Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Everybody loved Raymond

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 9, 2008


In movies, he portrayed the villain. On television, he was the heroic defence lawyer Perry Mason. A handsome actor with a penetrating gaze, Raymond Burr had a chiselled face and burly presence that made him a figure familiar to millions. He must have been a terrific actor to have made so popular a figure as unsympathetic as a lawyer.

Mr. Burr lived the most fantastic life. Born to a family of humble circumstance in New Westminster, B.C., he grew up in China before becoming a teenage ranch hand in California. He lost his wife when her airplane was shot down by the Nazis, causing him to enlist in the U.S. Navy, with whom he fought the Japanese in the Pacific during the Second World War.

His ensuing good luck in Hollywood was tempered by ill fortune in his personal life. A second wife died of cancer. As well, a son died of leukemia at the age of 10, but not before his father escorted him on a tour of America to see a land whose bounty he would not get to enjoy.

All the details were dutifully recorded in obituaries when Mr. Burr died of cancer in 1993, aged 76.

As it turns out, much of his tragic biography was fiction.

Call it The Case of the Prevaricating Player. Or the Lying Lawyer.

This much is true. He was born in New Westminster.

On Friday, Canada Post unveiled a commemorative stamp honouring Mr. Burr. A modest ceremony was held in his hometown with the mayor presiding.

The Burr stamp, which portrays him in a courtroom, is one in a series of Canadians who became Hollywood stars. The handsome set, designed by John Belisle and illustrated by Kosta Tsetsekas of Signals Design Group in Vancouver, also portrays Marie Dressler, Norma Shearer, and Chief Dan George, the Tsleil-waututh leader born in North Vancouver.

The unveiling delighted an old Burr friend who was unable to attend. “I thought it was about time,” Robert Benevides said. “He was certainly due the honour. It's very welcome.”

Mr. Benevides, 78, lives on an estate at Healdsburg, Calif. The rolling lands in Dry Creek Valley provide the grapes for Raymond Burr Vineyards.

For 33 years, the two men were companions. They collected art and antiques, and became world renowned among horticulturists for their prize-winning hybrid orchids. (The million-dollar art collection was donated to a state university in California, while some 11,500 orchid plants were donated to Sonoma State University, which later renamed a botany building the Raymond Burr Greenhouse.) Mr. Benevides studied theatre at the University of California, Berkeley, winning a small role in the 1957 sci-fi thriller The Monster That Challenged the World. He had minor roles in several television series by the time he met Mr. Burr on the set of Perry Mason. Not only had Mr. Burr created a smokescreen with his tall tales about dead wives, but he was linked romantically in the gossip columns with a teenaged Natalie Wood. The two starred together in the 1956 noir drama A Cry in the Night, in which a creepy Mr. Burr kidnaps Ms. Wood.

Though made famous by his television roles as Perry Mason and the wheelchair-bound detective Robert Ironside, Mr. Burr often played darker figures in his more than 90 screen appearances. He was the menacing brute whom James Stewart suspects of murder in Rear Window. He was a reporter in the American-release of Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, one of the odder of his screen roles.

An indefatigable worker, Mr. Burr even delayed treatment of his cancer to complete filming of his last Perry Mason television movie (The Case of the Killer Kiss).

In his obituaries, some references were made to Mr. Benevides as a business partner, fewer still to his being a companion. Many did not name him at all, though they included details about the imaginary wives.

Did it bother Mr. Benevides not to have their relationship acknowledged in public?

“That was no problem,” he said. He understood Mr. Burr could not tell the truth about his sexuality.

“Hollywood is too homophobic. No way could he admit that and still be a leading man.”

The false stories about his background and his marriages may have been concocted to avoid investigation of his personal life, or they may have been exaggerations expressed before he became famous that could not later be recanted.

Michael Starr, a television writer for the New York Post, recently released a biography that reveals the truth behind Mr. Burr's fictions. Mr. Benevides refused to be interviewed for Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr, but he recently read the book, which he found to be well researched. (He found fault with the assertion that Mr. Burr left him $20-million in his will. “I wish it had been true,” he said. “Raymond was in debt to the U.S. government for a half-million dollars. He had no money at all. No investments. Nothing.”)

Known as a philanthropist, Mr. Burr was active in many charities, including some in his birthplace. In turn, New Westminster celebrated their famous son, holding a Raymond Burr Day in 1988. When the old Columbia theatre was restored to its former glory, it was renamed the Raymond Burr Performing Arts Centre.

Now, the post office is issuing 4.5 million portraits of the actor, cheap at 52 cents each.

After the actor died, Mr. Benevides travelled to the Royal City, where he interred the ashes of his dear friend alongside those of his mother, who had died in 1974. The marker on the family plot at the Fraser Cemetery includes inscriptions for the actor's father, William, who died in 1985, and for his sister, Geraldine, who died in 2001.

A man so adept at cajoling confessions in a make-believe courtroom couldn't tell the truth about himself.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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