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Raymond Burr 1917-1993

Country : New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada
Profession : Actor
Date of birth : 1917-05-21
Date of death : 1993-09-12
Cause of Death : Kidney cancer

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Raymond William Stacey Burr (May 21, 1917September 12, 1993) was a Canadian Emmy-winning actor, primarily known for his roles in the television dramas Perry Mason and Ironside.

Early life

He was born Raymond William Stacey Burr on May 21, 1917 in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada (although the 1930 census states Burr was born in Illinois), to William Johnston Burr (1889-1985), an Irish hardware salesman from County Cork, Ireland, and his wife Minerva Smith (1892-1974), a concert pianist and music teacher who had emigrated to Canada from Chicago, Illinois, United States, in 1914. Burr spent part of his childhood in China, where his father worked as a trade agent. After his parents divorced, Burr moved to Vallejo, California with his mother and younger sister and brother.

As soon as he came of age, Burr went to work as a ranch hand and a photo salesman to help support his mother and younger sister and brother. After two years in the Navy during World War II, Burr returned home after being wounded in the stomach on Okinawa.

Early career

In 1937, Burr began his acting career at the Pasadena Playhouse. In 1941, he landed his first Broadway role in Crazy with the Heart. He became a contract player at RKO studio, playing mostly villains. He appeared in over 60 movies between 1946 and 1957. Burr received favourable notice for his role as a prosecutor in A Place in the Sun (1951), co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, but perhaps his best-known film role of the period was the suspected murderer in the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window (1954), starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly.

During this time, Burr's distinctive voice could also be heard on network radio, appearing alongside Jack Webb in the short-lived Pat Novak for Hire on ABC radio, as well as in early episodes of NBC's Dragnet. He also made guest appearances on other Los Angeles-based shows, such as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and landed a starring role in CBS's Fort Laramie (1956).

Burr also emerged as a prolific television character actor in the early to mid 1950s. He made his guest-starring television debut on an episode of The Amazing Mr. Malone. This part led to other roles in such programs as Dragnet, Chesterfield Sound Off Time, Four Star Playhouse, Mr. & Mrs. North, Schlitz Playhouse of Stardom, The Ford Television Theatre and Lux Video Theatre.

In 1955, Burr took on the part of Steve Martin in Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, a role he would reprise almost 30 years later in Godzilla 1985.

Perry Mason and Ironside

In 1956, Burr auditioned for the role of District Attorney Hamilton Burger in Perry Mason, a new courtroom drama based on the highly successful novels written and created by Erle Stanley Gardner that was to air on CBS. William Talman tried out for the title role. However, Gardner was present and demanded that the actors switch parts. Mason eventually became the role with which Burr was most closely identified, while Talman got to lose every case (at least against Mason) as Burger. Also starring were Barbara Hale - a 1940s movie actress and old friend of Burr’s - as Mason’s secretary, Della Street, and B-actor William Hopper as Mason’s private investigator, Paul Drake. Ray Collins played homicide detective Lieutenant Arthur Tragg.

Burr and Talman were both professionals and wise enough to realize that new or inexperienced actors could be extremely nervous during filming. In order to calm them Burr and Talman would purposely blow some of their own lines, thereby relaxing everyone else on the set.

Burr won two Emmy Awards for his role as Perry Mason which originally ran from 1957 to 1966, and has been re-run in syndication ever since. In 2006, the first season became available on DVD.

Burr moved from CBS to Universal Studios, where he played the title role in the television drama Ironside. In the pilot episode, San Francisco Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside is wounded by a sniper during an attempt on his life and is left an invalid in a wheelchair. This role gave Burr another hit series, the first crime drama show ever to star a disabled police officer. The show ran from 1967 to 1975. In 1977, Burr starred in the short-lived TV series Kingston: Confidential.

In 1985, Burr was approached by producers Dean Hargrove and Fred Silverman to star in a made-for-TV movie Perry Mason Returns. While he loved the idea he only agreed to do the movie if Barbara Hale returned to reprise her role as Della Street. Not only did Hale agree, but for the first time, she ended up being the accused when Perry Mason Returns aired in December 1985. The rest of the original cast had since died, but Hale's real-life son William Katt was cast as Paul Drake, Jr. Expected to be only a one-off special, the movie was so successful Burr ended up making 26 more before his death. Many of these were filmed in and around Denver, Colorado.

In 1988, after three years and nine Perry Mason TV movies, William Katt left to pursue other projects. A new leg-man for Mason was needed and actor William R. Moses was hired to play Ken Malansky, a young and up-and-coming lawyer who goes to work for Mason after he clears him of murder. Moses appeared in the Mason TV movies filmed between 1989 and 1995. By this time, Burr was largely wheelchair-bound (in his final Mason movie, he is always shown either sitting or standing while leaning on a table, but never standing unsupported) due to his failing health. Four more films were made between 1993 and 1995, after Burr's death, with supposed lawyer friends of Perry's defending the accused. However, some felt that without Burr, the magic was gone.

