Excerpt: Hiding in Plain Sight

Raymond Burr biography, "Hiding in Plain Sight," explores the actor's life.

ByABC News via logo
May 26, 2008, 8:24 AM

May 26, 2008 — -- Raymond Burr, who played Perry Mason in the wildly popular television show "Perry Mason" and later in "Ironside," lived a secret gay life in Hollywood when such a revelation would destroy a career.

Burr invented a biography for himself that included a wife and son who'd died, and used his busy schedule as a way to explain why he wasn't married. But Burr and his partner, Robert Benevides, had a relationship for 35 years that was secret to most of the world except for a handful of close friends.

Michael Starr, a writer for the New York Post, chronicles Burr's life in a new Burr biography, "Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr." Read an excerpt from the book below.

Chapter Six: Howdy, Partner: A Little R&R

The number of magazine features and newspaper interviews focusing on Raymond's personal life grew as Perry Mason became more and more popular. The public was interested in this veteran actor who, save for what was portrayed in the media as his brief dalliance with Natalie Wood, had one of those faces everyone knew but couldn't quite match with a name.That was all changing now. Certainly Raymond's face was familiar, but now the tragic tale of his dead wife and dead son assumed a life of its own. Once Perry Mason took off, the dead-wife-and-son story was repeated time and again. Raymondcould have ended it all right then and there, blaming the mix-up on an overeager studio publicist or on his youthful showbiz naïveté. But he chose to continue perpetrating the fabrications by refusing to address them. He would answer the inevitable queries about his supposed marriages by reciting the facts of his brief union with Isabella Ward. If the questioning went any further in relation to Annette Sutherland or, God forbid, son Michael, he begged off with a terse, "I don't discuss that."

Reporters who were cowed by his presence followed his lead and quickly changed the subject. He repeated the "I don't discuss that" mantra so many times that writers eventually gave up asking him about it and relied on rehashing the story of his dead wife and son as fact.

"I know he was genuine in liking and disliking people; I don't think he hid that," recalled Perry Mason producer Art Marks. "But I just know he was putting on a show for the other things about wives and children. That was my gut feeling. I think the wives and the loving women, the Natalie Wood thing, were a bit of a cover."

Even Barbara Hale, one of Raymond's closest confidantes, had trouble piercing his protective armor. Or, if Raymond did confide in Barbara, he swore her to secrecy. According to Hale, "He had a great love for Barbara Stanwyck and for Natalie Wood . . . but he said, 'I was too old for [Wood], but oh, my gosh, Barbara.' And he said, 'My wife and little one, that was tragic,' but he said it was 'something I don't talk about that much.' And that's about as much as we talked about it."

Raymond's grueling Perry Mason shooting schedule would have made it difficult for him to have a romance with a memberof either sex. So he used his long hours on the set as a convenient excuse whenever the subject of remarrying was raised. "I am an unmarried man, as opposed to a single man," he lectured one reporter in November 1957. "A bachelor, accordingto the dictionary, is a man who has never been married. An unmarried man is not married at the moment. Many of these terms have fallen into disuse."

Okay, the reporter, pressed, but there's no wife waiting for you when you return home from the studio?"That is correct and it's a good thing because I'm working eighteen hours a day and sometimes don't come home from the studio at all," he answered. "I don't want to seem to avoid giving direct answers"—which is exactly what he was doing—"but I've played attorneys so many times I'm getting to be a curbstone lawyer."

Raymond was sleeping at the studio, and doing so was now part of his weekday routine while shooting a Perry Mason episode. Because of his backbreaking work schedule, it was often easier to sleep on the lot instead of making the hour-long drive back to Malibu or arising at 2:30 a.m. to make the drive from Malibu to Sunset-Western Fox Studios so he could get there in time to learn his lines for that day's shooting. Barbara Hale went home to her husband and kids at the end of the day. That wasn't an option for the show's star, who carried an enormous workload on his broad shoulders.

Unlike his costars, Raymond was in nearly every Perry Mason scene, and he was often memorizing fourteen or more pages of dialogue each day. The courtroom scenes alone were killers. To make his hectic schedule a little easier, he would often sleep at the studio during the week and would rise around 3:30 in the morning to go over that day's script. His companion in these wee-hours script readings was often Paul Kennedy, a young actor who described himself, rather strangely, as being "at liberty" to work with Raymond as a dialogue director (whatever that meant). Raymond averaged around four hours of sleep a night. Six-day workweeks were common, and weekends off were rare. Such was the life of a television star.As Perry Mason grew in popularity and CBS realized it had a hit on its hands, the network went to great lengths to appeaseits newest meal ticket. Raymond didn't sleep in just any old room at the studio; CBS furnished a three-room bungalowfor him on the lot, complete with all the amenities.

The renovated space, which was originally built for Shirley Temple, included a full kitchen, a combination living room/bedroom, a large dressing room with a cedar-lined walk-in closet, a modern bathroom, and a foyer used by his secretary, Bill Swann—an ex–concert singer and "a helluva good guy and rather fey in his way," according to Art Marks.

Midway through the first season of Perry Mason, CBS announced it was renewing the show. But Raymond was already beginning to sound the alarm. It had been a year since filming began on the first episode in April 1957. It was a period Raymond had devoted to working insane hours on a television show that not only put the reticent actor front and center, but kept him from entertaining the troops for the first time in years.