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What's New?Vintage Press InformationAn 'Ironside' Title and Airdate ListingOriginal NBC Stills ArchiveVintage Magazine Features'Ironside' CollectablesEditorials and Analytical FeaturesLinks
What's New?Vintage Press InformationAn 'Ironside' Title and Airdate ListingOriginal NBC Stills ArchiveVintage Magazine FeaturesIronside' CollectablesEditorials and Analytical FeaturesLinks
 TV GUIDEVol.15, No. 37  •  September 16, 1967  •  Issue #755  •  pp. 24-28 
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Perry Mason may have become Robert Ironside
but the man-killing schedule remains the same

by C. Robert Jennings
blue bar
Like a great gray whale before a whipping wind, the wheel-chair-borne actor scudded across cable-car rails glinting in a sunshine day. The wounded eyes protruded from the vast hulk familiarly. But what on earth was Perry Mason, of all people, doing in a wheel chair, of all things, chasing criminals around San Francisco's cable-car barn, of all places?
After nine years of saving people from the gas chambers, Perry Mason has mutated into Robert Ironside, who puts people in them. Or, in his own writ: "In Ironside, I've switched from the defense to the prosecution, playing a legendary police detective who becomes a crime consultant following permanent injury by a sniper's bullet, which confines him to a wheel chair. There's more latitude for showing a human being because he is not tied down to a courtroom."
Message from Beyond
·   ·   ·   ·   ·
He is still tied to the same merciless schedule, however; and as this was the sixth and final day of shooting on an early episode of the series, there was the usual speculation about working late. Coming out of a production huddle like an overage fullback, Ray Burr sighed hugely, scratched his short gray crop, manufactured a couple of dozen autographs—"For my wife, Mr. Mason," "Thanks, Mr. Mason"—and greeted the visitor warmly.
"I'm afraid I'm the guy who's going to ruin your evening," I said. (I was going to interview him over dinner.)
"No. I'm going to ruin yours!" he retorted.
"If you have to work past 8 o'clock," I said, "you might see a drunk writer."
"If I have to work past 8 o'clock," he replied, "you will see a drunk actor." And suddenly the melancholy and splendidly jowled face gave way to an arch, Tony-Curtis, Bad-Little-Boy look which was in turn fragmented by a huge, hail-fellow laugh; and now he seemed like no one so much as Jim Backus, or Henry VIII. I remembered what a friend and former Burr associate had confided: "Inside that big man is not your usual thin one crying to escape, but a nice, chubby, giggly and troubled child."
Fortunately for us both, Ray Burr was jettisoned from the set around 6:30 P.M., making it a mere 14-hour workday, counting his usual pre-dawn perusal of the script. I found him hunched over a Dubonnet cocktail in a serenely elegant restaurant, the darkness of which did nothing to daunt those ubiquitous seekers of "Mr. Mason's" signature. He smiled upon them now like some benign war lord. Was he so thrilled by it all?
"I've given a good deal of my life to pleasing people," he said evenly, "and I'm glad they're still pleased; and there's satisfaction in the knowledge I'm going strong still. But 'thrilled' is not the word I'd use." Present beanery excepted, he remarked that he had "eaten some of the worst food and paid some of the highest prices for it" just to evade this bottomless sea of fans—which, he avers, "you cannot avoid by being rude."
·   ·   ·   ·   ·
A rude Ray Burr would be as rare as the Hay Diet. Indeed, he not only embraces his common humanity with uncommon force, he likes human beings—two vastly different things. And he proves it by giving of himself tirelessly and not talking too much about it. If pressed, he mumbles into the Olympia oysters something indecipherable about his numberless charities; and only under duress will he tell you about the four children, none of his own, plus the handful of relatives, that he supports wholly; and the 23 foster children to whose care he contributes mightily. But he would prefer touting a peppercorn steak or a 1961 Meursault; or having you share his own after-dinner concoction, Tia Maria cum Grand Marnier.
His 12 trips to Korea and 10 to Vietnam are now familiar matters of public record, but for a long time he would slip quietly into Saigon two or three times a year, visit thousands of servicemen in the remotest areas, and permit no publicity to boost his ratings. It was, and is, a deeply personal and passionate communion. "He always preferred to listen to our gripes rather than gab about Perry Mason," remembers a gunner who flew with him, adding, "We all think Ray Burr is one helluva fellow."
·   ·   ·   ·   ·
Why? What's in it for Ray, who once boasted of having "very little ego" to massage? "It's nice to be as important to other people as they are to you," he says, fully aware that a few cynics see him as a damn fool. "I certainly have an ego, but I don't have the kind of ego that demands constant attention. I lived alone a good many years—and I don't like it. But I can do my own cooking and my own gardening and shine my own shoes and dig my own ditches. But if I dug a good ditch, I'd like someone to say that's a pretty good ditch."