In 1993, as he had with the Perry Mason TV movies, Burr decided to do an Ironside reunion movie. In May of that year, The Return of Ironside aired, reuniting the entire original cast of the 1967-1975 series. However, as he was already in his last days suffering from liver cancer, this would be the only Ironside reunion. In reprising the role of Ironside, Burr was forced to dye his hair red and change his beard in order not to look too much like Perry Mason.

Other work

Burr co-starred in such TV films as Eischied: Only The Pretty Girls Die and Disaster On The Coastliner (both 1979), The Curse of King Tut's Tomb and The Night The City Screamed (both 1980), and Peter and Paul (1981). He also had a supporting role in Dennis Hopper's controversial film Out of the Blue (1980) and spoofed his Perry Mason image in Airplane II: The Sequel (1982).

Burr also worked as media spokesman for the now-defunct British Columbia-based real estate company Block Bros. in TV, radio, and print ads during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Illness and death

In late 1992, Burr was diagnosed with cancer in his left kidney, but he refused to undergo surgery, as this would have interfered with the shooting schedule of his final two television movies. After filming was completed, it was determined that the cancer had spread to several other organs, making it inoperable. Burr threw several "goodbye parties" before his death aged 76 on September 12, 1993 at his Sonoma County, California ranch near Healdsburg. Burr was interred with his parents at Fraser Cemetery, New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada.

On October 1, 1993, friends of Burr mourned him at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California. The private memorial was attended by Robert Benevides, Barbara Hale, Don Galloway, Don Mitchell, Barbara Anderson, Elizabeth Baur, Dean Hargrove, William R. Moses, and Christian I. Nyby II.

Personal life

Burr's parents, William and Minerva, remarried in 1955 after 33 years of separation. Burr had remained close to them, both during their separation and after their second marriage.

Raymond Burr was homosexual, but hid his sexuality for most of his life out of fear that it would damage his career. He had a 35-year romantic relationship with Robert Benevides (born 1930), a young actor and Korean war veteran whom Burr had met on the set of Perry Mason. For several years in the 1950s, according to an excerpt from Hiding in Plain Sight, a 2008 biography of Burr written by Michael Starr, another young Korean War veteran named Frank Vitti shared Burr's home and was identified in some publications as his nephew.

For most of his life, however, the public had no apparent reason to suspect that Burr was homosexual. In fact, in the late 1950s, Burr was rumored to be romantically involved with the young Natalie Wood. "When I was talking to Dennis Hopper about that," Wood biographer Suzanne Finstad says, "he was saying, I just can't wrap my mind around that one. But you know, I saw them together. They were definitely a couple. Who knows what was going on there?". This is explained by Robert Hofler in his book on Henry Willson entitled The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson. Hofler writes that Willson, Natalie's agent at the time, sent her on public dates with Burr and with other gay men so that she could be seen and noticed by directors and producers and so that the actors could publicly demonstrate their purported heterosexuality. The dates also made Natalie seem to be unattached, which prevented the tabloids from discovering the seriousness of her relationship with Robert Wagner, whom she later married.

Burr's official biography claimed that he had been married three times, but that two of his wives and his only child had died. In 1942, while working in London, he claimed to have met an aspiring Scottish actress named "Annette Sutherland" and to have married her the same year. The official biography goes on to claim that, despite protests from him, Sutherland had insisted on fulfilling her acting contract and traveled to Spain with a touring theatre company. She then boarded a flight from Lisbon to London BOAC Flight 777-A, perishing on the same flight as English actor Leslie Howard. However, Burr's biographer Ona L. Hill writes that “no one by the name of "Annette Sutherland Burr" was listed as a passenger on the plane”. In fact, only one of Burr's wives, Isabella Ward, can actually be documented. They were married in 1947 and divorced in 1952; reports of the marriage having been annulled are untrue. The other "wives" appear to have never existed (Sutherland was said to be a British actress, yet British Actors' Equity Association has no record of anyone by that name). The same goes for Burr's "son", who is said to have died from an incurable disease sometime in the 1950s. There is no record anywhere of his birth, existence or death.

In the mid-1950s, Burr met former actor Robert Benevides (sometimes spelled Benevedes). Benevides, who is credited as production consultant in 21 Perry Mason TV movies, was described as Burr’s "long-time companion" in a 1993 TV Guide article. Together the couple owned and operated first an orchid business, then a vineyard, in the Dry Creek Valley. After Burr died, his niece Minerva began a public feud with Benevides over whether he should have been given the bulk of Burr's estate. Benevides remains the proprietor of the Raymond Burr Vineyards in Healdsburg, California.


Burr had at least a dozen hobbies over the course of his lifetime: cultivating orchids, collecting wine and art, collecting seashells, cooking, flying, sailing, fishing and throwing small get togethers with friends. He donated most of his money to charities and friends (see philanthropy). According to A&E Biography, Burr was also an avid reader with a retentive memory. In addition, he taught acting classes at Columbia University.

Burr was devoted to his favourite hobby, cultivating and hybridizing orchids. He later developed this passion into an orchid business with Benevides, a fellow orchidist. Their company, Sea God Nurseries, had, during its 20-year existence, nurseries in Fiji, Hawaii, the Azores Islands, Southern California, and Northern California, and was responsible for adding more than 1,500 new orchids to the worldwide catalogue. Burr even developed one he named the "Barbara Hale Orchid".

Burr was also among the earliest importers and breeders of Portuguese Water Dogs in the United States. The breed may have recommended itself to Burr because Benevides was of Portuguese descent.

Burr's farm land holdings in Sonoma County, California, were where he and Benevides raised Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Port grapes, as well as orchids. The land is still in production, and is today known as the Raymond Burr Vineyards. According to the vineyards' web site, "Raymond Burr didn't want the vineyards named for him. But Robert Benevides, his partner, colleague and companion of 35 years, after much struggle and thought, decided that, in this case, the parallels of man and wine could not be separated; it is not so much a memorial to Raymond Burr as it is his living, breathing presence."

Burr also purchased 4,000 acres (1600 ha) on the island of Naitauba, Fiji, in 1965. There, the couple oversaw the raising of copra (coconut meat or kernel) and cattle, as well as orchids. This land was sold in 1983 to the self-proclaimed guru Adi Da.


In contrast to the "bad guys" and hard, unbending heroes he often played, Burr was an extraordinarily giving man.

Many servicemen remember him for his participation in United Service Organizations tours in Korea and Vietnam.

He gave enormous sums of money (including his salaries from the Perry Mason movies) to charity. He once sponsored 27 foster children through the Christian Children's Fund. He would sponsor children with the greatest medical needs. Burr always insisted that TV executives and directors treated his co-stars with the same respect shown to him. He also gave generously over many years to the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, California, including the donation of some of his Perry Mason scripts.

Burr was heavily involved in raising money for The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum in Sanibel, Florida.

Awards and nominations

Burr won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor - Drama Series twice, in 1959 and 1961, for his performance as Perry Mason. He was also nominated a further seven times, once for Mason and six times for Ironside. For the latter role, he was also nominated twice for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Drama.

Burr has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6656 Hollywood Blvd.

The Raymond Burr Performing Arts Centre

The Raymond Burr Performing Arts Centre in New Westminster, British Columbia opened in October 2000, near a city block bearing the Burr family name, and closed in 2006. Originally a movie theatre, under ownership of the Famous Players chain (as the Columbia Theatre), it was an intimate, 238-seat theatre. Initial plans included expanding the venue to a 650-seat regional performing arts facility. When in operation, it was the custom to have a picture of Raymond Burr included somewhere on each set, with the first toast on the opening night of every production always dedicated to his memory. The Centre was commonly referred to as the "Burr Theatre", or simply as "the Burr". It was demolished in 2006.

Burr in popular culture

Burr was referenced in the Beastie Boys' song "B-Boy Bouillabaisse" from the album Paul's Boutique: "I ride around town like Raymond Burr".

In an episode of Married... with Children, Al Bundy confuses a TV Guide cover shot of Delta Burke as that of Raymond Burr.

In the series The King of Queens (season 5, episode 124. "Taste Buds"), Arthur Spooner asks the staff for the Raymond Burr section in a video store, searching for the movie Destination Istanbul.

In the animated television series Home Movies, the episode "Definite Possible Murder" features a plot mirroring Rear Window with a character named Raymond Burly.

Bat-Bat, a character in Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, observes the strange phenomenon of butter products defying gravity and makes the aside "Butter becomes weightless? Raymond Burr must be in orbit by now!".

Ozzy Osbourne produced the song "Perry Mason" on the Ozzmosis album.

Mojo Nixon produced the song "The Perry Mason of Love" on the 1990 album Otis.

He is sometimes mistaken -- or "mistaken" -- to humorous effect as the person who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. (The actual shooter of Hamilton was Aaron Burr.)

Partial filmography

  • Desperate (1947)
  • Sleep, My Love (1948)
  • Pitfall (1948)
  • Raw Deal (1948)
  • Adventures of Don Juan (1948)
  • Black Magic (1949)
  • Red Light (1949)
  • Abandoned (1949)
  • Love Happy (1950)
  • A Place in the Sun (1951)
  • His Kind of Woman (1951)
  • Bride of the Gorilla (1951)
  • The Blue Gardenia (1953)
  • Serpent of the Nile (1953)
  • Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953)
  • Casanova's Big Night (1954)
  • Gorilla at Large (1954)
  • Rear Window (1954)
  • You're Never Too Young (1955)
  • Count Three and Pray (1955)
  • Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)
  • Crime of Passion (1957)
  • Another Time, Another Place (1958)
  • Desire in the Dust (1960)
  • The Return (1980)
  • Out of the Blue (1980)
  • Peter and Paul (1981) (TV)
  • The Return of Godzilla (1984)
  • Delirious (1991)

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