After eight years on the air, a weary Raymond Burr tells
why he'll continue to shoulder the burden of a weekly television show,
as well as a myriad of other responsibilities
As far as Raymond Burr, the millionaire actor-philanthropist, is concerned, Perry Mason has long since ceased to be just a TV show. After eight steady years of playing the part, Mason seems to Burr more like a public trust. And as the self-styled executor of this "trust," Burr is an enormously preoccupied and busy man--busy espousing causes, paying hospital bills for insolvent acquaintances, and promulgating on a world-wide basis "the true meaning of the law" as he sees it.
These responsibilities, growing more awesome all the time. Burr tends to wear like gaily colored hair shirts. They include the direct support of 12 people, the indirect support of hundreds, including 13 foster children in five foreign countries. He is a director of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, and he is actively involved in the Cerebral Palsy Association, the National Safety Council, the B'nai B'rith and the March of Dimes.
He has arrangements with the Department of Defense and the State Department to take regular trips to entertain American troops abroad--four to Vietnam alone. Since Perry Mason began, he has made 58 speeches before bar associations. He contributes heavily in money and time to CARE, the United Jewish Welfare Fund and the Motion Picture Relief Fund. He has his own private Ford Foundation, called the Raymond Burr Foundation, which collects and dispenses funds "for charitable, educational and literary purposes."
Finding Ray Burr, the Canadian hardware merchant's son, actor, art connoisseur, gardener, gourmet and cook, amidst all that compulsive humanism isn't easy. Indeed, finding Perry Mason, a really tough man to misplace, is increasingly difficult. It is obvious that both men--actor and alter ego--have now taken a back seat to the new Ray Burr--doer of good deeds and socially responsible human being.
Why does Ray Burr persist in his killing schedule, living the lonely life of a recluse, holing himself up in his office-bedroom just off the Perry Mason set? Why does he get up at 5:30 A.M. to learn those legal speeches? Why does he fight the battle of the calorie to the point where the show closes down while its star takes an enforced rest? It's obvious he doesn't need the money. Is it because Perry Mason is his passport to the council tables of the world?
To find out I met Burr at 6 o'clock of a warm Wednesday night just before his fourth trip to Vietnam. His huge bulk swathed in a green paisley sports shirt, he was making out his will. Behind him stood his lawyer, Donald Leon, a lean, gray man given to laughing at Burr's jokes. To one side hovered Bill Swan, his solicitious man Friday whose job is to sort out the urgent from the merely important. Nearby sat three office girls, somewhat nervous witnesses to the signing.
As Burr initialed the final page, he rose from the chair and declared, "The die is cast. Thank you, ladies." Then he moved into his inner office where the atmosphere changed perceptibly. Gone was the prim sterility of the outer office. Burr's desk was piled with papers, pictures, old scripts and unopened mail. An outsize plaster cast--which he wore when he tore his shoulder tendons in a helicopter accident in Vietnam--lay on the floor evidently exactly where he last stepped out of it weeks before. Though an open door could be seen his king size bed, rumpled and unmade.
Burr leaned back in his chair and said: "With me it is difficult to explain why I do certain things. I have been called a fool. But I try to live my life the way I wish other people would live theirs. I try to honor my agreements. And so I find myself doing things I didn't expect I'd be doing. Like another year of Perry Mason.
"I wanted to do a show called The Power. In it I played the governor of a state, and it had some of the same things going for it that Perry did. It was the best damn thing I ever read, the best new show presentation anybody in this business had ever seen. What happened was that another show conflicted with The Power."
"I didn't say that!" he replied sharply. "Yes. Slattery's. Anyway the heads of CBS decided that with another year of Perry in the offing they didn't want to convert at that point. I went along. I'm a paid actor. Once having signed a contract, I had a certain obligation. Last year I still felt it. So we made an eighth year of Perry Mason."
It must be added parenthetically that Burr was and is paid what may be the highest straight salary ever offered an TV actor. He is not and never has been a participant in the profits as are most other superstars. Instead his employers, CBS and Paisano Productions, co-owners of the show, pay him astronomical sums, mostly deferred over what amounts to the rest of his natural lifetime.
Burr explained why he had agreed to do yet another season. "My actors were hurting," he said.
Suddenly I saw him as God's gift to intransigent actors, tender to men's troubles, father of the world. Burr himself was not unaware of the effect.
