| The Washington Post TV CHANNELS||Sunday, December 12, 1971 Page 5 |
|Some long years of obscurity prepared Raymond Burr for stardom and wealth|
By Lawrence Laurent
|Stardom came late to Raymond Burr but it came to a man who knew how to enjoy fame and wealth. He was 40 years old when Erle Stanley Gardner chose him to play Perry Mason. That series lasted for nine seasons on CBS-TV and continues as a top audience program in syndicated reruns (Channel 5).|
Burr worked in nearly every scene of about 250 episodes of "Perry Mason" and while the series made him rich it also left a bad taste. This was a slight, a hurt, an inconsiderate oversight that even a man of Burr's stature finds hard to forget.
When the series began, Burr was issued a wrist watch. It was not particularly expensive but Burr grew fond of it. He kept the watch in repair and paid for having it cleaned. The day the last episode was finished the property man for the series came into Burr's dressing room and asked for the watch.
Burr couldn't believe the man wanted the watch. He stood there thinking that his own expenses had already exceeded the cost of the watch. The property man repeated that he needed the watch to close the inventory and Burr slowly unstrapped it from his wrist.
He hasn't worn a watch since.
No sooner had the Mason series ended than Burr began receiving offers for a new show. He was tired. He sold his beautiful oceanside home north of Malibu and bought himself an island. He paid an estimated $200,000 for Naitauba in the Fiji Islands, complete with 180 residents, a copra plantation, a mine and acres of trees bearing macadamia nuts, passion fruit, mango and bread fruit.
Burr leaves Los Angeles by jet and 18 hours later lands near the city of Suva. A boat trip to Naitauba takes about 22 hours. With a wicked gleam in his bright blue eyes, Burr will say, "Drop by sometime and see me."
What lured Burr off his island and back into television was the role of Robert T. Ironside. He liked the character of the crusty detective, but equally important was that the role would be played in a wheel chair. Burr had been on his feet for nine years as Perry Mason and the role had taken a heavy toll on his health. Along with those factors was that Burr's own business, Harbour Productions, got a piece of the show.
"Ironside" is now in its fifth season, meaning that the series has reached a level of maximum profit and that Burr will undoubtedly be enriched once more by a long re-run package. The show is being moved in January from 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays to 9 p.m. Thursdays (NBC, Channel 4).
Burr was born, 54 years ago, in Westminster, B.C., Canada. He grew up in Vallejo in Nortern California and his was not a happy childhood.
He was a fat little boy, going to military school and disliking every minute of it. He was befriended by an elderly woman who had a beautiful garden behind her home. When Burr was not in school, he was in the garden, a tender, sensitive child who found beauty in the flowers. The woman died several years ago and when the property was put up for sale Burr bought it.
After graduation Burr went back to Canada and became an actor in repertory theater. Later, he went to England and returned to the United States to teach drama at Columbia University and work in Broadway plays. After World War II service in the U.S. Navy, Burr settled down in Southern California, teaching and performing at the Pasadena Playhouse and working in some of the worst movies ever made.
With his size and disciplined style of performing Burr made a wonderful villian. He was, for example, the murderer in "Rear Window," but few people ever knew he played the role. He wore glasses with thick lenses and never had a single close up.
Those addicted to "The Late Show" will find Burr in such films as "San Quentin" (1947), "Ruthless" (1948), "Bride of Vengeance" (1949), "Borderline" (1950), "Casanova's Big Night" and "Gorilla at Large" (both 1954), "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" (1956) and "Crime of Passion" (1957). Interspersed among those were his fine playing of a prosecuting attorney in "A Place in the Sun" (1951) and "Rear Window" (1954).
He went to tryouts for "Perry Mason" hoping to land the role of prosecuting attorney Hamilton Burger. Author Gardner saw him and decided that Raymond Burr should become "Perry Mason." The role of Burger went to William Talman, now dead of lung cancer.
To play Mason, Burr went on a dangerous crash diet and lost over 50 pounds. He started the series as a slender 210 but added weight as the years went by. He is, for one thing, a superb gourmet cook and he is, for another, a man who gets tremendous pleasure from eating. He is now, by best estimates, about 275 pounds but he carries it well on a broad shouldered 6 feet 1 frame.
He still enjoys talking about dieting, but he's usually too busy with his many projects to concentrate on losing weight. he is interested, for example, in teaching theatre in the Watts area of Los Angeles, in a college in Florida, in setting up a University of the Pacific in the Fiji Islands, in looking afer hospitalized veterans of Vietnam and in stabilizing the economy of the Fijis. He has also bought a new home, a huge old estate in the Hollywood foothills. It gives him great privacy.
No problems exist on the set of "Ironside," simply because Burr is the boss and everyone knows it. He tried to talk Barbara Anderson into staying in the cast as policewoman Eve Whitfield. She had won an "Emmy" and was certain that a great future beckoned. She left and was replaced by Elizabeth Baur (policewoman Fran Belding).
Don Galloway, who plays Ed Brown and Don Mitchell, who plays Mark Sanger, continue in the roles they began five seasons ago.
As for Burr, his future is certain and finacially secure. "Ironside" will probably be the last TV series for him and when it ends he will concentrate on his art collection, growing orchids and on making Naitauba the most beautiful of all the islands in the Pacific. That is, of course, unless someone comes along with another series that Raymond Burr just cannot resist.