Polly Bergen has died. One of my favorite funny ladies. And a wonderful singer, too.
Here are some of my favorite moments with her: film clips, TV appearances and recordings. In memory of a grand dame, always outspoken, genuine and entertaining.
Polly Bergen has died. One of my favorite funny ladies. And a wonderful singer, too.
Here are some of my favorite moments with her: film clips, TV appearances and recordings. In memory of a grand dame, always outspoken, genuine and entertaining.
We all know them: the Stoneses, the Andersons or the Stephenses. For some, they may be a guilty pleasure, for others a mere necessity to get a story told. For me, they are the cherry on top of any tale: fictional couples and their personal stories. On the fringes of drama, comedy and mayhem, romantic innuendo has always been my favorite treat. From Date with the Angels and Family Ties to Murder She Wrote or Babylon 5, I have a weakness for double entendre paired with a healthy sense of humor, smarts and mutual respect.
1) Perry Mason and Della Street, for example, have been my favorite couple for more years than I care to admit. On paper, radio and screen, the lawyer and his secretary know how to put a smile on my face. Committed to their work as much as to each other, the true nature of their relationship has always remained a mystery. For some fans, they are the best of friends while others suspect some hanky-panky behind closed doors. For me, they have long been married, the epitomized working couple who combines independence with traditional values. And that’s the beauty of those characters and their story. They ignite your imagination and tease you to the point of sizzling frustration with a simple look, remark or smitten smile. It is a tradition Erle Stanley Gardner himself started in The Velvet Claws in 1933 and lasted until 1994 when the last Perry Mason TV movie aired on NBC. Perfected by its signature cast, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, Perry and Della have since lived on in the hearts of many fans, the flame of their romance burning more and more brightly towards the series’ end.
2) The second couple I have loved for as long as I can remember are Jennifer and Jonathan Hart. Sophisticated, rich and charming, the Harts had everything including a mutually executed interest in solving mysteries. Following in the footsteps of TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North, they dug up trouble where it’s usually hard to find but their love for each other made their cases stand out from others. Together, they were invincible and (much like Della and Perry) have stood the test of time. A mere decade after Hart to Hart was canceled on ABC, the couple returned to television in 1993, matured, refined, and every bit as committed to each other as they had always been. Today, the Harts are still a dream couple for their fans, a twosome who showed their audience the ingredients of true love and how it beautiful life can be even if you are denied to have your desired offspring.
USA 1977-87, nine seasons, four specials, 249 episodes, approximately 50 minutes each, ABC, color. Produced by Aaron Selling, Douglas S. Cramer. Cast: Gavin MacLeod, Bernie Kopell, Fred Grandy, Ted Lange, Lauren Tewes, Jill Whelan, Ted McGinley, Pat Klous. Guest stars: June Allyson, The Andrew Sisters, Eve Arden, Gene Barry, Polly Bergen, Amanda Blake, Tom Bosley, Raymond Burr, Sid Caesar, Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, Olivia de Havilland, Patty Duke, Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson, Andy Griffith, Katherine Helmond, Celeste Holm, Gene Kelly, Werner Klemperer, Jack Klugman, Dorothy Lamour, Janet Leigh, Allen Ludden, Rue McClanahan, Leslie Nielsen, Lilli Palmer, Donna Reed, Della Reese, Debbie Reynolds, Marion Ross, Eva Marie Saint, Jaclyn Smith, Jean Stapleton, Gale Storm, Sada Thompson, Lana Turner, Gloria Vanderbilt, Betty White, William Windom, Shelly Winters, Jane Wyatt, Jane Wyman and many others
Plot summary: On the Pacific Princess, love and laughter are all-inclusive.
Review: In 1976, three TV movies launched the career of a special ship, the Pacific Princess. Based on a non-fiction book by cruise director Jeraldine Saunders, the so-called Love Boat traveled the world with Captain Stubing and his crew. Each week, they were accompanied by a wide array of guests stars ranging from Hollywood legends to contemporary starlets. Split into three different stories, every episode focused on love, comedy and drama. Written by three sets of writers, the weekly plots rarely crossed over but instead made The Love Boat crew the pivotal element that held them all together.
