The actor who would be celebrating his ninety-sixth birthday today is indisputably best remembered for two iconic television series—Perry Mason (1957-66) and Ironside (1967-75). But, old-time radio fans know that Raymond Burr was a rather accomplished radio performer as well…and classic movie buffs fondly recall Mr. Burr as one of the silver screen’s most memorable heavies (no pun intended).
The biographical details of Raymond’s life have always been a bit difficult to keep straight…mostly because Burr, in the tradition of Orson Welles, loved to embellish his C.V. with fanciful details that reporters and interviewers rarely bothered to check. It is known that Raymond William Stacey Burr was a native Canadian, and that he moved to Vallejo, California with his mother and siblings after she divorced his father. He attended a military academy for a brief period of time, and then took classes at BerkeleyHigh School, where he later graduated.
For the edification of those who interviewed him, Burr would often fabricate a background in which he worked as a New Mexico ranch hand (with the approval of his mother) and also served a hitch in the U.S. Navy (where he claimed he suffered a stomach wound during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II). He also padded his resume with such hyperbolic details as having been educated at various educational institutions throughout the world, as well as enjoying an extended acting tour of the United Kingdom to great acclaim.
It can be verified, however, that Raymond began his acting career at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1937 and, made his Broadway stage debut in a production of Crazy from the Heat in 1941. Five years later, he signed a contract with RKO to start making motion pictures. He had a bit role in 1946’s Without Reservations as a dancing partner to star Claudette Colbert, and his first credited appearance was in San Quentin later that same year. Because of his girth, Burr was often cast as imposing bad guys in various films noir. Vehicles like Desperate (1947), Raw Deal (1948), Pitfall (1948), His Kind of Woman (1951) and The Blue Gardenia (1953) feature Ray at his slimy best.
Raymond Burr was also fortunate to land the occasional high-profile movie gig in such classics as A Place in the Sun (1951), in which he plays the fiery District Attorney heckbent on convicting accused murderer Montgomery Clift. Burr’s best known filmic showcase is unquestionably that of Lars Thorwald, the suspected wife killer being spied upon by James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window. In addition to turns in comedies like Casanova’s Big Night (1954) and You’re Never Too Young (1955), Raymond earned a little cult movie cred by appearing as American reporter Steve Martin (no, not the one you’re thinking of) in Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)—the U.S. release of a Japanese monster movie originally known in that country as Gojira (1954).
While Burr secured steady work in motion pictures, he was at the same time stretching his acting chops in radio—he had become close friends with actor Jack Webb, who used Ray on both the hard-boiled detective drama Pat Novak for Hire (as Inspector Helman) and in the early years of Dragnet, playing Chief of Detectives Ed Backstrand. Other programs on which Burr made regular rounds include Suspense, The Whistler, The Line-Up, The CBS Radio Workshop, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.
Raymond Burr’s most high-profile radio role would arrive in January of 1956, when he was cast by Gunsmoke producer-director Norman Macdonnell to star as Lee Quince, “captain of cavalry,” in Fort Laramie (after John Dehner refused refuse the part). Laramie, a solid series about life on a U.S. Army post in the 1880s, mimicked its sister series’ penchant for superb writing, gritty realism and first-rate acting. Gunsmoke veterans Vic Perrin and Harry Bartell co-starred along with Burr—as Sergeant Ken Gorce and Lieutenant Richard Sieberts, respectively—with radio vet Jack Moyles completing the quartet as Major Daggett.
Fort Laramie’s excellence was such that it probably could have enjoyed as long a radio run as the celebrated Gunsmoke…but, the series’ death knell was sounded when Raymond arrived for a rehearsal with great news to share with his fellow actors. He had auditioned for a television series based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s famed literary sleuth Perry Mason, hoping to land the part of Mason’s nemesis, D.A. Hamilton Burger…and was stunned when CBS offered the starring role instead! The preparations for the Mason series meant that the actor’s stint with Laramie was going to be short-lived—but Burr, always eager to look out for his friends in the aural medium, often tried to get those chums parts on the series whenever he was able.
Perry Mason made Raymond Burr a household name. Its nine-year-run on CBS, often as a Saturday night staple, furnished the actor with a pair of Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy statuettes in 1959 and 1961. When the series came to an end, Burr began an equally long run (eight years) the following season as the titular character known as Ironside—a San Francisco chief of detectives who became paralyzed from the waist down and was forced to rely on a wheelchair after being injured by a sniper’s bullet. The Ironside series also garnered the actor much acclaim, including six Emmy nominations for his acting.
In later years, Burr would revisit both of his iconic TV characters: he would defend his loyal secretary Della Street on a murder charge in Perry Mason Returns (1985). The success of that TV movie led to an astonishing twenty-five follow-ups between 1986 and 1993. Ray also revisited Ironside (along with the original cast from that series) in a 1993 outing called (what else?) The Return of Ironside. Sadly, the death of Burr in 1993 put the kibosh on any future Ironside endeavors…though this did not stop the Perry Mason people from putting out four more additional movies (starring other actors) after his death.
Fans of Raymond Burr can take solace in the knowledge that most of his work on Perry Mason and Ironside is well represented on DVD. In addition, the actor’s radio work on Fort Laramie is available on CD (in two volumes) as well as his appearances on Pat Novak for Hire (Pain Gets Expensive), The Whistler (Notes on Murder) and The Line-Up (Police and Thieves: Crime Radio Drama). Why not settle in for a listen on the natal anniversary of a true acting legend?