His activity during his many hours at work, his few hours at home,
reflect a genuine concern for all living things
One day in 1932, while Raymond Burr, now the star of CBS's Perry Mason series, was out fishing near Vallejo, Cal., he happened to open a compartment on the boat. In it, for some unaccountable reason, was a rattlesnake. It struck him on the right foot. To this day, Burr does not know how it got there. That unnamed snake thus became, as far as I have been able to learn, the only known living being to dislike Raymond Burr, who is a walking refutation of the batter old saw holding that nobody loves a fat man. Actually, the snake's motives never were recorded; conceivably it was only doing what comes naturally to snakes, not with malice aforethought, and can therefore be classified a borderline case. If it had gotten to know Burr, it in all probability would have checked in at a vet's for a fangectomy and might even now be living in the small zoo Burr keeps at his house on the cliffs beyond Malibu Beach, 40 miles from Hollywood.
The zoo and the house are reflections of the qualities that draw people to Burr. He has a deep concern for all living things and an abiding interest in the welfare of those close to him. Yet he takes care not to let anyone but a few intimates know of the painful events that shaped his life.
Burr's customary behavior, if it were documented, would be puzzling to most of us who have been reared in the callous world of modern society. He has gone to considerable lengths to avoid discussing himself, and when I learned some of the details and mentioned them to people around him, I was met with wide-eyed stares. Only a few of Burr's good deeds ever have been made known.
For example, not many people on the Perry Mason show know what he did when he bought his house four years ago. It was typical. The place originally had belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Sylvester Samuel Pierce, who had built it themselves and planted the grounds. Burr, who lives doing things with this hands (he is a skillful gardener and tree surgeon and could earn his living as a chef in a first-rate French or Chinese restaurant), respected the feeling and craftsmanship the Pierces had invested in the property and could not bear to turn them out completely.
"Ray has the oddest relationship with those people," says Gail Patrick Jackson, Perry Mason's executive producer. "He acts as though he didn't buy the house but just borrowed it."
Pierce died two years ago, but Mrs. Yvette Pierce and her sister Mrs. Andrée Floyd, also a widow, are still more or less constant guests in the house. They are, in effect, Burr's family. They wash dishes, dust, and help him chop onions when he is cooking. They set out milk for his two cats, a Siamese and a Himalayan; they sometimes throw grain to his 40-odd Oriental ducks and geese and chickens; and they feed scraps to his eight Australian silkies, his Saint Bernard and his burro Zsa Zsa. When Burr decides to make some change around the place, even if it is as minor as moving a hibiscus bush, he consults Mrs. Pierce and presents his plan deferentially.
Because playing Perry Mason demands so much of his time, Burr now visits his house only on weekends. During the six days required to shoot a single episode of the series he must get up at 3:30 A.M. to begin going over his lines. Approximately 80 percent of the lines uttered on the show are his: "We once figured out that I speak 107 words to the others' nine," he told me recently. As soon as shooting is over on Friday night he heads immediately for Malibu, usually driving there in a Jeep truck.
On Saturday and Sunday the house is full of friends, most of whom Burr leaves to their own pursuits while he wanders about, a glass with a few drops of warm Scotch in his hand, visiting his birds and romping with the animals, troweling up the earth around his plants and shrubs or watching with interest his contractors carry on an almost continual process of remodeling. 'Ray will probably never finish that house," says Andree Floyd.
Between the outside chores, Burr saunters in and out of his kitchen-dining room, the two dominant features of which are an eight-burner stove with an oven that will hold 80 loaves of bread, and a big rough-hewn table that seats 16.
Like the rest of the house, the kitchen is hung with part of Burr's huge collection of art. He specializes mainly in American moderns, and recently became a partner in a small Beverly Hills gallery. "The trouble with that venture," says Burr's nephew Frank Vitti, "is that Ray is his own best customer. He doesn't like to sell any paintings he's fond of, and sooner or later, if he's fond enough of it, it winds up in the house."