"I couldn't let go," he continued. "I was concerned. Then there was something else. I've always told myself I'd like to go out on a good year. This year was a bad year. Sometimes the plots got so involved even I couldn't understand them. But next year can be a great one."
I could visualize Burr waiting for that "great year"to go out on until Perry Mason was defending cases from a wheel chair--which at his current rate may not be too far away. "No," Burr said. "You get a kind of a second wind, a different approach, new blood in the writing department. I just have a feeling this can be it."
And yet it was evident --despite the formation of Harbour Productions, Unlimited, Burr's new production company which, he says, will field two pilots and possibly a movie next year--that it will be a long time before The Power or anything else replaces Perry Mason. Burr is curiously reluctant to acknowledge that it is still Perry who opens the doors to Burr's larger world.
"No!" he roars, his great beetle brows wrinkling. "Perry presents the image! He is the window dressing."
Powerful window dressing. Window dressing enough to make the actor who plays him a big man before the bar associations of the world. Enough to make him a personage in Vietnam, or for that matter anywhere he wants to go. Next year, he says, he will visit 12 countries throughout the world making speeches to universities. Can Gilligan or Jed Clampett do that?
"I speak for the world peace through law," he suddenly said. "I'm a kind of one--man lobby for the legal profession. I believe that the world will wither destroy itself or learn how to settle things by law. So it becomes the world's most important profession.
"Perry may be a white knight on a horse, but he is accepted. He gives millions of people an awareness of what the law is and that tremendous need for it. It's not very often that a person is given the opportunity to use his personal image to do so much good in the world." He paused for a moment. "That's tough to give up regardless," he said.
I said it was my impression he was getting his images mixed.
"No!" he said angrily. "You have to remember I am still me. I sign my checks Ray Burr. I still have six people who do nothing but answer my fan mail, 84 percent of it addressed to me. I am not a 'star'--no one has less temperament. But I am aware. I listen. I get things done."
hat he does. For example, it has been the custom of the East Coast art galleries to send exhibitions of American works to our embassies in Europe. Burr wanted West Coast galleries to follow suit in the Far East. When they turned a deaf ear, he sweet-talked a gallery in Tucson, Ariz., into setting up such a program. The only catch was there is no money for crating and sending. So Burr simply pays for it himself.
He pushed forward a packet of photographs from the pile of papers on his desk: Ray Burr arriving in Vietnam, Ray Burr landing by helicopter in some remote outpost. Ray Burr, in fatigues, talking to GI's.
"This is who I am,"he said. "' Back in 1951, when I went on my first Korean tour, a general told me, 'We can command men to fight and even to die. But we cannot command laughter and tears. In two seconds you people can supply both needs.' I know what he meant. I have been operated on six times for World War II injuries. I learned that when there is something wrong you don't just stand there!"
Burr does his troop-junketing the hard--Burr--way. While Bob Hope primarily plays major bases with a big, brassy show, Burr takes only himself. He spends grueling and physically dangerous weeks hedgehopping by Army helicopter through the brush, going from one tiny Vietnamese out post to another, often to "play" to a mere handful of men. Last time, he estimates, he shook hands with "13,000 out of 15,000 stationed there."
Sometimes these outposts are surrounded by the Viet Cong and he has dodged bullets on more than one occasion. His painful shoulder injury, incurred on the third trip, and which ultimately hospitalized him, was the result of an emergency helicopter maneuver to avoid Viet Cong gunfire.
Burr has long since given up "entertaining" troops. "I talk," he said. "And I listen. That's the real need."
Burr talked of religion. "I am not a churchgoer," he said, "but I like to say grace in my house. I believe in God--in the efficacy of all religions under a Supreme Being.
'I will get out'
"See these hands? They belong to one of the best gardeners in California. They haven't gardened in months. I used to think that I could build a wall around my Malibu house and give myself time for these things. Then I found I couldn't. Perry wouldn't let me. One day I will get out. If I'm ever going to be the kind of person you would like to be with, I'll have to."
He shuffled the pile of papers again and came up with a mariner's chart of the Fiji Islands. He pointed to a tiny dot. "See that island? I am in the process of trying to buy it. It is two hours by boat from the nearest port of call, and I will have to blast a passage through the coral reef. Meantime, I do what I have to do. What is right for me. What I have done may not have brought absolute happiness. But for me it has brought some measure of satisfaction."
It was after 10. Burr's airplane left for Vietnam early in the morning. His eyelids drooped. Just before this lonely man and I shook hands, he said, "If that makes me into a fool, my friends, then that is what I am."