Raymond Burr Booms Back to Court as Perry Mason, but He Regrets Ever Taking the Role That Made Him Famous

updated 05/26/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/26/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The smile is unexpected, like a dimple on Mount Rushmore. Raymond Burr is standing perfectly still, as a man of his size, a man who is measured not on a scale but by a seismograph, must in order to remain unnoticed. He is looking across the set at actors Barbara Hale and William Katt, who are talking about the scene they have just rehearsed for The Case of the Notorious Nun, a made-for-TV Perry Mason movie on NBC this Sunday. Hale's tone is rather motherly, which isn't unfitting, since Katt is her son.

Burr seems entranced. Those hammer-lidded eyes that appeared so sinister when he was a movie villain—remember how he stalked poor Natalie Wood in 1956's A Cry in the Night?—so probing when he became Perry Mason, now seem rather sorrowful as he passes from middle age. Burr is smiling with fondness, but there are traces of loneliness and yearning too. Later, he will say, "You know, Barbara is such an easy person to fall in love with. If she had not had such a great married life and children, I might have attempted it."

For more than nine years, beginning in 1957, she spent more time on the set with Burr than at home with her husband, Bill Williams (TV's Kit Carson). She was Delia Street, confidential secretary to Perry Mason, the invincible attorney. Never before had TV attempted a show quite like Perry Mason, a one-hour weekly series that made such demands on Burr that he lived in a bungalow on the studio lot. Hale went home each night to her husband and three children, but the day started so early, she says, "I'd put a terry-cloth robe over my pajamas and drive in to work."

Each week Perry Mason would defend some demoralized innocent, providing the kind of inspired legal assistance not ordinarily available to the hapless. It's no wonder the show was so popular, since lawyers who look like Raymond Burr usually only work for Fortune 500 companies. Assisting Mason was his just-in-the-nick-of-time detective, Paul Drake, and losing to him every week was the indefatigable district attorney, Hamilton Burger, whose law school was understandably never divulged. At the conclusion of each episode, usually during a preliminary hearing, Mason would cross-examine the guilty party, invariably a self-satisfied sort. His earth tremor of a voice rising, Mason would batter away the smugness, bringing the culprit near tears. Finally, he would stop, and softly, almost sympathetically, allow the broken fellow to confess.

"Isn't it all true?"

Sob.

"Yes."

The series lasted until 1966. Burr, who will be 69 this week, moved on to Ironside, where he remained a towering TV presence without ever getting to his feet. Hale, 64, raised her family and made appearances for Amana, the refrigerator company. William Talman, who played Hamilton Burger, died of lung cancer in 1968. William Hopper (son of Hedda), who was Paul Drake, died of a heart attack in 1970. Almost 20 years passed before Burr and Hale were reunited on the screen, although Katt says they always stayed in touch, "like college friends who don't see each other but think about each other a lot." Their reunion movie, Perry Mason Returns, was the highest rated made-for-TV film of 1985.

"On the opening day of shooting," says Hale, "we were in the courtroom. I was late getting on the set, and Ray was already there, busy with the script. He said, 'Morning,' walked to the front of the room, turned around, stopped, and we grinned at each other. We hadn't seen each other in this situation in 20 years. He said, 'I have never known so many years to evaporate before.' "

That 1985 movie brought viewers up to date. Mason had become an appellate court judge, and Street was employed as an executive assistant to a rather unpleasant corporation president. (You'd think Judge Mason could have gotten her a cushy patronage job.) When Street was accused of murdering her boss, Mason resigned from the bench to defend her. It was victory as usual. Katt, best known for his movie role in Carrie with Sissy Spacek and as the star of TV's The Greatest American Heroirom 1981 to 1983, was cast as Paul Drake Jr., more unpredictable, more fashionable, more flip and more daring than the Paul Drake of the '50s. He still performed the essential task, coming up with evidence within minutes of the closing credits. "It's ritual theater, a classic, in the same sense that a Western doesn't deviate," says Ron Satlof, director of both movies. "We're getting a little deeper into the characters, revealing a few idiosyncrasies, but we don't want to fool around too much. I'm not out to destroy something fabulous."

