Raymond Burr leads the PNE parade through the streets of Vancouver as an honorary marshal, 1970. Image courtesy of the Columbian Company fonds (2008.248). Basil King, IHP 10000-0369, New Westminster Museum and Archives.

The British Columbia Roots of Television’s Greatest Defense Attorney

When Raymond Burr died in 1993, The New York Times reported that the Perry Mason star had been married three times; that his first wife had died “when the plane in which she was traveling was shot down by the Germans,” and that his only son Michael had died of leukemia. In fact Burr had only been married once, had no children, and had been in a relationship with his producing partner Robert Benevides since 1960. Burr’s life and career are full of such contradictions. An actor who broke into film playing a series of villains, yet found fame as television’s most beloved legal defender, who starred in both the American version of Godzilla and the shot-in-Vancouver cult film Out of the Blue, the shy husky child born in New Westminster went on to become a Hollywood legend.

On May 21, 1917, Raymond William Stacy Burr was born to William (Bill) and Minerva Burr at 718 Queens Avenue in New Westminster. Burr’s grandfather Joseph had been a provincial police officer and government agent, and settled his family in a three-story house on Royal Avenue (others in the family worked in law enforcement as well, including a cousin at New Westminster jail and a great uncle at the federal penitentiary.) Raymond’s father worked as a hardware salesman at TJ Trapp and Co., while his mother, a teacher and piano player, accompanied young Raymond to church, where he participated in some of his first theatrical performances. Burr recalled “winter sleigh rides on the steep hills near his home” in New West, as well as fond memories of his family’s summer home in Boundary Bay.

At age six, Burr and his mother moved to Vallejo, California, while his father stayed in New Westminster. An overweight and shy child who nonetheless took an interest in performance, Raymond attended the San Rafael Military Academy and spent a year in the Civilian Conservation Corps. After graduating high school, he took acting lessons at the Pasadena Playhouse while living at the YMCA. The struggling actor bounced between Hollywood and the New York theatre scene before breaking into film with a small role in Earl of Puddlestone (1940), playing a chauffeur.

Burr’s first major contract was with RKO, where he distinguished himself as a character actor in noir films such as Raw Deal, Pitfall and Blue Gardenia. According to biographer Michael Seth Starr in Hiding in Plain Sight, Burr “had all the ingredients for the perfect supporting B-movie heavy: he was a brooding, hulking presence who could scowl with the best of them and project menace with his deep voice, which he would sometimes reduce to a rasp to heighten the suspense.”

While Burr briefly married in 1948, and was once linked by gossip columnists to actress Natalie Wood, his personal life and homosexual relationships were kept secret. As Starr writes, “If word got out about his sexuality it would sink his promising career, which at this point was built on playing hulking, macho thugs.” To that end, Burr made up ever-more-elaborate biographies for himself, including childhood travel to China, heroic war service, a lost family fortune, a wife shot out of the sky by Germans, and a son who died of leukemia. All false. “A lot of it was PR that Raymond went along with because he was gay,” his second cousin Maureen Albanese explained in an interview with the New West Record in 2017, though Starr points out that Burr “chose to continue perpetrating the fabrications by refusing to address them.”

Image courtesy of the Kathleen Pearson fonds (2007.378). Croton Studios, IHP 8097-206, New Westminster Museum and Archives.

Burr’s most famous film roles came in the 1950s: as a crusading district attorney in the Elizabeth Taylor film A Place in the Sun, and as the neighbor Jimmy Stewart suspects of murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. In 1956, Burr recorded scenes to be spliced into the Japanese kaiju film Gojira for its international release. Burr plays an American journalist in Tokyo covering the monster’s destruction. This version of the film, titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! was a box office hit, creating a blockbuster, Oscar-winning franchise. Burr would later reprise his role for Godzilla 1985.

At his peak as a film star, Burr was earning more than $100,000 a year (over a million in today’s dollars), supplementing this with radio work, and touring military bases to provide free entertainment to personnel. Yet his most lasting role was still to come.

Based on the novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason ran for nine seasons starting in 1957 and earned Burr two Emmy awards. A legal procedural about a crusading defense attorney and his assistant Della Street (Barbara Hale), the show became famous for scenes where Burr’s Mason would induce a guilty party to confess on the stand. Long after it ended, the show would be referenced in songs by Ozzy Osbourne and on the TV show Better Call Saul. During her confirmation hearings, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Sotomayor even mentioned the show as her inspiration to study law. In 2020, HBO debuted a reworked Perry Mason, starring Matthew Rhys and produced by Robert Downey, Jr.

In 1960, Burr met actor Robert Benevides. The two became a couple, and Benevides moved from acting to production, forming first Harbor Productions and later RB Productions with Burr. After Perry Mason, Burr and Benevides produced Ironside, a show in which Burr played a detective who solves crimes despite being paralyzed from the waist down. Ironside ran for eight seasons, but Burr and Benevides would remain together for the rest of Burr’s life.

While Burr often returned to New Westminster and Boundary Bay to visit family, professional reasons brought him to Vancouver in 1980. Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue, starring Hopper and Linda Manz as a rebellious father and daughter, featured Burr as a supporting character. According to J. Hoberman, it was Burr’s inclusion in the film that “sealed the project’s status as a Canadian tax-shelter production.” Filmed around Vancouver and Tsawwassen, Out of the Blue includes vanished landmarks like the Ridge Theater and the Viking Hall. “Watching the film,” Dorothy Woodend wrote in The Tyee, “the Vancouver of old emerges, from the days when the place was the end of the line.” Out of the Blue became a cult classic and its stature continues to grow; in 2019 actresses Chloe Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne helped crowdfund the film’s restoration.

Burr’s later years were spent with Benevides, travelling and engaging in a variety of hobbies including orchid growing and art collection. From 1965 to 1985, they owned acreage on the island of Naitauba in Fiji, where they raised cattle and grew coconuts, even helping to nurse islanders through a severe outbreak of influenza. Burr reprised his role as Perry Mason in 25 made-for-television films, shooting the last, “The Case of the Killer Kiss,” while being treated for kidney cancer. “Left frail from the disease,” Scott Brown wrote in the Vancouver Sun, “Burr would show up on set at 4 a.m. in a wheelchair and scenes would be re-written to allow the actor to perform sitting down.”

Raymond Burr died in 1993 at the age of 76. His ashes are interred in New Westminster’s Fraser Cemetery. Robert Benevides, Burr’s longtime romantic partner, operates Raymond Burr Vineyards in Dry Creek County, California, on land the couple purchased. In 2008, Burr was honoured with a commemorative stamp, and in 2017, the year of the actor’s centennial, New Westminster’s Raymond Burr Performing Arts Society endowed an Award of Distinction at Douglas College. Both Hollywood and Japan’s Toho Studios continue to make Godzilla films; Out of the Blue received a long-anticipated Blu-ray release in 2022, and the second season of HBO’s Perry Mason was released in 2023. The legend and legacy of Canada’s first television star endures.


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June 21, 2024