3 min

The private life of Perry Mason

Raymond Burr created an elaborate cover story for himself

In the years immediately following WWI, the small lumber town on the edge of nowhere that was Vancouver and its environs inexplicably generated two Hollywood stars: The queen of B-movies Yvonne de Carlo and the subject of this month’s column, Raymond Burr, television’s Perry Mason.

Every week from 1957 to 1966, this courtroom drama pitted brilliant defence attorney Perry Mason against dogged District Attorney Hamilton Burger. Hamburger (get it?) almost always lost his case to Mason’s brilliant detective work, which inevitably proved the accused innocent while leading the guilty party to confess in a dramatic courtroom scene.

Television audiences were riveted and Raymond Burr became rich and famous.

In 1967 Burr starred in a new television series, Ironside, where he played a wheelchair-bound police detective. Ironside had a seven-year run and introduced the actor to a new generation of viewers, but Perry Mason remained Burr’s signature role.

From 1985 until his death from cancer eight years later, he went on to star in 26 made-for-television Perry Mason movies.

New Westminster, where Raymond Burr was born and spent the first six years of his life, is proud of its native son and has taken pains to honour his memory. There is a Burr street and, from 2000 to 2006, there was a 238-seat Raymond Burr Performing Arts Centre, where, says, it was “the custom always to have a picture of Raymond Burr included somewhere on each set, and the first toast on the opening night of every production is always dedicated to his memory.”

Hometown enthusiasm ran particularly high this past Jul 8, reports the New Westminster Record, when a Raymond Burr commemorative stamp was unveiled at the city’s Century House seniors activity centre.

“At Canada Post, we’re delighted to be able to recognize the on- and off-screen accomplishments of Raymond Burr with the commemorative stamp we’re unveiling today,” said Ron Pasini, Canada Post Pacific region general manager of sales. “Paying tribute to great Canadians is what our stamp program is all about —capturing Canada and what it means to be Canadian and showcasing it for all the world.”

“Raymond Burr is perhaps one of our city’s best-known citizens,” said Mayor Wayne Wright. “Many of us enjoyed following his distinguished Hollywood career over the years, and we’re always proud of the fact that he was born and raised right where in New Westminster.”

One of Burr’s off-screen accomplishments consisted of fabricating a heterosexual existence as detailed in a newly released book, Hiding in Plain Sight, by Michael Seth Starr. “What is largely unknown,” writes Starr’s publisher, “is that Burr was leading a secret gay life at a time when exposure would have been career suicide. So to deflect questions, he created an elaborate cover story for himself as a grieving husband and father. He claimed to have been twice widowed —he said his first wife died in a plane crash and his second marriage ended with his wife’s tragic early death from cancer. And there was also a dead son —little 10-year-old Michael who lost his brave battle with leukaemia. Neither of the wives nor Michael ever existed. But that didn’t stop these lies from being perpetuated again and again, up to and including his obituary in the New York Times.”

In real life, Burr had a male companion, Robert Benevides. They met on the set of Perry Mason and for the next 33 years led a sophisticated, refined existence, becoming known for their hybrid orchids (adding over 1,500 new orchids to the catalogue) and their winery. They also collected art and bred Portuguese water dogs.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Benevides explained that Burr chose to erect such an elaborate façade because “Hollywood is too homophobic. No way could he admit that and still be a leading man.”

Despite the pains he took to maintain his cover story (he took Natalie Wood out on some well-publicized dates, leading to rumours of a romance between them), Burr could be careless.

There is a film clip of him attending the premier of A Star Is Born with his mother and a wide-eyed young sailor whom Burr refers to as “this fine young man.”

Like Rock Hudson, Burr was “known” to members of the local gay community and counted on their discretion to protect his reputation.

“I attended the funeral for Raymond Burr’s darling dead son Michael in the early 1950s at a piano bar in Silverlake,” posts a reader of gossip columnist Michael Musto, “and Raymond was there, three sheets to the wind. There was a petite white coffin on the bar, surrounded by banks of orchids.

I took a peek inside and there was a stuffed monkey! Joan Crawford and Liberace were there and Connie Bennett started a poker game that lasted into the wee hours. The winner got the monkey.”

Burr, who died in California, is interred at Fraser Cemetery in New Westminster.