The Captain (Gavin MacLeod), Doc (Bernie Kopell) and bartender Isaac Washington (Ted Lange) were the longest serving members of an ensemble that appeared to be tight on camera and off. They were supported by Gopher (Fred Grandy) and Julie McCoy, played by Lauren Tewes, a young actress who successfully earned her stripes on TV in the first seven seasons. Eventually, they were joined by Jill Whelan as Vicki Stubing, the Captain’s daughter, and Pat Klous as Jody McCoy, Julie’s sister and replacement for the last two seasons. In 1979, Charlie’s Angels checked in on the Pacific Princess to solve a case and simultaneously introduce Shelley Hack as the latest angelic addition. Collaborations like that were rare but boosted ratings for Aaron Spelling’s other projects, Fantasy Island following suit in 1980.
Popular around the world during its ten year run, The Love Boat offered an escape from the grim realities of politically callous times. At the height of the Cold War, the program was bubbly, glamorous and diverting. A perfect vehicle for old stars and new ones alike and thus an evening favorite for boomers and their parents. Shown in reruns for many years, the first two seasons were finally made available on DVD in 2008. A great treat for anyone who has fond memories of flares, weekly cameos and the famous theme song performed by Jack Jones (as well as by Dionne Warwick in 1987).
As requested by Ben Masters on Facebook, I am following up on my TV themes post and have a look at the visual aspect of TV intros. I don’t know about you, but if an intro is well done, I’m already getting into the mood for a show I want to watch. If the music and visuals match, the better the effect. So when I think about intros without primarily listening to the songs, the shows that have had a lasting effect on me with their introductions are definitely Charlie’s Angels, Bewitched and (you probably guessed it) Perry Mason. Like many other fans (so I’m sure), I’ve always wanted to know what was in that silly script that brought out Raymond Burr’s handsome dimple smile.
Charlie’s Angels, like Hart to Hart or Babylon 5 used narration to add to their pictorial introductions, explaining the background or premise of the show. While Lionel Stander introduced his screen bosses with scenes from the Hart to Hart pilot and only slight textual changes in the five years the show was on TV, Babylon 5 used a different introduction every season. Merging scenes from the show with the voices of lead characters, the season intros offered an outlook on the individual seasons, as well as a quick summary of what you needed to know to follow the plot of this complex show. And since I’m speaking of the 90s, who could forget ER, Home Improvement, Touched by an Angel, The X-Files or Chicago Hope – all equipped with visual intros that made clear what to expect from these specific program. Friends and Mad About You, two sitcom flagships of the era, also put us right into a quirky, urban mood, something Sex and the City would perfect in 1998 by making Manhattan a visual main character.
Looking at the evolution of these TV intros, in the 1980s, Cagney and Lacey and Scarecrow and Mrs. King already used their urban setting (New York City and Washington DC), as well as scenes from episodes to give the audience an idea of the content and nature of each show. The Golden Girls and Who’s the Boss did the same while The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Roseanne or Valerie primarily introduced us to the type of family we were about to visit for half an hour every week. In the 70s, the intros of Happy Days, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Family set the tone for very different shows while the 60s had already distinguished themselves from the often sponsor-laden intros of the 1950s. As the first era to introduce color TV, the 60s loved to use colorful effects and a contemporary style of music that showed a development away from family-friendly entertainment to more adult-oriented shows. While Hazel still proved to be traditional and rather quiet in the early 60s, Ironside‘s intro made clear the show was going to be filled with action, not unlike Adam-12.
In the new millennium, The West Wing tackled the unthinkable and turned politics into popular TV, the show’s intro already setting the mood and quality of a show that had a good run of seven seasons. The original CSI uses a similar pattern, creating a symbiosis of music and images, teasing the audience without giving too much away while the intro to the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica did not only set the tone for a dark-edged series, but also treated its audience to a glimpse into each new episode. Whether you enjoy the classic style of merging video material with a catchy tune like Trapper John M.D. did in in the late 70s and early 80s, prefer graphics as used in Cheers or are fond of the genuine way The Closer interlaced its credits with an already commencing episode – TV show intros are a like a good business card. Selling your product without being obtrusive while making a lasting impression on your audience.
Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Stuttering Bishop
USA 1937, 70 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. Director: William Clemens, Written by Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan, Based on The Case of the Stuttering Bishop by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Donald Woods, Ann Dvorak, Anne Nagel, Linda Perry, Craig Reynolds, Gordon Oliver, Joseph Crehan, Helen MacKellar, Edward McWade, Tom Kennedy, Mira McKinney, Frank Faylen, Douglas Wood, Veda Ann Borg, George Lloyd, Selmer Jackson and Charles Wilson.
Plot summary: Perry Mason gets involved in a case of identity theft and ends up defending the possible heir to a murder victim’s fortune.
Review: As the sixth and last adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardner’s popular whodunits, Warner Brothers released The Case of the Stuttering Bishop in 1937 with Donald Woods as famed lawyer Perry Mason and Ann Dvorak as his faithful girl Friday Della Street. Based on Gardner’s ninth book, the film tried to turn a difficult plot into seventy minutes of entertaining noir, unfortunately another failed attempt at the box office. For Mason fans, the film may now be a gem to complete their collection, for a general audience, however, the film did not manage to live up to Gardner’s original story.
Although blessed with Donald Woods as yet another Mason, the film, once again, lacked the enticing chemistry between Perry and and his savvy secretary, an element the radio and TV show would get down to a T in the 1940s through 60s. Ann Dvorak, despite her decent lines, brief (book-inspired) action scene and physical presence, did not manage to shine as Della Street and Joseph Crehan did not get enough screen time to actually flesh out another pivotal character from the original books, private detective Paul Drake. Charles Wilson, though, as district attorney Hamilton Burger, met the rather unlikeable persona from Gardner’s novels and Edward McWade was a charming stuttering bishop Mallory. Together, they made the film an enjoyable hour of entertainment without living up to the story’s full potential.
Despite my bias for Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale and their smash hit show from the 50s and 60s, I must admit, however, that Donald Woods did a fine job at breathing life into his very own Perry Mason. Of all the adaptations from the 1930s, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop may even qualify as my favorite, although each of the six films had its beauty and strengths. As a Mason fan, I’m grateful either way for Warner’s decision to release all of the first Mason films in one boxset on DVD – it sure made the best early Christmas gift I gave myself this year.
Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Black Cat
USA 1936, 66 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. Director: William C. McGann, Written by F. Hugh Herbert, Based on The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Ricardo Cortez, June Travis, Jane Bryan, Craig Reynolds, Carlyle Moore Jr., Gordon Elliot, Nedda Harrigan, Garry Owen, Harry Davenport, George Rosener, Gordon Hart, Clarence Wilson, Guy Usher, Lottie Williams and Harry Hayden.
Plot summary: When Peter Laxter calls Perry Mason to change his will in order to test the loyalty of his granddaughter’s fiancé, his actions result in a series of sudden deaths the prosecution investigates as murders.
Review: Following four silver screenadaptations with Warren William starring as Perry Mason, Warner Brothers took another shot at success in 1936 by releasing The Case of the Black Cat based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s seventh whodunit, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat. Introducing Ricardo Cortez as the famous attorney-at-law and June Travis as his irreplaceable Della Street, that new production did not follow up on previously disappointing attempts of turning Mason into a Nick Charles but rather tried to soak up the essence of Gardner’s original novel. Featuring Garry Owen as private eye Paul Drake, an important asset to Mason’s law practice, and Guy Usher as district attorney Hamilton Burger, The Case of the Black Cat was suspenseful and noir right from the start. What the film lacked, however, was that kind of enticing chemistry between the story’s main characters, an ingredient Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, Bill Hopper (as well as William Talman and Ray Collins) would so easily create on the small screen two decades later.
Although hard to compare to the smashing TV show of the 1950s and 60s, this adaptation from 1936 already took a step into the right direction. Regardless of his excellent performance skills and gentlemanly quality, Warren William did not get to leave a lasting mark as Perry Mason and unfortunately, nor did Ricardo Cortez with his one-time chance at proving himself. June Travis, as the fourth actress to breathe life into Mason’s skillful girl Friday, also didn’t make a big enough difference to win the hearts of Gardner’s fans. Just like her predecessors, she was pretty and useful but never as distinctive as the character in the original books.
In general, The Case of the Black Cat offered a calmer version of Gardner’s crafty lawyer, especially when compared to the screwball-induced The Case of the Lucky Legs and The Velvet Claws, the improved take on the novels still did not stand out enough, however, to attract a larger audience. Today, The Case of the Black Cat is a great little film for anyone who loves Perry Mason. Although for most, Raymond Burr will always be the perfect Perry and Barbara Hale his unrivaled Della, this film is a great example of how Hollywood has always tried to tell stories the audience has already embraced. It is also a treat for anyone who is enamored with the 1930s, the slang, movies and fashion of those troubled days.
Available on the Perry Mason Mysteries DVD boxset.
Born in Brooklyn, New York on May 21, 1915* as Hermann Wilhelm Katt, Bill Williams started his career in Vaudeville, touring the US and Europe as an adagio dancer until he joined the army in WWII. Following an honorable medical discharge, he returned to show business, starting out as an extra in Hollywood and playing small, uncredited parts before he finally landed a deal with RKO in the mid 1940s. As a contract player, he was slowly cast as a budding co-star, opposite popular colleagues such as Spencer Tracy in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Robert Young in Those Endearing Young Charms, Robert Mitchum in Till the End of Time and Susan Hayward in Deadline at Dawn while in private life he quietly divorced his first, long estranged wife. In 1946, two years after shooting West of the Pecos, a small Western featuring RKO starlet Barbara Hale whom he had previously been introduced to by acting coach Lillian Albertson, he got married to his former co-star gone studio sweetheart and saw a bright future laid out before him. Considered for a series of pictures following A Likely Story co-starring his young wife, Bill’s stream of luck ended with the sudden death of RKO president Charles Kroener and the structural changes that followed at the studio.
After serving as good-will ambassador from Hollywood to the public in 1946 and 47 for several months, keeping his popularity afloat by touring he country, he was struck down by an old injury that would further interrupt his career while Mrs. Williams was expecting their first child. With A Likely Story under his belt, however, the press didn’t lose interest in him and focused on the private life of the growing Williams family instead, presenting them as happy, lovely and homey. After bowing out of The Window, his second would-be collaboration with wife Barbara, Bill regained his health and starred with her in The Clay Pigeon. Shortly thereafter, the couple faced a new challenge in their conjoined careers when Howard Hughes entered the scene to change the course of RKO by letting all the contract players go. While his wife managed to land a career-breaking part in Jolson Sings Again and a follow-up contract with Columbia Pictures, Bill Williams continued working as a freelance actor, starring in a number of small Westerns and memorable films like The Stratton Story until he got his big break on television in 1951. Landing the title role in The Adventures of Kit Carson, Bill breathed life into a character who soon turned into a kids’ favorite and guaranteed him long hours on set. Successful for four consecutive seasons, the show turned Bill into a household name and Western hero, a good fortune he tried to continue with Date with the Angels in 1957. Starring opposite TV darling Betty White, Bill was seen as a newlywed husband who showed splendid comedic timing. Although promising, entertaining and less strenuous to work on than his predecessor series, the show did not last longer than a season. Instead, his wife Barbara Hale started an unexpectedly long career on television when she agreed to star as Della Street on Perry Mason, a show that would last from 1957 to 66. After years of putting her family first, it was Bill now who spent more time at home with the three children. He did not return to the small screen until 1960 when he starred in Assignment: Underwater, an underwater adventure show modeled after Sea Hunt, a surprise hit Bill Williams himself had turned down in 1958. Following the show’s cancellation, Bill returned to being a working actor and guest starred on a variety of popular programs including his wife’s great success and her co-star Raymond Burr’s follow-up smash Ironside until he retired from acting for good in 1981.
Although originally a city boy with a defining Brooklyn accent, Bill was frequently cast as a handsomely talented cowboy throughout his career. With his boyish grin, tender eyes and natural athleticism, he was the perfect ‘good guy’ when he was young and a credible character actor when he got older. Always deeply committed to his craft, he worked hard at doing most of his own stunts, oozed honesty and earthy charm. Not unlike his darling wife, Bill Williams is now often remembered for his one career-defining role as Kit Carson, but it would be a pity to forget all the other characters he breathed life into, including the many different men he played opposite Mrs. Williams – from their first feature West of the Pecos in 1945 to their last in 1976, Disney’s Flight of the Grey Wolf.