Hale and Burr may not be Tracy and Hepburn, but where there's smoke, there's warmth. Katt says they're more like Newman and Redford, maybe because their most intimate moment in the series was Delia rubbing Perry's shoulders. Offscreen, they were more like Abbott and Costello. For nine years Burr tormented her with a series of practical jokes that were a tribute to his ingenuity, fiendishness and affection.

He put a baby alligator in the drawer of her courtroom table, nailed her shoes to the floor, sent her roses with white mice inside, painted the walls of her dressing room black and inflated a huge weather balloon in her dressing room from a cylinder clearly marked "POISON GAS." She admits that all the gags benefited from exquisite timing: "He's a perfectionist, you know." Burr says her vulnerability was her rigid schedule—she was so predictable he could plan elaborate tricks, like the time he placed a fire alarm in her bathroom and timed it to go off just as she sat down.

"She was not unaccomplished in doing jokes of her own," he says, "and she would organize great things to even the score. Her planning was fierce. But she involved so many people and she invoked so many guilty looks, I usually found out."

His years as Perry Mason made Burr one of the most recognizable and admired actors in the world. He was transformed from a symbol of brutishness into one of idealism. On Ironside, he was able to exert more control, both financially and artistically. Looking back on those years, Burr says that doing the Perry Mason series was "the only thing I regret in my life—I'm sorry I spent nine years of my life tying myself down. I couldn't be married, have a family, even have friends." He had just turned 40 when the series went into production and was nearly 50 when it ended.

He had been married three times. His first wife died in 1943 in a plane crash, his second marriage in 1947 ended in divorce, his third wife died of cancer in 1955. He had one son who died of leukemia in 1953. That information is from records. He confirms it, shakes his head, says he will talk of himself but not of them. Today he lives on a farm in Sonoma County, Calif, with actor Robert Benevides, 56, his closest friend, companion and business associate for the past 24 years.

He is a very private, very loyal, very sentimental man. He says, "I'm not very actorish. I don't play actor 24 hours a day. When the job is done, I go on to be myself, whoever that is." He says the person he is believes in a Supreme Being but belongs to no organized church. He says he tries never to hurt anyone, "but I don't change things to get approval." He is rigidly responsible, recently appearing punctually for a 9 a.m. interview after shooting until 5 a.m. He says he is selfish, because he made a lot of money and spent a great deal of it making certain his life ran for his own pleasure and personal satisfaction. Benevides calls him one of the most generous men he knows. Burr is approachable, but he is best met with formality. Katt, 35, has known Burr almost his entire life. Asked if he'd ever play the same kind of practical joke on him that Burr played on his mother, he looked surprised and replied, "I don't know him that well."

To look at Burr is not to know him at all. He appears indestructible, and in fact describes himself as "an ox—that's the only way you can do 20 years of TV." Yet he is also enormously vulnerable. For years he lived on one of the Fiji islands, mostly because he found the people there more caring and respectful of others. He says, "People here always said to me, 'Why would you leave civilization to go to a place like Fiji?' Fiji is a far more civilized place than California or New York City." During the Korean and Vietnam wars, he made nearly 30 trips overseas. After visiting soldiers in hospitals, he would come home, telephone parents and tell them how well their sons were doing. "I did it until I got one answer, 'My boy's dead,' " he says.

His face sags into a terrible bleakness when he tells stories like that, stories that reveal how susceptible he is to hurt. He is willing to be understood, though. So he tells another painful story about himself.

"I once had a long relationship with a lady," he says, "and wherever I went in the world, if I saw something she would look great in, a gown or gloves or a ring, I always knew what color she liked most. I knew her size, what material she appreciated most, and I spent the whole time buying gifts for her. And I loved her very much. At Christmas she had 12 pairs of socks made for me. They were hand-knit and they were cashmere, but the socks were all green, the one color I didn't like, and they were all the wrong size...."

Pausing, he stares straight ahead. He says, "You find out how little you mean to someone." He is very quiet, and it is difficult to look into his face.

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