The hero of 'Perry Mason' is big in body, in heart and in trouble
Despite the many impressive technical strides forward it has made during the past few years, television still sometimes deceives it viewers' eyes. No one looking at Raymond Burr, the urbane, suave and apparently unruffled actor who is now in his fourth season as Perry Mason on the CBS network, would be likely to guess that he is a strange combination of humanitarian and prankster, or that his real life has been one long series of heartbreaking tragedies.
Few of Burr's friends know anything about him. "There are some parts of my life I don't talk about," he says. And that is that.
Burr's appearance on TV is similarly deceptive. To those of us who sit marveling at Perry Mason's adroitly legalistic mind, his Dan Beard sense of fair play, and his singular ability to ward off the endless stream of attractive women who keep flinging themselves at him, Burr appears to be nothing more than a fairly tall, fairly well-built man.
In reality, Burr is built like a massive inverted pyramid. He is 6 feet 2 1/2 inches tall, weighs 210 pounds and has shoulders so broad it would take Garry Moore quite a while to circumnavigate him. His chest measures 48 1/2 inches unexpanded and he wears a size 17 collar. If a talented great ape were to climb Mount Rushmore and hack out a statue of himself, the result would resemble the build of Raymond Burr. When I first met him recently, my principal impression was of size disproportionate to that which appears on the screen.
Without intending to compare Burr to any great ape, living or dead, I can report that his present impressive bulk is due solely to his own sculptural ability. Burr attained his present shape through assiduous use of the hammer and chisel of self-control and non-caloric cottage cheese.
Before becoming Perry mason, Burr's customary role in feature length films was that of the heavy, and seldom before had that synonym for villain been applied so precisely. When he was discharged form the Navy after World War II, he scaled 340 pounds and carried an additional weight of shame, for he had been plagued since boyhood by taunts about his size.
Burr's outstanding characteristic is his single-minded approach to any subject he takes up. He decided to lose weight and turned to it with all his powers of concentration. Shutting himself up in a flea-bag rooming house in Hollywood, he lived for six months on 750 calories per day. He emerged weighing a trim 210 pounds.
Five years ago, when Burr's agent Lester Salkow sent him to see Gail Patrick Jackson, the pretty ex-actress who is executive producer of the Perry Mason series, Burr's weight had gone up by 25 pounds. Mrs. Jackson was trying to get William Holden to play the lead role. She saw Burr as Hamilton Burger, the district attorney who would be defeated by Mason in court week after week.
Burr, who actually is about as villainous as the late Joseph Welch, was wary of playing heavies. He said he wished to test for the part of the hero and forthwith concentrated on shedding the excess pounds his fondness for fine food had caused him to gain.
"All right, we'll humor him," Mrs. Jackson said to her associates. "If he'll test for Burger, we'll test him for Mason too."
Practically every available leading man in Hollywood and a few from the East Coast went to test for Mason. Finally it was Burr's turn.
In the projection room, watching the test, the dynamic Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of the character, leaped to his feet and waved his arms exuberantly the instant he saw Burr.
"That's Perry Mason!" he cried. How Gardner knew is a mystery that not even Perry mason himself could solve, for in the 60-odd books that Gardner has written about Mason, he has never bothered to describe his physical appearance.
Burr's suitability for the part was apparent to the public from the beginning. The show gradually climbed high in the rating and has managed to hover there. Simultaneously, Burr began losing a little of himself as he fell deeper and deeper into the characterization. People began shouting, "Hi Perry!" at him wherever he went. When he is fatigued--which is virtually all the time, for the Perry Mason part is one of the most demanding in television--he has to catch himself when signing autographs; he sometimes writes "Perry Mason" instead of his real name.
Laslo Benedek, one of the show's directors, told me that Burr's immersion in the part is all but total. "He thinks as Perry and never stops," Benedek said. "You can ask him at any given point in and mystery, 'How much does Perry know now?' and he can tell you exactly, form the character's point of view."