Twenty years ago, on September 21, Bill Williams died in Burbank, California at the age of 77. He left his wife of 46 years, two grown daughters and his son, William Katt, a working actor who continued the tradition of keeping the business in the family by repeatedly working with his mother, Barbara Hale, on the same projects. By his fans, he is still remembered with great fondness, especially by those who grew up loving Westerns.
* Author’s note: Apparently, there’s some confusion about Bill Williams’ date of birth. (Thanks for the mention, Gina!) Wikipedia now lists May 15th as his birthday while imdb still mentions May 21st. As soon as I get confirmation on the validity of one of these dates, you’ll be the first ones to know.
Talkie of the Week: Rear Window
USA 1954, 112 minutes, color, Paramount Pictures. Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Written by John Michael Hayes, Based on Cornell Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder”. Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Wendell Corey and Raymond Burr.
Plot summary: Stuck in his apartment in a wheel chair, photographer L.B. Jeffries enjoys sitting by his his rear window to entertain himself with the everyday lives of his neighbors until he starts suspecting one of them of murder.
Review: New York, 1954. Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is trapped at home, tied to a wheel chair and deprived of his usual excitation. An independent spirit whose professional life is filled with danger and adventure, he is bored out of his wits sitting in his tiny apartment with a broken leg. Secluded from the outside world apart from his daily visitors Lisa (Grace Kelly) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), he has found solace in the repetitive lives of his colorful neighbors. Nicknaming them according to their behavior, Jeff comments on the patterns he has made out in five weeks of impudently observing them. Although chided by his visitors at first for peeking into the private affairs of complete strangers, his guilty pleasure soon becomes an addiction for him as much as to his acquaintances, leading to revelations about well-kept secrets and a possible murder.
Detached in the beginning and cynical, Jimmy Stewart’s performance is reliable as always, his character strangely intangible despite his rough, likable charm. By his side, Grace Kelly shines in her lovely dresses, her beauty set up to stun rather than her performance. Thelma Ritter delivers her lines with a genuine twinkle in her eye, bringing a lightness to an atmosphere of restraint and suspense while Wendell Corey adds to a feeling of increasing trepidation. Blessed with a stellar cast of supporting actors who work together like a beautiful composition of New York neighbors, it is Raymond Burr who stands out with his performance as murder suspect Lars Thorwald. From the distance, he seems unspectacular and vulnerable, a character broken by life. When we finally see his face and hear him speak, it is his voice that is the biggest surprise – for a moment, he leaves us wondering about the person behind a man we suspect of having committed a cruel crime. He sounds helpless somehow and weak, his questions coming across like a plea before his calm turns into violence and he becomes intimidating again to say the least.
Using the suspense and excitement of voyeurism, Rear Window was further refined by a memorable set and popular music, guaranteeing the film a place in the National Film Registry in 1997. Shot in color and based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich from 1942, the film is still on the must-see list of any film buff who enjoys Hollywood’s Golden Age and has the potential to make a frequent guest appearance in your home. As one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated masterpieces, Rear Window was gripping upon release and remains suspenseful today, on DVD, in reruns or on Blu-ray.
TV classics: The Jack Benny Program
USA 1950-65, 15 seasons, 343 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, CBS & NBC, black & white. Sponsors: Lucky Strike, Lux, Lipton Tea, Jell-O and others, Cast: Jack Benny, Eddie Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Mary Livingstone, Mel Blanc, Frank Nelson and various recurring guest stars
Plot summary: As one of America’s most beloved comedians, Jack Benny entertained his audience on radio before he found fame in fifteen consecutive TV seasons on CBS and NBC.
Review: Like many of his contemporaries, Jack Benny originally started out on radio before he took television by storm with a show based on his continued radio success. Reliable as a source of hilarity and entertainment, the comedian created one of those early hit shows the majority of America refrained from missing back in the days. Welcoming many stars of his time, including Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Burr, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, Irene Dunne, Bob Hope, Jane Mansfield, Groucho Marx, Marilyn Monroe, James and Gloria Stewart or Danny Thomas, the show guaranteed diversion and relaxation and succeeded for remarkable fifteen consecutive seasons.
With some episodes now in public domain and the rest eagerly awaited by Jack Benny fans to be released on DVD, today, the comedian is still regarded as one of America’s greatest performers and one of Hollywood’s generous stars. His show, though not easy to categorize, offered previously recorded, as well as live broadcasts and aimed at entertaining the audience often on his own behalf. Judged as easy formula entertainment by some, The Jack Benny Program did a wonderful job diverting an entire generation and their children from their daily hardships in a time that was less cushioned than many people imagine today. Never dwelling on cynicism, Jack Benny offered a good half hour of gags and laughs, while always trying to deliver the best material for the audience to enjoy. Supported by a decent cast and beloved recurring characters, the comedian managed to leave a mark on his audience despite his irregular television appearances in the early 50s. After ending his radio commitment, The Jack Benny Program was broadcast more frequently until his farewell, at the height of his popularity, in 1965 on NBC.
For old fans and new ones alike, selected episodes are available on DVD. Selected radio episodes are available on the Internet Archive.
Everyone who grew up with a TV set knows his brooding face, his kind blue eyes and dimple smile. Raymond Burr, star of two consecutive hit shows, Perry Mason and Ironside, is still a household name due to his haunting qualities as an actor who started as a villain and would become America’s favorite lawyer.
Career: Born on May 21, 1917 in New Westminster, British Columbia, Raymond Burr came of age in the Great Depression and worked a variety of jobs before he finally broke into acting. Starting out on the stage at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1937, he starred on Broadway in Crazy with the Heat and landed his first movie contract with RKO in the 1940s. Soon typecast as a villain in film noir and other genres due to his broad frame and impressive figure, Raymond Burr appeared in over sixty movies before he finally found fame on television as Erle Stanley Gardner’s courtroom hero Perry Mason.
Originally auditioning for the part of district attorney Hamilton Burger, Raymond was the author’s own first choice for the famous lawyer who had already appeared in books, on the silver screen and radio since the 1930s. With its hour-long format, the TV show was a new attempt of using Gardner’s original characters in a suspenseful and entertaining way. Joined by Barbara Hale as Mason‘s girl Friday Della Street and Hedda Hopper’s son as private eye Paul Drake, Raymond Burr started a journey of unprecedented nature when he shot the pilot in 1956. Although starving for success after his bumpy relationship with big screen Hollywood, the actor was soon exhausted from the six day weeks and long hours on set, the whole production relying on a main character he breathed life into by reciting endless monologues. While enjoying and enforcing the cordial atmosphere on the Perry Mason set, Raymond Burr’s lack of breaks soon resulted in him living in a studio apartment in order to get some rest. As a pastime, Raymond loved playing pranks on his dearly beloved cast members, Bill Talman and Barbara Hale especially – her high-pitched screams, predictable schedule (as an actress, wife and mother of three) and eagerness to respond to his endless list of jokes making her his favorite target. It was the heavy schedule however, his lack of time and variety in acting that ultimately brought Raymond to enjoy Perry Mason less and less. After nine years of rewarding team play on “the happiest set in town” yet grueling working conditions for its star, the show was finally axed in 1966 by CBS. Sad to part from his cast and crew but eager to explore new territory, Raymond Burr soon found himself another show to star on, a show that would allow him more downtime and more right to a say in the matter of storytelling.
As Robert T. Ironside, he re-entered American living rooms in 1967 and managed to repeat his previous success. As an ex-police chief tied to a wheel chair, his new character was different from Perry Mason. A hero by his own means, Ironside and his team conquered the hearts of their audience for a good eight years before its cancellation, releasing its star into a decade of fading fame.
In 1985, Raymond Burr accepted an offer to return as Perry Mason but insisted on Barbara Hale reprising her role as Della Street as well. As the only surviving cast members of the original show, they were joined by Barbara’s son Billy Katt who starred as Paul Drake Jr. in the first nine out of twenty-six common TV movies. In 1993, Raymond Burr also returned as Ironside for one TV movie and then made his last appearance in Perry Mason and The Case of the Killer Kiss. Already tied to a wheel chair on set, Raymond said a long goodbye to his friends before he lost his battle against cancer in the privacy of his home in California, only weeks after wrapping his last project.
Characters: Although he started out as a villain in films like Raw Deal, Borderline or M, it was Raymond Burr’s portrayal of idiosyncratic heroes like Perry Mason and Robert T. Ironside that brought him lasting fame beyond the days of his original success.
Convincing as ruthless characters, as well as disturbed, aggressive or lion-hearted ones, it was his sense of vulnerability, his brooding expression, his kind yet piercing eyes that added depth and realism to his performances. Versatile, tall, broad-shouldered, handsome and blessed with an expressive voice, Raymond Burr’s characters may have been disreputable at the beginning of his career, his screen presence however made it impossible for them to be ignored. After all, who could forget his haunting appearance in Hitchcock’s Rear Window – his eyes intense and full of threat? Or his portrayal of Barney, the cursed murderer in Bride of the Gorilla, an excellent B movie that lives from his no-nonsense performance. Godzilla‘s Steve Martin is another example or Please Murder Me – two films that show the complexity of an actor who defined his characters by making them unique.
Perry Mason then brought on the change he had been hoping for in film. As a righteous guy it was finally him who was chasing the villains and his credibility was so acute, his audience soon started mistaking the actor for the character whenever they met or wrote to him. Adding to his authenticity was the chemistry he had with his co-stars, first and foremost Barbara Hale, Perry Mason‘s highly valued Della Street. Building up a system of non-verbal communication with his partner-in-crime, he soaked up what his co-star offered and allowed her to shine even without any lines.
As Ironside, he managed to create a character who was not limited to his disability but who coped with the restrictions of a wheelchair without allowing his situation to define his abilities. When he returned to his most defining parts in the 1980s and 90s, Raymond Burr added further depth to his portrayal of his two alter egos, especially to Perry Mason whose twenty-six new adventures finally allowed him to suggest a romance between him and Della Street.
Charity and Hobbies: Once described as an oversize personality inside and out, Raymond Burr was a strong believer in giving rather than taking, a humanist at heart, warm and wicked. He excelled as a cook who loved to invite friends to elaborate dinners at his Malibu home, was a distinguished gardener who grew numerous new orchids he named after his friends, including his Perry Mason co-star Barbara Hale, and was interested in art and antiques. A co-owner of a gallery in Beverly Hills and a Hans Erni enthusiast, Raymond Burr was also a man of vast reading and an actor who went at great lengths for his characters and colleagues.
Recognized for his engaging portrayal as Perry Mason, Raymond often attended lawyers gatherings and received an honorary doctorate from two different universities. At the height of his fame, he fostered several children around the world and donated most of his money to institutions and educational programs in the US and Fiji where he also owned an island. He toured Korea and Vietnam to support the troops by sitting down with soldiers in remote areas of the war zones, cultivated wine and refused to have his property named after himself. The Raymond Burr Vineyards didn’t get their name until after his passing, when his business partner decided to honor him posthumously and still continues his work today.
Private Life: Reserved and cautious about sharing his private life, Raymond Burr had a difficult relationship with the press throughout his career. Though repeatedly praised by critics for his work, he was often misquoted in papers and thus grew weary of the coverage that came with his many years of television success. Always outspoken and silver-tongued, he circumnavigated questions about his bachelordom and refrained from commenting gossip about seeing Barbara Stanwyck or Natalie Wood. Never reluctant to discuss the long hours on set as Perry Mason however, he focused on answering questions about his work without presenting himself as the center of attention. Eager to highlight the qualities of his fellow cast members and crew, Raymond Burr made sure to find a balance between describing his workload and the bond he shared with his set family.
As a habit, he never commented on wrongful insinuations about his cordial friendship with his Della Street or his changing weight, nor did he respond to rumors about his supposed homosexuality. Staying true to his convictions of living the kind of life he wished others would live, he made no secret of how much he disliked the press for trying to expose what shouldn’t concern them in the first place. Unfortunately, he did not get around to writing his planned autobiography before he died on September 12, 1993. It would have been a pleasure to read about his career from his own point of view. I’m sure he would have surprised a lot of people with a book filled with a myriad of stories but only little information about himself.
Personal recommendations (in alphabetical order):
Sources for more on Raymond Burr: