By Mary Murphy
Just a few days before he died, Raymond Burr, who had spent weeks closeted in the all-white bedroom of his Northern California ranch, lying on his bed, ravaged by cancer and refusing to see anyone but his doctor and his closest friends, suddenly moved to the edge of his bed.
For the next 30 hours, without a break, he sat there, upright, willing himself to fight the excruciating pain, refusing to take his pain-killing morphine drip or settle back into the mound of eight to 10 pillows he normally slept upon semi-recumbent, because of his size. What he thought during this final battle is not known. What he said to his friend, long-time companion and business partner Robert Benevides, was, "If I lie down, I'll die."
Eventually, he did lie down, and forty eight hours later, he died.
It was still a surprise. Burr had become alert the morning of his death. After hours of dozing, he had opened his eyes and began to ask questions. How were the Chardonnay grapes on his prized 40-acre ranch? What about his orchids and sheep? He had even joked with his nurse. Then suddenly, he took a turn for the worse. Soon, the pain was unbearable.
Burr was put back on the morphine. Not enough. He spent hours in agony with Benevides; his doctor, Paul Margulio; and a nurse at his side. At 5 P.M. (PT) on Sunday, Sept. 12, Burr slipped into a coma, and at 8:40 he stopped breathing.
"He finally accepted death," said Benevides. "Up until then he had been fighting like an army of men to keep from dying."
An hour later his body was taken to the mortuary. Benevides, who had held up throughout the ordeal, only once crying on the phone to a mutual friend, was devastated. He was given a sedative and sent to bed. "It was in in the end, a sweet death," he says.
In a way, Raymond Burr's long battle with cancer was like his life: driven, intense and furiously private. This complex man had been married three times, lost two wives tragically, as well as an 11 year-old son to leukemia, and spent the final 31 years of his life with Benevides--always battling to live life fully. He kept reminding his friends of Dylan Thomas's words: "Do not go gently into that good night."
Burr did not. At the end, he even pushed himself for TV Guide's readers: In his last days of lucidity, he agreed to a final interview with TV Guide. Then, as the illness overtook him and the medication became more constant, Benevides and another long-time friend, actor Charles Macaulay--who both kept up the vigil--relayed the answers they said Burr tried to finish giving. "he had a life long commitment to finish anything he did," said Macaulay. "that is also why he was so determined to finish his last Perry Mason movie for NBC."
Asked to name a single regret, Burr said through his friends that, ironically enough, it was accepting the role that made him most famous: Perry Mason. Though he had achieved something remarkable--in a world that loves to hate lawyers, Burr played one who was loved by millions--the role had "dominated his life." From his final bed, say his friends, Burr looked back and felt he "could have been married again, had more children, lead a normal, everyday life"--but it was not to be. Although he acknowledged that the TV series "educated many people in the country who knew nothing of the law and who did not know that you were innocent until proven guilty," he hated its consequences. Once it got started, "Perry took over; it became a burden," his friends said. (Burr's last appearance as Perry mason, in "The Case of the Killer Kiss," will air Friday, Oct. 22, at 9 P.M. [ET] on NBC.)
Though Burr complained openly about his nine-year stint on series TV as Mason--during those years he never even watched the show--he was seduced by the power and money the part brought him. "He heard the siren call of fame and money, and it was irresistible to him," said Macaulay
And despite his grumblings, added Macaulay, "Raymond Burr really was Perry Mason. The two were one and the same. He was complicated, byzantine. In his life, if he played a prank or got involved in anything, the more byzantine it was, the more he liked it."
Like the time he used a network bigwig to help a hairdresser keep her job. The story dates back to Burr's days on the hit series Ironside. One afternoon, Burr heard the news that a hairdresser for the female stars had been "reassigned" to another show. "Raymond left the set," said Macaulay, "telephoned the producer and said, 'Well, I think I'm going to be sick, maybe for the next two or three days--or maybe for the next two or three weeks.' Shortly thereafter, the call came that the woman had been 'reassigned' back to the show. Raymond said, 'Suddenly, I feel like I'm in perfect health.' He loved to keep the 'suits' off balance."
By the time he started Perry Mason, in 1957, Burr had some 50 movie credits under his belt.
It was then that he was struck with his first bout with cancer. "He was a man of extraordinary willpower," said Macaulay. "he lived a life of pain. What used to be his stomach was a wall of wire mesh from his cancer. He had arthritis in his knees--he was constantly in pain."
Burr, stubborn and proud, did not tolerate his final loss of strength. As Macaulay pointed out, this was a man who liked to be in control. "He didn't delegate authority; he was hands-on in every area. He designed his house, he designed the furniture, he arranged the flowers." Asked what he had learned through his medical ordeal, Benevides and Macaulay reported that Burr said, "Nothing. Except that death is ugly and messy and not one whit romantic."
In the weeks before the end, the 76-year-old actor would lie in bed for hours staring at the ceiling or at six paintings by his favorite artist, Hans Erni. At other moments, he would wheel out onto the veranda off his bedroom, remove his shirt, and sit in the sun, sipping champagne and staring at his olive trees. He refused too much attention, especially the nurturing care of his doctor and nurses. "It means defeat," he said.
