Raymond Burr

Raymond Burr obituary in The Daily Mail in 1993.

Raymond Burr obituary in “The Daily Mail” in 1993.

Shaun Asher

Hw was one of the world’s best-known actors, instantly recognisable in
any country with a TV station – but Raymond Burr never forgave the
show that made him wealthy and successful.

The 76-year-old star, who has died in his sleep after a long battle
against cancer, said recently: ‘I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life
and done things I regret. But if I could live it over again, the only
thing I would not do is the Perry Mason show.’

It wasn’t just that someone proud of his acting skills, who made
nearly 100 films and held his own with some of Hollywood’s greatest
performers, was dismissed as front-man of two marathon whodunit
series, Perry Mason and Ironside. Behind Burr’s surprising and
embittered admission lay the heartache of a love that might have been.

Because Perry Mason, Raymond Burr always believed, killed his last
chance of a happy marriage.

His first wife, British actress Annette Sutherland, died in a
mysterious World War II plane crash along with actor Leslie Howard,
and the Burrs’ only son Michael died of leukaemia, at ten. Burr’s
second marriage, in 1947, was over within a few years, and he lost his
third wife, Laura Andrina Morgan, to cancer in 1955.

Raymond Burr felt himself under some kind of curse. Then in 1955, when
he was nearly 40, he made a now-forgotten movie called A Cry In The
Night, starring as an American version of The Collector, a psychopath
stalking and kidnapping a teenage beauty.

His leading lady was Natalie Wood, at 17 young enough to be his
daughter; but attracted from the first, they were soon deeply in love.

Studio executives, grooming Natalie as a dewy, all-American girl next
door, were aghast and told Natalie and her family that if the
relationship continued, it would wreck her career. Burr was warned
off, too, with implicit threats of being blacklisted even if the
‘inappropriate’ romance did not alienate the public.

Gradually, unwillingly, they were forced apart. Their love lasted for
two years, increasingly fragile and tenuous – until in 1957 Burr
became Perry Mason and pressure of work ended the affair.

He never married again, mourning with hindsight the sacrifice of his
three greatest ambitions outside showbusiness. ‘If I was ever going to
have another marriage, and a family life, and father children again,
it would have to have been done during those Perry Mason years.’

Instead, the actor from British Columbia, Canada, soared into orbit as
one of the first international stars made by television. The original
Perry Mason, despite its relentless format of a lawyer who never lost
a case and always cross-examined the killer into a witness-box
confession in time for the closing commercials, ran for nine years and
300 episodes, until 1966.

After that came a nine-year stint as Ironside, the crippled detective
cracking cases from his wheelchair – ironically, towards the end of
his life Raymond Burr returned to a wheelchair, riding in one when he
left hospital to die at his California vineyard home at Dry Creek.

He was a big man, both physically – the painstakingly dieted, slimline
edition was still 15 stone – and in lifestyle. During the Seventies,
career on hold after being doubly typecast in a brace of long-running
shows, he didn’t just retire to a tropical isle but bought his own in
the South Pacific.

If he couldn’t raise his own family, then he’d treat the population of
Naitobi, bought for $ 100,000, as his clan. Burr, 6ft 2in tall and
some 20 stone at the time, both revelled in and sent up his role of
island chief, sometimes wearing fanciful uniforms complete with a pith
helmet.

More seriously, he poured his own money into improving his ‘kingdom’
and making life easier and healthier for its citizens. And he indulged
a new hobby, gaining a world reputation as an orchid breeder and
creating 3,000 new varieties.

Yet he was no marooned millionaire: he flew to America or Europe to
see the latest plays and upheld his reputation as a gourmet by
exploring the finest restaurants. And although he sold his realm for $
1.5 million in 1983 – homesick for his adoptive California and wanting
to resume a full-time career in his 60s – he made little money on the
deal.

Raymond Burr’s frustrated dream of a stable home with a loving wife
and children was a reaction to his own childhood. His parents broke up
when he was six, and at 13 he left school to support his mother and
younger brother and sister, with earnings of 16 1/2p a day as a New
Mexico ranch-hand. Back in California, he looked after his siblings
while his mother worked as a cinema organist.

He had always loved the stage and got his start with a Canadian
repertory company, touring Britain when he was 19 and spending a year
in Paris as cabaret singer.

Nothing came easily – his overnight success was decades in the making.
Four years after moving to New York to conquer Broadway, he was still
waiting – and when he did win a part, he had to spend several days in
the same clothes because his hotel had locked him out for not paying
his rent.

His first Hollywood movie was cancelled by the time he got there.
Dispirited, he enlisted in the wartime U.S. Navy, emerging in 1945 at
a corpulent 24 stone. Cigarettes helped him lose weight, but hooked
him on a 60-a-day addiction. Actually the weight helped him win early
film parts, stressing his physical presence as, literally, a heavy in
scores of films.

He was the killer menacing bedridden photographer James Stewart in
Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window. And on the way to Perry Mason, he
co-starred with everyone from John Wayne to Godzilla.

Yet after countless portrayals of hulking, brutish villains, Burr
emerged as perhaps the most enduring Good Guy of American TV, an
unbeatable, unflappable crusader for justice. He established a new
record for career longevity when Perry Mason was revived in a string
of award-winning TV specials, the last recorded only weeks before his
passing.

It meant that 34 years after going into court for the first time,
Raymond Burr was still brooding over the guilty party, blue-eyed stare
relentless, until they told the truth.

Cancer kept attacking him, leading to operations, radiation therapy
and the removal of one kidney. The actor surmounted those reverses in
copyright Perry Mason style. ‘So I’ve lost a kidney, big deal,’ he
joked to surgeons, on coming out of the anaesthetic.

He refused to turn his face to the wall and whimper over the
inevitable. ‘I may be on borrowed time, but I still have plenty of
living to do,’ he declared – and only a month afterwards he went into
the studios to play Mason one more time.

And while he held the character responsible for ending the love affair
of his life, Burr recognised Perry Mason’s power and influence over
untold millions as well as himself. Typically, as he sat in his vinery
home and the future could be measured in days, Burr accentuated the
positive:

‘God, I’ve been lucky! If I hadn’t been an actor, what would I have
done? I’ve probably been able to touch more people as an actor than
anything else. I’ve enjoyed that.’

At his direction, there will be no funeral, just a simple cremation.
As for the epitaph, Raymond Burr spoke it for himself

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