He is understandably proud to have been "the first entertainer in Vietnam and Eniwetok. The Bob Hope show's fine, but they can't get to the men and the men can't get to them. Isolation is just as bad as combat, and attention is necessary. I've got a reputation in Vietnam second to none because I've covered so many places..."
Currently, he is covering many places back home—the minds and hearts of victims of cerebral palsy, cancer, multiple sclerosis, racial discrimination and ghetto poverty; and already he is as involved in the agonies of paraplegics, addressing disabled veterans on weekends, as he was in promoting peace through world law, during the years when he was playing Perry Mason.
But compulsive do-gooders wield a two-edged sword, and a former Burr press agent bleeds from the dull side: "Ray takes it all so damn seriously. He'll really become this guy Ironside just like he really became Perry Mason. When he began addressing the bar groups, I thought 'Wow!—this is insane!' Then he began to resent the fact people called him Perry Mason and not Raymond Burr." Adds another detractor, "If I want to hear about Vietnam, I'll listen to James Reston, not some actor."
While he suffers from what Ibsen called "integrity fever," Ray is not merely "some actor." A man given alternately to dour soul-searching and giddy tomfoolery (he's a notorious prankster), to deep despair and high-octane cheer, Ray Burr at 50 is a formidable professional. "I've always felt acting a very honorable profession," says Burr, "To be a good actor makes you knowledgeable about many things, and you have to learn a lot about human nature to be one."
·   ·   ·   ·   ·
Raymond William Stacy Burr learned the hard way: earning 25 cents a day on a New Mexico sheep ranch; selling tinted photographs door to door; singing in a Paris boite;watching parades at his military academy from the bench because his porkiness would "break up the military line"; enduring the heartbreak of parental separation; losing his first wife in an airplane disaster, his second in the divorce courts, his third and last to cancer, and his only son to leukemia.
Burr's co-workers impute to him the hoary old cliché, "actor's actor," but he is in hard fact the actor's Job. And for every soul wound there's a fleshly scar: he has been bitten by a rattlesnake, thrown by a horse, torpedoed in the Atlantic, shot in the gut in Okinawa, mined in Vietnam, torn up in a helicopter accident, hospitalized uncountable times for malaria, laryngitis, typhoid and two kinds of hepatitis, and operated on nine times, two of them for polyps in the stomach. As Collier Young, Ironside's debonair creator, puts it, "You might say Ray's been known to get the vapors."
Moreover, Ray Burr has fought the seemongly interminable battle of the bulge. He is now pushing 265 pounds, although the studio likes to maintain the fiction of 230. In the age of Perry, he personally dished up his fabled goodies from a 12-burner stove in his Malibu home—once, legend has it, serving 34 hors d'oeuvres plus a four-course repast to 130 guests; and he operated the most viable 1½-acre manor this side of Disneyland, constantly adding to his rather bizarre menagerie of fauna, rare flora, worshipful friends and the house itself. "But I never really lived in Malibu in the 10 years I was building onto the house," he says dolefully, and recently he quietly dumped it.
·   ·   ·   ·   ·
Today, discounting do-good junkets, he divides his time between San Fancisco locations, an apartmentlike dressing suite at the splashiest and smoggiest studio in Hollywood, a friend's home near the studio, and a 4000-acre Fiji isle called Naitauba, of which he owns a tidy chunk.
"I live around," he says cagily. Then: "I let all that go. The animals went to the Los Angeles Zoo—I see them from time to time. And I have friends I don't get invited to visit unless I cook. You're a kind of shell—they're inviting you not for the kind of person you are but for what you do. That's fine!"
·   ·   ·   ·   ·
But what is so fine about plunging into yet another bone-bruising, full-hour TV series, distinguishable from any other only by a mechanical gimmick and its talented star? "To be able to spend five months of the year in the U.S., at least a month traveling, and to live six months in the Fiji Islands," says Ray. "It also enables me to do some things in the future that I can't do now. I am very rich, but I don't have a large bank account. My big dream is getting to a point where I don't give a hoot-or-holler where money is concerned, areas having to do with giving. I want to be free to give, to exist, to live.
"I feel I have enough of the good years left for that, and I don't feel I'm prostituting myself one single bit. I still want to grow a nice garden and have a family around me, and I'd like to do a great play. If I'm successful with the series, I can then walk away from it all and be completely a free agent. I want to be encumbered, but I want to be freer not to have to worry about my encumbrances." A thoughtful pause, then: "I don't know what a man is on earth for if he hasn't done it all.”
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