December 25, 2012

The Case of the Counterfeit Brother

It seems almost impossible now to think of Erle Stanley Gardner's wildly popular Perry Mason without instantly conjuring up an image of Raymond Burr, who created television history by playing the iconic lawyer though out the golden age of television until nearly the beginning of the 21st Century.Even though Raymond Burr would try his hand at another enforcer of the law, this time with a bullet lodged in his spine, the wheelchair bound Ironside also popular with reunion shows created after its long run,yet it will always be Perry Mason for which Raymond Burr will always be remembered. The legend follows that when Burr went up for the role in the mid 1950's Gardner personally selected Raymond Burr and fought for him with the network the result is now television history.

In order to play Perry Mason for so many years in literally hundreds of episodes from the mid fifties until 1993 Burr literally worked long hours sometimes living on the lot because of the grueling schedule in which he had to learn mountains of dialogue for each episode final courtroom confrontation in which Hamilton Burger the district attorney played to perfection by William Talman almost always losing his case to the uncanny tactics of Perry Mason along with his trusted go to man private eye Paul Drake and his girl friday Della Street played with grace and style throughout Burr's television life as Mason by Barbara Hale.

Raymond Burr wasn't always so level headed in his screen performances as he was playing the fearless beacon of legal justice, since his screen persona prior to Perry Mason was that of a hard working character actor usually playing the heavy in film noirs like The Blue Gardenia or His Kind of Woman these roles all would  lead to Hitchcock casting him as the wife killer in the  highly regarded Rear Window which nearly typed him forever as a villain. My first exposure to Raymond Burr was naturally on television when my saturday night creature features ran a little gem called Bride of the Gorilla with a very miscast Lon Chaney Jr playing a sheriff in the congo trying to solve a rather uncanny case of jealousy and shapeshifting all for the love of a married woman. This could have been a bore as most of the fifties contained dozens of potboilers with supernatural themes and no imagination. However Bride of the Gorilla has one thing going for it and it is Raymond Burr who surprising plays the tormented man who transforms into the gorilla of the title most of which is off camera. I would have enjoyed seeing him more like Aquanetta in Universal's Captive Wild Woman guise with ape feet and hands with a Jack Pierce make-up creating a werewolf of London like visage.

Burr invests his part with real pathos and skill and simply elevates the proceedings in the process.  During the making of this film I was told Lon Chaney Jr was a bit on the wagon during filming hours and tried to entertain the cast and crew by preparing one of his favorite dishes a super spicy chili from his own secret recipe. As Burr recalled it "the entire sound stage reeked of the brew and Chaney was the master chief of the moment, not to be outdone Raymond Burr known by his close friends as a gourmet cook in his own right decided to challenge Chaney to a cook off which gave the cast of Bride of the gorilla a dueling pots of wickedly hot chili. The legend has it that privately Burr was said to remark about Chaney "who does she think she is anyway, Betty Crocker?" Even as early as the 1950's both actors had rumors floating around them about their sexuality little is known about Chaney Jr except his grandson Ron Chaney explained that Lon had a rough time growing up with a famous father, his teenage years were especially difficult as he went though puberty. Burr, on the other hand, was gay and chose to remain closeted for the sake of his career throughout his life. He even went so far as to make up out of thin air a story about two ex-wives and mythical son who supposedly died in a plane crash. Raymond Burr stood by this lie even though he lived openly with another man for decades making actor Robert Benevides his life partner, who would ultimately inherited Burrs entire legacy after having to fight his relatives in court for the right to have the estate the court ruled in his favor.

One afternoon a few years ago tough guy Lawrence Tierney was staying with me for awhile and we started watching of his movies on television Larry always talked during these things when he wasn't on camera. The film we were watching was called San Quentin the prison epic was done right after the second world war and Larry was in an expansive mood to begin with making it easy to go into the past, something he did not always want to do.  At one point Raymond Burr came on the screen to which Larry looked at me and said "Oh God there's that Raymond Burr, what a prima donna that guys was in life" Well now I was intrigued so I asked what he was like to work with Larry gave me one of those knowing glances like he was about to spill the beans and said "Burr was a good actor always there and knew his business well enough, but there was one night after we had been shooting San Quentin for about a week or so where I found myself at a nightclub on the strip and it was packed to the rafters so I was damn lucky to have gotten a table so I was waiting for this girl to show up when in walks Raymond Burr alone and he quickly discovers there is no table for him and he is getting a bit flustered so I decided since we were working on this picture together I would be a nice guy and ask him to sit with us so I go over and invite him to join me which he does. Not five minutes after he sits down he begins to sigh and moan about just how bored he is and how this place is in need of some excitement or he might just go to sleep, I listen to all this and I am thinking, Jesus, so I go over and make nice with this prick and now I have to sit here and take this bullshit attitude I mean is he bored with me as well...anyway the waiter arrived bringing me a large Caesar salad with loads of ranch dressing the way I like it so at this point our Mr Burr was examining his fingernails when he looked over at me and asked "Oh that looks good Larry, do you mind if I sample it? Well I had just about had my fill of this man and his boredom in my company so before he could say another word I stood up and toss my salad right in Raymond Burr's ample lap. He reacted by jumping up knocking his chair over going, "What is the matter with you Tierney, are you insane?"  I just looked at him and said, "Hey Burr, you were so fucking bored with the club and my company I thought I would give you the excitement you wanted. With that he stormed away from me and fled the scene. We never spoke again after that evening although I would see him now and then especially when I was under contract to RKO. Raymond Burr was a prick and that's all there is to it. Maybe all the success he has had might have changes him but I will bet you he is still a prick."

My only encounter with Raymond Burr would take place in Studio city not far from Universal at a local eatery known as the Little China off of Cahuenga that had a good reputation for Chinese food.  I arrived a bit late for lunch so I headed for the bar and ordered a drink and then soon discovered that Raymond Burr was seated with three other men at a table having after dinner drinks. Now I always admired Burr and grew up as we all did with Perry Mason so I decided not to let this opportunity go by without meeting the great man himself. My Zombie was served and it proved to be just that and soon my show biz mind was forming a plan of just what I would ask Mr Burr once I positioned myself in front of his table. There had been a rumor for years that Laird Cregar the portly actor who made such an impression in John Brahm's The Lodger and his very last film Hanover Square was a brother to Raymond Burr. Now the two actors favored each other being huge men with weight issues and intense blue eyes. It therefore seemed like there might be a chance they were related, after all Dana Andrews had a brother also an actor named Steve Forrest, as well as James Arness and his brother Peter Graves. All these actors worked successfully in television using different names as to not confuse an somewhat fickle public. I decided after my second round of Zombie's that it was time to go over and ask my question thinking to myself He will never see this question coming and whatever he tells me it won't be a stock Perry Mason line that is for sure. Raymond Burr is not a star for nothing and walking over to that table and standing before the man himself was not unlike what dozens of another actors experienced working the courtroom scenes with him at the studio. He is always dramatic in his demeanor a very powerful presence trust me you would never ignore this man whatever the circumstance.  I waited for a break and then I stood by the table and introduced myself as a correspondent for Films and Filming magazine in the UK and would he mind if I asked a question that had been on my mind to ask him if we should ever meet in person. Raymond Burr spoke in that deep knowing voice I knew so well from countless hours in front of a TV set during my childhood. "Ask your question young man". With that I asked if the late Larid Cregar was related to him perhaps his brother ? Burr listened for a good minute while the other guys sat there speechless as I am sure none of them had ever heard of Laird Cregar. Finally Raymond Burr looked right at me and said "Now I want you to listen to me because there is no truth in that rumor what so ever. Mr. Cregar was a fine actor who passed away far too young as I recall but no we are not related". As I look back on it now I will always wonder if he thought I brought up Cregar since it was known that he was gay as well and perhaps I was using that to get him mad or try and pout him who knows this was certainly not my intention and had Burr known me at all he would have realized what Larry Tierney used to say about me and my obsession with the movies "You know if you don't say Boris Karloff every five minutes David won't talk to you." I stood there facing the intense Raymond Burr for about another second before thanking him for answering my question fearful I had offended him as I knew I must have done thinking the thing though later. Burr however was ok with it and smiled at me saying "There aren't too many people that would know who you are talking about and I must say no one has ever asked me that question before. I wonder if Laird had lived long enough he might have had a series or two himself down the road in his career. As I walked away I breathed a sigh of relief as it crossed my mind I could have encountered the Raymond Burr from A Place in the Sun, the film in which he first played a lawyer and a tense one at that...who could forget his moment in the courtroom when he picks up a rowing oar and smashes it onto the rowboat on display in the courtroom was an classic moment for Raymond Burr as an actor, at least I finally managed to ruffle his feathers but not enough for him to brain me with some blunt object. all in all it was a good day.

1 comment:

  1. For years I operated under the false assumption that Burr and Cregar were brothers. Thanks for setting the record straight!