HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: THE SECRET LIFE OF RAYMOND BURR, Michael Seth Starr, 2008, Applause, 266pp, index.
He was a successful TV star with three long-running series under his belt, if you include the revival of Perry Mason for a bunch of TV movies, prior to that he was a well-paid thug in numerous Hollywood film noir productions, as well as a fan of one of his co-stars, Godzilla.
At 40, Raymond Burr was ready for a change and made the leap to what would become real stardom as TV’s Perry Mason, bringing fresh challenges…and the spotlight of stardom. The spotlight threatened Burr where he was most vulnerable, despite his demands for privacy.
Burr kept secrets. Part of it was his fault, collaborating with studio flacks to invent a military background as a soldier during World War Two, something he embellished on occasionally. (For what it’s worth, he doesn’t appear to have embellished his alleged service too much.)
Another secret was that he was gay. For this, Burr invented two marriages followed by the deaths of his wives and that of a young leukemia-stricken son.
It was the 1950s and his position as tough-talking Perry Mason could not likely withstand the revelation that Burr was gay. The supposed grief surrounding the subject helped Burr snub reportorial inquisitiveness by saying “I won’t discuss that.” Only a jerk would proceed under those circumstances. And still get nothing, of course.
Nevertheless, the fabrication of two dead wives and a son is mondo creepy.
There were apparent attempts at creating a cover. One of those involved a relationship with teenaged Natalie Wood, many years his junior. Burr was reported to be heart-broken when the studio broke it up, encouraging a romance between her and Tab Hunter.
Of course, Hunter was also a closeted gay, and wrote about the relationship in his autobiography. He related that he had heard Burr was gay but, obviously because of his own situation, was sensitive to making accusations.
To his credit, besides admirable career accomplishments, Burr was very generous man, giving a lot to charity. He was a tireless USO performer with his own road show that visited military hotspots Bob Hope never heard of, getting close to the front lines on occasion.
There were apparently even a few occasions where Burr spoke out in support of gays. He obviously did like his privacy. That wasn’t just the result of his fears of exposure. He owned an island in the South Pacific where he lived off and on for some years. As a foodie, he hosted large dinners and invited his fellow cast and crewmembers from Perry Mason, many of whom weren’t absolutely sure if he was gay or not. (He had been leigitimately married for awhile at a young age; neither he nor the ex-wife said a word about it.)
In fact, Starr says Burr worked hard at making members of the Perry Mason crew into a family. He didn’t work as hard in his other big success, Ironside, where his co-star Don Galloway addressed him as “sir.” The Perry Mason movies of later years revived his career, proving to be good earners, as mob guys would say. By that time Burr, who battled weight gain throughout his life, was quite portly and used a cane to get around, something Starr dwells on a little too much with gratuitious weight-oriented modifiers attached to Burr’s name.
He struggled through his last two movies even with cancer knocking at the door.
Burr was an impresive guy and ended his life with quite a resume.
I remember watching him on Larry King one night with a caller saying, “Hi, I’m Perry Mason.” Burr got a chuckle from the fact that the guy had been named for his popular character.