Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mystery History - Raymond Burr Born Today

It's the birthday of Canadian actor Raymond Burr, born May 21st, 1917 in British Columbia. He is most famous for his role as an incorruptible defense attorney for the downtrodden in the television series Perry Mason

But Burr was a versatile actor. Long before he gained national recognition for his role as Perry Mason, he had starred in numerous radio and film crime dramas. He not only played a defense attorney on Perry Mason, but also a police detective on the TV show Ironside, a prosecuting attorney in the movie A Place in the Sun, and a judge in the made for TV movie Perry Mason Returns. The only courtroom role he didn't play was that of a juror.

Early film roles often cast him on the other side of the law. He played a gangster in Desperate, made in 1947. Natalie Wood starred with him in A Cry In The Night, with Burr as a psychotic stalker. He portrayed a murderer in Rear Window and was even a murder victim twice, in The Blue Gardenia with Anne Baxter and again in Please Murder Me with Angela Landsbury.  No other actor portrayed so many different courtroom and crime roles in his career, let alone so successfully. When he auditioned for the new TV series Perry Mason, he initially sought the role of the prosecutor, Hamilton Burger. But when Erle Stanley Gardner saw him, he reportedly declared "There's my Perry Mason".

Burr beat out over 100 other actors who sought the role, including Mike Connors, Fred MacMurray, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. His starring role as an attorney in the noir film, Please Murder Me, released only a few months before his screen test, may have helped him win the role.

The choice did not go over well with critics, who still saw Burr as an actor playing criminal parts. But he soon proved them wrong.  The show ran for nine seasons and earned him two Emmy Awards for Best Actor in a dramatic series.

After leaving the show he starred for 7 seasons as a paraplegic detective in the TV show Ironside. It was one of the first shows on television to star an actor portraying a handicapped lead character. He was nominated for six Emmys in this role but didn't win one. Raymond Burr later reprised his role as Perry Mason in several made for TV movies starting in 1989 with Perry Mason Returns, defending Della Street against a murder charge.

In 1981 Canada included him in one of the stamps celebrating Canadians in Film. He also appeared in a commemorative stamp series issued by the U.S. Post Office called Early TV Memories.

In 1986 Raymond Burr planted grapes on his property in southern California. The result was the Raymond Burr Vineyards, which still produces fine wines today.

His interest in orchids led him to create several new species, one of which he named after Barbara Hale, his Perry Mason co-star who portrayed Della Street.

Burr influenced dozens of actors and writers with his powerful screen roles. Read one example about how Raymond Burr inspired the crime novelist Joel Goldman in his blog post, Why I Write.

No comments: