When Raymond Burr bursts into a room, Raymond Burr bursts into a room. The room itself does not burst, no, but it may quiver a little. It's not just that Burr is enormous, though he is; it's also that he makes an entrance with a bouncy gusto you don't expect from the man who, for nine solid seasons on CBS, portrayed that stony monolith of justice, Perry Mason.
"The day we finished 'Perry Mason' -- nine years, okay, big success -- they said the betting was, by our executive producer, that I would never work another day in my life," Burr says. "Because I was so identified with Perry Mason."
Ah, but he did work another day in his life. He did eight seasons as "Ironside," the detective in the wheelchair, for NBC. Yet he still remains best known for the way he played Erle Stanley Gardner's implacable and incorruptible attorney, who always got his clients off the hook and who moved around the courtroom like an iceberg, awesome and ominous.
Last fall, Burr put on the Mason mantle again for an NBC movie, "Perry Mason Returns," that surprised a lot of people by scoring the highest TV-movie ratings of the year. The moral was obvious: Make more Mason movies. On Sunday night, NBC offers the second in the new series, "Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun" (at 9 on Channel 4), and once more Burr is united with Barbara Hale, who plays personal secretary Della Street and is the only other surviving member of the show's original core cast.
Burr says he was not at all reluctant to return to the role. "I had breakfast with Fred Silverman and we decided to do the show in 20 seconds," he says. "Or that's how long I took to give my okay." Nevertheless, Burr would not consider starting up "Perry Mason" as a series again.
"I think we'll do three more this year, maybe go into January with one of them, might do two or three next year, and I think that'll be it. 'Cause I have other things to do. I still want to do plays. I still want to do motion pictures. I still want to do television specials. And I want to be on the farm."
Burr has a big spread in northern California.
Of course, that's not the only big spread he has.
Burr is gigantic. He has a wing span like the Spruce Goose. His hands are huge. You get the feeling it must have taken a team of fussing French tailors weeks to piece together his natty pin-stripe suit. But the impression given is not that he is fat, just imposingly large. Surely his size was a factor in the impression he made as Mason, who would bear down on helpless guilty parties in the witness stand like some vast avenging storm cloud.
You could run, but you couldn't hide. Those piercing, somber eyes, twin planets of intimidation, would seek you out. Burr is asked if he doesn't feel guilty about having presented such an idealized portrait of an attorney that he inspired countless hordes of impressionable viewers to rush off to law school. He says optimistically, "Most of them have turned out to be damn good lawyers. You know, raising lawyers is like raising animals. Every once in a while you get a bad one in the box."
Burr eagerly returns to the Hollywood courtroom even though, he says, his memories of playing Mason all those years are not particularly pleasant. "It was a bad experience in a lot of ways," he says.
Because of the pressures of learning so many script pages and working a round-the-clock schedule, Burr claims, he actually lived at the studios where "Mason" was filmed. "I had no life outside of 'Perry Mason,' " he says soberly. "And that went on 24 hours a day, six days a week. I never went home at night. I lived on the lot. I got up at 3 o'clock every single morning to learn my lines for that day, and sometimes I hadn't finished until 9 o'clock. I had a kitchen, bedroom, office space, sitting room -- all of that -- on every lot I ever worked on."
He wanted to leave the series long before it ended. "I didn't want to do any more after five years, but they asked me for seven, then they asked me for two more. Actually, when we got to the end of nine, they asked me for one more year in color, and they shot one show in color and I said 'no' and they gave me such a big thing, talked about my loyalty and all that, and they guaranteed the quality of the show and said, 'Let's go off with a big bang.' This was all of the people at CBS."
Burr said he was considering the offer to continue ("There wasn't much more money involved, but I didn't care about that anyway") when, three weeks after the meeting at which network executives entreated him to stay, "I picked up the trades and read we were canceled. Or that they weren't going to resume the next season. Now I would have thought that any one of them would have had the decency to just pick up the phone and say, 'We came out, we persuaded you, but we have now reconsidered and it's not a great idea,' and I would have said, 'Wonderful.' "
To boost his own morale, and those of coworkers, on the "Perry Mason" set, Burr played practical jokes, including a now-famous one in which he hid a baby alligator in a desk drawer that he knew Barbara Hale would have to open, because she used to balance her checkbook and write letters while poor Burr was rehearsing his reams and reams of courtroom dialogue.
"Barbara used to drive me out of my mind!" Burr says, somehow simultaneously grinning and groaning. "She had nothing to do in those courtroom scenes -- you know, Paul Drake used to run in with the messages, she did nothing, except maybe, accept a message and hand it to me -- and I'm under this terrible pressure. 'Cause I go on for two pages of solid dialogue, talking away, and at the end of it, somebody says 'no.' Now what kind of a clue is that for your cue?"
Then Burr would resume his harangue. So one day he hid the baby alligator in the desk and the crew exploded with laughter when Hale opened the drawer. "When you're under tension like that," says Burr, "you needed those laughs more than anything else in the world, and you needed loosening up. Our producers had no sense of humor whatsoever on that show."
The idea of Burr as a jolly prankster sounds incongruous, but during the run of "Mason," he would guest star on comedy and variety shows and vent his passion for cutting up. Once, on "The Jack Benny Program," he came leaping and bounding out from the wings after Benny introduced him as "television's newest comedian, Raymond Burr." Burr blew a party horn and threw confetti into the air.
On another Benny show, Burr appeared as Mason, defending Benny in a dream-sequence trial against a charge of having murdered a rooster. Mason badly botches the case. Benny berates him: "I watch you on television! You always win! Why?" Burr replies, "Maybe my writers are better than yours." These were halcyon days for CBS, of Benny and Burr and Bilko and Ed Sullivan and "I Love Lucy."
They were harvest years for Burr, as well; he grew in size fairly steadily as the Mason show ran on. Series directors in the show's later years had to expend a certain ingenuity on finding camera angles and setups that would disguise the hero's enormousness. When Burr was cast as "Ironside," there naturally was speculation that he took the part because he would be able to do the whole series sitting down. He says he made a point of making personal appearances and doing guest-star bits during the "Ironside" years "just to show that I still could walk," since letters of condolence kept pouring in from viewers.
On the subject of his weight, he is moderately open. He is willing to be specific about the most he ever weighed, but asks that the figure not be published. It is well over 300 pounds. He must be hovering at about 300 now. When Fred Silverman was asked last year about whether Burr could play the role with his newly grown beard, Silverman may have been making something of a joke when he said, "I thought the beard looked great. He looks better now than when he was doing the series. I think he's kind of grown into it."
Grown into it, eh? Burr says his weight problem started early. About as early as it possibly could.
"I was what they call a potato baby," he says reflectively. "I was born during a famine in Canada right after World War I, where the Canadians ripped out all their rose gardens and planted potatoes 'cause there was no food around. And I weighed 12 and three-quarters pounds when I was born. And I didn't lose weight. I went to purgatory -- military school -- and used to be just treated with rocks and, you know, but fortunately I could fight my way back. But when you're a little fat boy in a public school, or any kind of school, you're just persecuted something awful."
He recalls playing Pope John in a TV movie and says he didn't need a great deal of padding because "we were both on the plump side." Burr says his tendency to be overweight was exacerbated by a series of operations he went through. "I gained 90 pounds in one year, and then I was put on a modified diet and went back to work.
"I don't overeat -- I only eat one meal a day, really, except when I'm traveling or living it up on weekends or something like that -- but my body has been one of those that has almost perfect assimilation, so everything I eat is assimilated, not lost in the whole process. Some people can eat 10 times the amount of food I do and not gain an ounce. I can eat just a little bit and gain, because my body works too well, all right? When I take a metabolism test, it says I'm supposed to be skinny, because I've got a lot of energy. I have no high blood pressure. My blood pressure today is the same as it was when I was 20. I've been overweight or underweight all my life, but it has not changed my blood pressure."
Burr, who just turned 69, does look healthy and robust, and he seems happy. A veteran of three marriages, two of which ended in his being widowed, he remains intensely private for the most part, not anxious to discuss his personal life and awfully slim on anecdotes when it comes to his professional one. A question about his nine appearances on the Benny show over the years sends him meandering off into random reminiscences about entertaining the troops during various wars ("I was in Vietnam 14 times and Korea 16 times").
When he showed up for Perry Mason auditions more than three decades ago, Mason was asked to read for the role of Hamilton Burger, the repeatedly defeated prosecuting attorney. That's because Burr was predominantly known for playing, so to speak, heavies. Among his most memorable bad guy roles was as the bleached-blond, wife-dismembering murderer in Alfred Hitchcock's recently reissued "Rear Window."
It was memorable, yes, but Burr doesn't seem to have many memories of it. He hadn't seen the movie in years but says he has bought a cassette of it, now that it's out in the home video market. He says he "doesn't allow" most of his old movies or television shows to be screened in his presence, with the exception of "A Place in the Sun," the George Stevens version of Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," in which Burr played a particularly relentless prosecutor.
"I've seen 'Place in the Sun' six times in its entirety," Burr says, "and I'm sure I will see it six times more, because each time I see something else in it that Stevens had in those scenes. It is a marvelous motion picture." Burr always says "motion picture," and even more cavernously adenoidally than he says most things. He never calls a movie a "movie." He always calls it a Mo-Shun Pik-Chur. Aggressively affable though he may be, Burr clings to a proper, old-Hollywood formality. You wouldn't slap him on the back and ask, "Hey Ray, how's tricks?"
Among the screen oddities in which Burr appeared was "Love Happy," the last feature to star the Marx Brothers. "It was written for Harpo, no other Marx Brother was going to be in it, but the picture was so bad and it was so mixed-up that pretty soon Harpo begged Groucho to be in it and then they both begged Chico to be in it. So what was going to be a picture with Harpo Marx turned out to be the last Marx Brothers picture. And Marilyn Monroe's first motion picture.
"It was a great experience."
Finally, many years later, Burr got an opportunity to appear in a Motion Picture opposite one of the few stars around who is bigger than he: Godzilla, king of the monsters. Burr was spliced into the completed Japanese monster film for its condensed U.S. release in 1954. He played reporter "Steve Martin," who always had the ideal vantage point on the creature's sundry rampages. Then, last year, the producers of "Godzilla 1985" besought Burr to return for a reprise. Again, he didn't even have to set foot on Japan -- er, in Japan.
"This latest one was two weeks before they asked me to do 'Perry Mason Returns,' " Burr recalls. "They called me on the phone, said 'We have another picture, we're going to cut it the same way we did the first one, we'll give you -- ' Ah, for the first one I got paid a great deal of money for one day's work. The second one was also shot in one day, and I also got a great deal of money for that. But when they asked me to do it the second time, I said 'Certainly,' and everybody thought I was out of my mind. But it wasn't the large sum of money. It was the fact that first of all, I kind of liked 'Godzilla,' and where do you get the opportunity to play yourself 30 years later? So I said yes to both of them.
"I wasn't bad in the second 'Godzilla.' I wasn't good. I was just nothing in it. We didn't call him Steve Martin anymore; we called him Mr. Martin in the second picture because Steve Martin the comedian came up in between times."
Burr boasts genially about the way he used to handle reporters and critics in the old days. He knows how to say a lot without saying much. A direct question he can deflect with some rambling soliloquy about a planned movie -- that is, Motion Picture -- or a play he wants to do. He says he's always had a script in mind about this and he would love to do a film about that, and he solicits your opinion about this wonderful script he assures you he'll send you but he never does. He's from the old school of showbiz blarney tossers, and it's easy to see why he is so widely liked. He knows how to keep himself slightly out of focus much of the time.
Ted Turner's Atlanta SuperStation ballyhoos its reruns of the original "Perry Mason" (which air here nightly on Channel 50) by calling him "America's lawyer." Aside from the fact that that's supposed to be Ed Meese's job, it seems an apt, not very hyperbolic, description. Burr made the character an icon, and a hefty icon at that. When he hoists himself out of a deep hotel easy chair to say goodbye, his hugeness looms anew, much as it loomed over those confessing witnesses rendered helpless behind his once inevitable weekly eclipse.
No man is an island.
With the possible exception of Raymond Burr.