We may as well just say it: They don't make 'em like they used to. Call it class, eloquence or just being a gentleman, but Raymond Burr embodied the sort of qualities that have slowly but noticeably faded from our everyday world.
Perhaps we could be excused for leaning on hyperbole in light of the fact that, some 16 years after his 1993 passing to cancer, Burr is taking his rightful place alongside many of our nation's greatest actors Christopher Plummer, Hume Cronyn, Donald Sutherland on Canada's Walk of Fame. His name may not resonate with quite the same immediacy as his Hollywood contemporaries, such as Cary Grant or Montgomery Clift, but Burr was the real deal. In fact, one could argue that the same qualities that made him a somewhat lesser "star" are the same that made him so great a man humility, generosity and a desire for a private life. As he once famously stated: "I'm a fine guy to be an actor. Can't stand to have my picture taken."
Burr's acting career spanned six decades and encompassed roles in dozens and dozens of motion pictures. His success in television is of even greater renown, including a long-running hit role as disabled San Francisco detective Robert T. Ironside. But let there be no doubt that his most signifi cant character was lawyer Perry Mason. Perry Mason, the show, was a success of enormous proportions, and yet it was delivered via a medium that had not even been invented when Burr entered this world.
He was born Raymond William Stacy Burr on May 21, 1917, in New Westminster, B.C., to a salesman of Irish background, William Burr, and an American-Canadian pianist and music teacher, Minerva Smith. Sadly, his parents' relationship was not built to last (although they would remarry in 1955), but this tension landed Burr in some very fertile soil indeed - California. In 1922, his mother moved him and his younger sister and brother to Vallejo, where her parents lived. Young Raymond Burr became a Bay Area resident. A life-changing revelation for the boy came courtesy of Smith's job as the pipe organist at a local church. The minister's wife was a theatre major, and she carried a bug that Burr was swift in catching. He wanted to be an actor.
The road was hardly smooth leading there he first had to live through the Great Depression and a stomach injury sustained while he was in the navy, stationed in Okinawa in World War II but Burr's will would not be denied. As the child matured into a man, he found he possessed an array of commanding traits tall and oak-tree solid, he had a voice to match his imposing frame. This led to his fair share of appearances as the "bad guy," including the district attorney who gets Montgomery Clift sent to the chair in A Place in the Sun (1951), and the deeply shady Lars Thorwald in the Hitchcock classic Rear Window (1954), but it wasn't long before people took notice of another, equally compelling side to Burr. It was this side that allowed him his great success as Mason, a role that made use of his quiet honour while still harnessing his enormous physical presence.
It's worth noting that Burr fashioned one of TV's most beloved characters out of a criminal defense attorney one of the most routinely despised real-life professions you could imagine. Perry Mason's run of nine seasons and 22 madefor- TV movies made it the most successful legal television program of its time. And even if that record no longer stands, the show's influence on the genre is undeniable.
As renowned as that role was, Burr's life was a lot more than just one act. His philanthropic work was wide-reaching and included extremely long-term commitments. A closeted homosexual for much of his life, Burr had a relationship with actor Robert Benevides that lasted 33 years. Their life together included many shared passions, such as growing orchids and establishing a vineyard that still bears his name today.
For any doubters of the range and capabilities of this man, allow us this one final exhibit. In 1956, the little-known Japanese film Gojira was to be repackaged for U.S. audiences. To do the job, studio execs cast Burr as reporter Steve Martin, an American overseas who witnesses the horrific destruction of Tokyo at the hands of a giant, radioactive, fire-breathing monster. And so it was that Burr brought Godzilla to America.
Thirty years later, for Godzilla 1985, he reprised this role, although in the dialogue he was only referred to as "Mr. Martin." It seems there was another, very popular actor by the same name. We're guessing Raymond Burr had no problem with that whatsoever.