Except for the view from the high cliff on which his house sits, these pictures provide the only opportunity for "viewing" that Burr's guests get while they are at the house. He owns no television set and has no intention of getting one. This may be due to his own opinion of himself in the Mason role. Laslo Benedek, one of the directors of the show, professes that he is constantly amazed by Burr's ability to find new ways to say, "I object, Your Honor," and other courtroom clichés which the writers of the scripts must call for continually. Burr himself now despises the fact that these standard phrases have to be uttered. "I find myself resorting to all kinds of tricks and devices," he told me. "I do things for the sake of this series that I never before would have done as an actor. I call attention to myself in ways I wish I didn't have to use."
Bill Hopper, who plays Mason's investigator Paul Drake, refutes this statement. He says that Burr never deliberately calls attention to himself. He told me, "This is the most generous actor I've ever known. If I have a line that's awkward or hard to say, Ray will insist that it be changed so I can say it gracefully. He never intrudes upon another actor. He will sacrifice lines of his own to make the rest of us look good."
Quick as he is, on weekends, to explode into Rabelaisian laughter, Burr is also quick to show his profound humanity. "Ray is the worst money risk in Hollywood because he's always giving away every nickel he has," Mrs. Jackson told me. "Our makeup man Irving Pringle suddenly fell down on the set with a hemorrhaging ulcer. Who took him to the hospital? Ray. And was up all night with him."
To this, Bill Talman added, "How many guys do you know who would throw their houses open to refugees? Two years ago, when they had the big Malibu fire, Ray insisted on them bringing people to his place. How many guys do you know who would throw open their house every year for a bunch of nuns from a mission he happens to hear about? Or take time off from that backbreaking schedule of his to do two benefit performances of 'The Happiest Millionaire' just so the nuns could raise money? This is an openhearted buy. His personal life reflects his utter dedication to causes, to serving his fellow man.
"And another thing." Talman went on. "The guy won't say no. He drives himself to do everything he's asked. He'll be down with laryngitis and some boy scouts'll ask him to make a speech on a weekend, and he'll go make it--because he promised."
Burr's anguish at having to say lines that violate his high principles may be the reason why he relaxes so completely when he gets to Malibu. He sits at the head of the huge table like some lustily benevolent medieval squire, tossing his head with raucous laughter at some guest's joke or collapsing back in his chair, his arms out flung limply. I have seldom laughed as hard in my life as I did one night last December when Burr and Bill Talman, his antagonist in the Perry Mason series, were recalling a day when Bill fluffed a line during shooting and set off a chain of fluffs that held up work for three hours.
"We couldn't stop breaking up," Talman told me. "I blew one line that had everybody on the set so hysterical an electrician almost fell off the catwalk. The actor playing the judge toppled back on his stool--and it was a long time before anybody even thought to see if he was hurt."
The fluffed line, alas, is unprintable. The menu we were eating is not. Just as I have never laughed harder, so I have never eaten better food. Burr served us a superb turtle soup laced with sherry, game hens stuffed with pine nuts and herbs, mushroom caps filled with pâté de foie gras and topped with truffles, and snow peas in pods steamed with chestnuts.
In December 1951, in Korea, Burr and a pilot flew from Seoul north to front lines to visit some snowed-in tank troops manning gun emplacements. They hit a blinding snowstorm, and their small scout plane pitched perilously. Then they were spotted by Communist antiaircraft guns, and flack began bursting around them.
"We'll never make it!: the pilot shouted.
"We've got to--I told them I was coming!" Burr yelled. When the pilot landed, the plane nosed over into show banks. Burr, as calm as Perry Mason in a courtroom, crawled out of the wreckage and went to visit the soldiers.
Burr is a religious man. He says grace before each meal or asks a friend to pray. He goes to church infrequently, but, as one of his friends has remarked, if the worship of God is the celebration of life and dedication to it, he is in church every minute of the day. His large blue eyes are solemn and contemplative--and, as the same friend says, inexpressibly sad. It is hard to think how they could be otherwise, for it is also hard to think of another man who has survived so much devastating personal tragedy.