Raymond Burr had a distinctive quality about him as an actor. By any estimation he was not a brilliant performer, but he did convey a trustworthiness, a stalwart honesty and integrity that made him the perfect fit for the TV series that brought him the most fame, Perry Mason, which ran from 1957-66.
But when Burr died in 1993, he left behind a $30 million estate, a legion of fans and a load of questions about his private life.
In the weeks following his death, People magazine would expose the truth about Burr’s being gay, something that was already what people in Hollywood referred to as an open secret. Like Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter and Anthony Perkins before him, industry insiders had known that Burr had a longtime companion and was no heterosexual.
Now, New York Post columnist Michael Seth Starr has written Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr, an exhaustive account of Burr’s life and career, in particular the astonishing lengths that the actor went to keep his gay life under wraps.
For TV buffs, it’s an intriguing bit of behind-the-scenes lore, but for gay readers, it’s (yet) another sad chapter in the history of Hollywood and popular culture — one that reflects a deep-seated hatred and fear of queers.
That Burr went to such lengths to keep his secret often pushes the envelope of pain.
It’s also strange to read many of the details given that Burr, who was born in New Westminster and who was just anointed with a stamp by Canada Post, had a squeaky-clean image as Mason and later as Ironside.
As Starr recounts in this extensively researched book, Burr concocted tales of two dead wives (both of whom died tragically) and a son with leukemia as a way to deflect any questions about his romantic or sexual life.
“Somehow, Burr was able to fly under the radar,” says Starr, from his New York office. “He wasn’t the leading man type, like Rock Hudson, so he was able to avoid that kind of scrutiny. He did have a run-in with Confidential magazine in the early ’60s but he managed to deflect the innuendo.”
Starr, who is straight, has written a number of celebrity biographies, focusing on figures like Peter Sellers, Art Carney and Bobby Darin. But he says he was drawn to Burr precisely because the web of lies the actor concocted was so intricate and so delicately woven.
“I don’t think I was interested in Burr so much because he was gay, but rather because of the fabrications that he invented because he was so paranoid about being outed. It’s not unusual for actors or actresses to put a different spin on their resumes. I know Orson Welles was famous for telling tall tales. But Burr really took it to another level. When you get into dead sons who never existed, it gets a bit creepy. It was beyond serving in the war — he said that he did, and he didn’t. But when you need people to feel sorry for you and create a son who died of leukemia, that’s just bizarre. I don’t even know what kind of pathology goes into that, but that’s what he was doing.”
Oddly enough, Starr feels that Burr was lifting the tragedy from an acting peer, Red Skelton.
“Red Skelton actually had a son who was dying of leukemia. Skelton took a year off to take him on a tour of America before the son died. Burr took that story and made it his own. He invented a son and invented the tragedy.”
Starr’s recounting of Burr’s life narrative is decidedly straightforward and no-frills. There’s no pop psychology to explain Burr’s behaviour — we’re mainly fed plenty of details about how his career progressed. But even in the standard telling, Burr’s epic story of keeping things covert approaches a David Lynch movie in its utter weirdness.
Though he appeared in numerous film noirs and Hitchcock’s celebrated Rear Window, he is undoubtedly best known for Perry Mason and Ironside. While it could be argued that the latter role presented a breakthrough for the medium of TV (Ironside was the first show to feature a disabled protagonist), both shows were noteworthy primarily for their achingly generic scripts and their utter predictability.
Burr fit right in — if anything, there was a banality about the man that made him comforting to mainstream audiences.
“You’re right, there was a comfort level to Burr,” says Starr. “You always knew what you’d get with a Perry Mason episode: you’d meet five characters in the first six or seven minutes. You never saw any blood. Mason never defended anyone who was guilty. But it was a different time back then — this was TV’s first hour-long legal drama.”
As well, Starr says he was careful not to judge Burr.
Burr is survived by his longtime boyfriend, Robert Benevides, who is the sole heir to Burr’s allegedly considerable fortune and who continues to live in California, running the Raymond Burr Vineyards.
“I tried to contact Benevides,” Starr recalls, “but he simply refused to be involved with the book.”
Benevides did agree to talk to Xtra West regarding the biography.
“I thought much of it was very well researched,” said Benevides, now 78 and on the line from the Raymond Burr Vineyards.
“I think it is good to get rid of a lot of the crap that the studio publicists came up with for him as a cover. When Mr Starr did get into errors it was later on — in the final chapter, for example. He says that Raymond and I got married, that Raymond wore a pink apron and called me his husband. That’s crap, it never happened. He must have got that from a supermarket tabloid or something.
“Also, he said that Burr left me millions. Actually, Raymond died owing half a million dollars to the government in taxes. He left me nothing.”
So why did Benevides not agree to be interviewed for Starr’s book? “It was simple: someone else said they wanted to do a book on me and Raymond, so I had already agreed to do that book. So that’s the only reason I didn’t talk to Mr Starr.”
I ask Starr and Benevides about one of Vito Russo’s most damning arguments about Hollywood’s litany of homophobia. In his book The Celluloid Closet, the late critic Russo suggested that our worst enemies in Tinseltown were closeted gays themselves, who were complicit in their silence — accomplices to a litany of shameful, hateful, onscreen representations.
Starr sees things differently. “I would tend to disagree with Vito Russo. You have to keep in mind the times — it was the Eisenhower Era and America was very repressed. Generally, it was thought that if you were gay it was going to ruin your career. Burr was a big macho guy, and he didn’t hit it big until he was 40.
“He wanted fame, but when he got there, there was this horror of being found out. I didn’t want to criticize him for that, because it was an entirely different time then.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Benevides agrees: “It was indeed a different time. If it had been revealed that Raymond had been gay, he never would have got many of the roles that he had. And frankly, I don’t know how much has changed. There’s still a lot of homophobia in Hollywood. Can you imagine a big-name actor coming out today, and still getting a starring role in an action movie?”