Raymond Burr's Secret Life
Raymond Burr was in excruciating pain as he filmed the final “Perry Mason” episodes in 1993. Almost no one on the set knew he was dying of cancer. Biographer Michael Seth Starr is not surprised. According to Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr (published by Applause), secrecy was second nature to the actor. He became one of the world’s most familiar TV stars during the original run of “Perry Mason” (1956-1966) and went on to another popular if less remembered series, “Ironside” (1967-1975). And there he was, instantly recognizable and in the public eye, a gay man who kept his sexuality concealed.
Any admission of homosexuality would have poisoned his career at any time before the 1980s. Times changed but Burr kept his own counsel through the end. He was actually once married, briefly, and went on to invent no less than two dead wives and even a dead son to fill out the blank spaces in his life story. Along with false reports of his service during World War II, he repeated these additions to his autobiography so long and so often that they found their way into his obituaries. In the 1950s he was “romantically linked” with rising starlet Natalie Wood. They were genuinely fond of each other but sparks never flew. Burr met his life companion, onetime actor Robert Benevides, in 1957 on the “Perry Mason” set. They were together through Burr’s death.
The story of a deeply closeted Hollywood lifestyle isn’t entirely unique; the backdrop of Burr’s career adds to its interest. Typecast as a “heavy” when he drifted into Hollywood after World War II, his hulking presence and brooding scowl made him ideal for film noir and crime dramas generally. He played the furtive murderous husband across the courtyard in Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window (1954) and finally stood on the right side of the law as the district attorney dismantling Montgomery Clift’s testimony in A Place in the Sun (1951). Never considered an A-list movie actor, he became a star in the emerging medium of television. Playing the title role in “Perry Mason,” he became one of TV’s best paid and best known faces. Later, as the wheelchair-riding detective in “Ironside,” he might even have spurred the drive toward ramps and accessible facilities for the handicapped.
Starr notes that throughout his public life Burr was unfailingly generous to charities and gave much of his time (when he wasn’t keeping a grueling work schedule) to public service of one sort or another. That the author only assembled a relatively slender volume out of Burr’s life probably indicates that the actor carried many of his secrets to the grave.