He landed a handful of guest roles on shows such as The Loretta Young Showand West Point. His best-known performance is perhaps the Outer Limits episode “O.B.I.T.” He is the military man choked to death by an eerie creature as he monitors the Outer Band Individuated Teletracer.

Reference

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