Burr had never fully recovered from an operation in February to remove a dysfunctional kidney. Even then, he refused to give himself time to heal, traveling through Europe and visiting Spain and France. Friends tried to warn him to slow down, but he insisted on keeping up a furious pace. "He was a big boy," said his Perry Mason costar and long-time friend Barbara Hale.
"You couldn't put him in his room and make him go to bed. He was hard to hold down, always has been. " But the actor's strength began to fade when he arrived on the set of "The Case of the Killer Kiss" in July. Burr was gravely ill and in horrible pain. When it got so bad that he couldn't stand, he took to a wheelchair.
Through his messengers he told TV Guide, "I was devastated. It just grated on me badly. In all my years of Ironside, I never sat in that wheelchair unless I was on camera." In his final Perry Mason movie, he stands only once.
On the set, "I did all the galloping around," said Macaulay. "We were all worried about his health, so as soon as he finished [shooting, they would take him back to his room so he could sleep. He was in terrible pain, and yet, to keep alert, he refused the morphine, and he showed up on the set every day."
Burr refused to talk about his illness, even to Hale. "We made a joke out of it," said Hale. "I had broken my hip and had to be in a wheelchair. He told me to come on over to his wheelchair and we'd make it a wheelchair for two." Hale last saw Burr when she wheeled him, in that chair, to his car on the last day of shooting. "I hugged him and gave him a flower--a wilted rose. I didn't want to be too sentimental." But as she spoke, she broke into tears. "It is possible to have two dear loves in your life. I did. My husband and Raymond Burr. Raymond was one of the funniest, wittiest men I have ever met."
In the final stages of cancer, Burr returned to the place where he could be most alone--his beloved ranch. "I remember my last conversation with him," said Macaulay. "It was about the PLO/Israeli situation. He was so happy about how things were turning out. He had many friends in that part of the world. He had worked for seven presidents. He had many hidden parts of his life...He took 10 trips to Vietnam on his own money and his own time, with the permission of the Defense Department. He went to the front lines to talk to the boys."
Even at the end, he was planning to film a Perry Mason in Russia and to produce a documentary about Swiss artist Erni. The ranch was bustling with activity, and Burr had a wild idea that he could cross breed two sheep--one black, one white--to create a new breed. He'd been harvesting grapes for several years, and this fall, his first vintage of Cabernet will be sold in hotels and restaurants.
And Burr was also writing his own autobiography--an attempt to get back at the tabloids he felt had smeared his name with accusations that he'd fabricated his marriages and in fact had a decades-long homosexual relationship with Benevides.
"One of the tabloids said that [Burr and Benevides] knitted together," said Macaulay. "They didn't even know how to knit! Raymond was devastated--not because of himself, but because he lived in a small community. He knew everybody. He did his own shopping. To walk into the local supermarket and find those things sitting on the checkout stand was pretty dreadful. He hated it. He vowed he was going to write his own book and show them up for the yellow journalists they were."
What light that autobiography would have shed on his personal life is now hard to imagine.
"Even to those of us who knew him well, he was a very private man," said Macaulay. "There are questions that I would never have dreamed of asking. Things I would never in a million years have said to Raymond."
And all Raymond would say, when questions about his private life were relayed to him, was, "My attitude is: The public understand perfectly everything I choose to show them in my roles as an actor. Everything else is none of their business."
Burr was equally reticent about his marriages--about the two wives who tragically died and, above all, about the only child he had, a son who died of leukemia in 1953 at the age of 11. He has been married three times. His first wife died in 1943 in a plane crash, his second marriage in 1947 ended in divorce, and his third wife died of cancer in 1955.
In an interview I did with him for Entertainment Tonight before he became ill, he said: "I was a good husband. Probably as good as I could have been at that time. You can always be better. I have tried to be good friends to people, and I tried to be a good father to my son, who did not live past his 12th birthday.
"I am a reasonable person," he said. "I have bad faults. I am impatient with myself and I am impatient with other people. I am impatient with bright people who don't pay attention to their work and don't do as well as they should. But I am not a bad human being. I have never been a bad human being."
He claimed his son's death did not affect him. "It didn't," he said. "I knew he was going to die--it didn't change things."
In his last moments he would not discuss these personal tragedies, nor how they affected him. "There are just some holes you never fill," said Macaulay. "There's a void there. Raymond was a very strange dichotomy: He was one of the most emotional men I have ever known. He would weep at a painting or a piece of music. On the other hand, he was a hard-nosed pragmatist. He knew how to go on. He had amazing strength."
Two days after Burr's death, Macaulay sits on a lanai overlooking rolling hills and vineyards. Benevides is sequestered in the ranch's main house--which he now owns, having bought Burr out several years ago--dealing with his grief while also trying to untangle his friend's financial problems with the IRS, which has put a lien on Burr's personal property--including any profits form his grape crop. "Raymond Burr loved to live beyond his means. He loved to spend money," said Macaulay.
He was a man of gargantuan appetites, a man given to the grand gesture. Macaulay tells the story of one elaborately staged Christmas gift: A few years back, Burr, Benevides, and Macaulay had arranged to meet in London. Showing up for the appointment, Macaulay was blindfolded, whisked to the airport, and hijacked by Burr to Italy. From Milan, he was driven to Portofino--a place he had always dreamed of visiting. The three men arrived at the Hotel Splendido, where they sat alone in the dining room and were served a 12-course meal on Christmas Day. They were the only people in the hotel.
Additional reporting by Myles Callum.