Author: Michael Seth Starr
Publication Information: New York: Applause Theater & Cinema Books, 2008
Library of Congress Classification: PN2287.B88
Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Burr, Raymond, 1917-1993
Raymond Burr came from the same generation as Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors where homosexuality was not only a crime, but it was not talked about. All gay actors were closeted, and the studios had women that they would have their male stars “date” by taking them to various appearances at events. Some, such as Hudson and Burr, actually were married. In their case, the marriages ended in divorce.
Burr was a product of his time. He told the story that he had been married before his actual marriage. This marriage resulted in a son. His wife was killed in the airplane crash that took Leslie Howard’s life and his son, at the age of 10, died of leukemia. There was no truth to these stories, but Burr repeated and embelished them throughout the decades. Burr refused to talk about them whenever asked, so that it became accepted as gospel until after Burr’s death. Even in 1991, when he had returned to television in an Ironside movie, Burr talked about finding someone to finally marry and settle down. Burr had already been with his partner, Robert Benevides, for decades.
The gossip columnists were all-powerful in early Hollywood, and Burr made friends with Hedda Hopper, who helped keep his sexuality a secret. In return, Burr would pass on tidbits of information he would learn from working on the Hollywood sets and the dinner parties he would throw. (Burr loved to cook.) Hopper’s son William became one of the regulars on Perry Mason.
Though a very busy character actor once he had established his career, Burr only played the heavy, and he was desperate to get out from under that image. His first leading role was as a defense attorney in Please Murder Me. Playing opposite him was Angela Lansbury as the scheming, manipulative murderer whom Burr’s character gets off. However, it was Perry Mason that changed the public view of Burr. Perry Mason proved so popular that it spawned a series of reunion movies that outlasted Burr, who died in 1993.
Burr was a private person, though, and most people were not able to penetrate his demeanor. He was a big man, over six foot, and always struggled with his weight. A heavy smoker in his early years, Burr had a deep, commanding voice and was always able to steer conversations with reporters. He kept his proclivities well-hidden, but that did not mean that his fellow actors did not know that he was gay. As Angela Lansbury said, “We know there were certain aspects of their [male actors’] lives that weren’t necessarily one thing or another, but in those days they were such icons in the movies that nobody bothered—and certainly it never occurred to the public, I’m sure.” In Burr’s case, it took him awhile to become an “icon,” and in the meantime he kept who he really was well-hidden.
This book isn’t a who-did-Burr-do, but a biography about a gay actor who had to hide who he was all his life. Burr had to assume a persona where he was heterosexual, a man’s man. Perhaps what is heartening about Burr’s life is that he had a wonderful one in spite of the public lies, and was happy with his partner. Later in life after living on a Polynesian island he bought from a dying Englishwoman, Burr and Benevides relocated to California where they started a winery, which is still producing wines.
The book is an easy read. The focus is definitely on Burr and his career in Hollywood. I felt that there was something lacking, though. Burr did not write an autobiography, so any personal insights are impossible, and unless Benevides writes an autobiography of his life with Burr, some things will remain a mystery.
Perhaps this is the way it should be.