Burr disagreed. "I've never managed to solve any of the cases until I read them through," he declared. "In fact, I've often been puzzled about who committed the crime after we finished shooting the script."
Actually, this is Burr's sense of humor bubbling up out of the huge body. Although his customary expression is one of brooding contemplation, and although his personality is veined prominently by streaks of altruism and humanity (he was an indefatigable troop entertainer during the Korean conflict, and he plans to devote his life after the Perry Mason series to working for international peace), Burr also loves to laugh.
"As a handy-man actor who works in all kinds of TV series," says Philip Ober, who has done four Perry Mason shows, "I can honestly say this the happiest company in Hollywood."
The company is so happy, in fact, that it has become something of a problem to Art Marks, who shares the producing responsibility with Arthur Seid. "Ray has a desire for everybody to be happy, to be wanted and to belong," Marks told me. "And this can backfire. He's too good to people. The set becomes a country club. The technicians aren't in there fighting to do their very best. They're too happy."
Much of the time the crew is laughing at Burr's practical jokes. In pulling them off he applies the same determination that enabled him to lose weight. Most of them are directed at Barbara Hale, who plays Della Street, Mason's secretary.
Miss Hale also is totally immersed in her part; once, when one of her three small children was asked what she did for a living, the child replied "She's a secretary." Apart from being an actress and mother, she also is the best high-pitched screamer in Hollywood. The slightest surprise causes her to jump three feet in the air, emitting an ear-splitting "Eeek!"
As soon as Burr found this out, he began taking gull advantage of it. Once Miss Hale happened to mention that she would like to have a little green plant for her dressing room. Burr stared at her thoughtfully. The next day he gave her a small plant. The day after that, another. Then another. Finally he went to a florist, rented every plant in the store, hired a truck and filled Miss Hale's dressing room before she arrived for work. "It was a jungle!" she says today. "I could get in only by crawling on my hands and knees."
Burr subsequently decided that Miss Hale had not had enough green in her life. He spent an entire evening cooking massive batches of lime gelatin dessert, took it to her room and filled all the ash trays, glasses, cigarette boxes, pin trays and other receptacles he could find.
Burr becomes equally methodical and determined when he turns his mind to more serious matters. Last year William Talman, who won the role of Hamilton Burger, was involved in a major mess. Police invaded a party he was attending and arrested Talman on a morals charge. CBS, invoking a standard clause in every actor's contract that says his morals must be beyond reproach, suspended Talman from the show before he was tried in court.
Burr was outraged. In conjunction with Gail Patrick Jackson he immediately launched a campaign to get justice for Talman. When a judge threw the Talman case out of court, thereby clearing him, and CBS still refused to reinstate him on the show, Burr sent wires and letters to officials, begging them to reconsider. In traveling around the country making personal appearances he went out of his way to speak to officials of CBS affiliated stations, asking them to bring pressure on the network. He personally answered every letter he received protesting CBS's stand.
CBS remained stubborn. They suggested that a fictitious election could be held on the show and a new district attorney thus could plausibly take Talman's place. "Nothing doing," Burr said. "We want Bill back." He refused to let the studio personnel clean Talman's belongings out of his dressing room, and he would not let them assign his parking space to someone else. Each member of the cast and crew has his own coffee cup, with his name on it, in an old-fashioned barbershop rack. Burr insisted Talman's cup remain in its nook.
Finally, early last December, the network relented and decided to let Talman return "for occasional appearances." He was given a new contract. Talman himself telephoned Burr to tell him the good news. Burr's bellow of triumphant joy was like that of a bull elephant. The next day the lot was plastered with "WELCOME HOME, BILL" signs, all ordered personally by Burr.
The campaign and the signs were typical. Raymond Burr's heart is in exact proportion to the size of his body. His few close friends say it grew that way as a result of the extraordinary series of hard-to-bear experiences he has gone through.