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. Raymond could 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 member of 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, according to 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 appease its newest meal ticket. Raymond didn't sleep in just any old room at the studio; CBS furnished a three-room bungalow for 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.
"Let's just say that the part isn't conducive to leisurely living the way I once knew it," Raymond said. "I only hope that I can regain my own identity, once I decide that Perry Mason and myself have come to the parting of the road. "Perry Mason has become a career for me . . . all I know is that I work, eat and sleep Perry Mason. It's a lucky thing I'm not married now. No woman would understand my work schedule."
It's a good bet that had Raymond been married, his wife would have had a difficult time understanding his growing relationship with Robert Benevides, a young actor Raymond met on the set of Perry Mason. The handsome Benevides, thirteen years Raymond's junior, had a small role in the 1957 sci-fi flick Monster That Challenged the World (billed as Bob Benevedes) but was having trouble finding steady work. He and Raymond hit it off immediately, reportedly after Robert delivered a script to Raymond, and their attraction to each other grew. Before too long, Robert—"a nice fellow and very cordial all the time," said Art Marks—was running errands for Raymond.
"Benevides started hanging around the set with Raymond. I didn't know who he was at the beginning, but I thought he was a friend of Ray's, and I asked Bill Swann . . . whether Benevides was gay, and he said he didn't know," said Marks. "But I know Ray liked [Benevides] and was supporting him in some things he wanted to do . . . Benevides was writing a script or something and Ray was in his corner, so to speak. He was like Ray's flunky. He would run errands, fly to Phoenix for him, pick something up and come back. Ray needed people like that, because he didn't have the time to do it."
Besides sharing the same initials, Robert and Raymond had somewhat similar backgrounds, geographically. Robert was born in Visalia, California, in February 1930. After graduating from Exeter Union High School, he studied theater at the University of California, Berkeley, Raymond's old stomping grounds, and served in the army during the Korean War. Stationed in Japan, he spent two years as an army combat engineer and reentered UC Berkeley after his discharge from the service, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1955. After knocking around Lake Tahoe, he hooked up with agent Sid Gold, who got him the job in Monster That Challenged the World and roles on television in West Point, Navy Log, and Death Valley Days.
Raymond and Robert were discreet in their relationship, and the Perry Mason cast was an extremely close and tight-knit group—ensuring that the relationship would stay insulated "within the family," even if no one was exactly sure if Raymond and Robert were lovers. Even though Raymond's homosexuality was known within the industry, the scandal magazines of the time, including Confidential, hadn't been sniffing around. They had bigger fish to fry, including Raymond's Horizons West costar Rock Hudson, who was one of their favorite targets.
Future movie director Arthur Hiller was behind the camera for several early Perry Mason episodes. He was chatting with Raymond on the last day of filming one of those episodes when Raymond mentioned he wanted to renovate his house in Malibu but couldn't find a good contractor. Hiller, who was adding on a few bedrooms to his own house in West Hollywood, recommended the two men who'd been doing the work—one of them a huge Raymond Burr fan—and arranged for the men to drive out to Malibu on a Sunday.
"When the workers came to my house on Monday, I asked them how the meeting went on Sunday and they said 'fine,' but I could sense something was off-base," Hiller said. "They didn't have the enthusiasm that they had before, or which I expected. I kept at them, 'What's the matter?' Turned out they were going to do the work, but when they knocked and Raymond opened the door, he was wearing a pink bathrobe. And that put the one who just loved him away."
Raymond had been living a closeted life in Hollywood for over a decade without even the whiff of anything "untoward" about his lifestyle. Part of that had to do with his status as a supporting actor in the shadows, out of the spotlight's direct glare. Leading-man types—Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, and Errol Flynn among them—were grist for the rumor mill, but Raymond had always flown under the radar.
His much-publicized relationship with Natalie Wood helped his straight-arrow image, and he was well liked among the major gossip columnists, especially Hedda Hopper. And with her sonny boy making a name for himself on Perry Mason, Hedda had extra incentive to ensure Raymond's name was kept away from "those" rumors. They could destroy a career. Hedda's devotion to Raymond is illustrated in a story told by one of his intimates. One of Raymond's male conquests wrote a letter to Hedda, threatening to expose the actor's secret. Hedda, in turn, wrote to Raymond to apprise him of the situation—and to tell him that his secret was safe. She would, she told him, "stand up and swear anything" for him.
For all intents and purposes, he was hiding in plain sight. In September 1954, Raymond attended the star-studded premiere of Judy Garland's A Star Is Born at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. It was considered a huge event, even by Hollywood's jaded standards, and nearly every A-list celebrity was there. Not only were there the usual newsreel cameras, but NBC also aired the gala red-carpet premiere live, for the first time ever. Jack Carson, who was featured in the movie, hosted the festivities, with emcee George Fisher asking questions of the two-hundred-plus stars in attendance. A crowd estimated at twenty thousand strong screamed, and flashbulbs popped as the stars, decked out in tuxedos and evening gowns, stepped up to the microphone to share a quick hello with Fisher.
Raymond, who was just back from another USO tour of Korea, followed Hedda Hopper up to the microphone as Fisher wiped his brow under the hot television lights. Fisher introduced Raymond, who was there with his date, USO castmate Evelyn Russell—and with a dark-haired, nervous-looking young man wearing a dark naval uniform, with a white sailor's cap angled jauntily on his head. Raymond introduced him to the television cameras as "Frank Vitti, a boy that's with us tonight right back from Korea." No one asked why young Mr. Vitti was attending a Hollywood movie premiere with two virtual strangers he seemed to have just met minutes before.
Three months later, the "Film Events" column in the Los Angeles Times had a few paragraphs about Raymond's upcoming visit to the Sixth Army Area in the western States. Once again, he was joined by Evelyn Russell, Bungy Hedley, Paramount's Donna Percy, and Frances Lansing—and Frank Vitti. Frank's name would pop up every now and again in magazine stories about Raymond throughout the next several years. He was described in magazine features as "Burr's nephew," who was living with Raymond in the Malibu house (where, apparently, he had his own bedroom). Later, he became the curator of Raymond's Beverly Hills art gallery.
The mainstream press, though, respected Raymond's privacy, even as Perry Mason took off and he became a household name. The few interviews Raymond did grant after 1957 focused on the show and on his burdensome workload. Several publications sent reporters to spend a day on the Perry Mason set, their stories complemented with the obligatory timeline illustrating Raymond's horrendous work hours. If a publication did delve into his personal life, it was a "Raymond Burr at home"–type feature highlighting the petting zoo at his Malibu ranch or the gourmet meals he cooked for close friends. He was, of course, always "too busy" to date anyone steadily.
"It's true that I could like to be married and after this series is over, perhaps I can take time to find someone," he told Screenland magazine in a 1959 article titled "No Time for Marriage." The article contained one of Raymond's longest published discourses on the subject of matrimony.
"So far I haven't met anyone and with an average fifteen-hour workday schedule, I hardly think it's probable . . . For the sake of my making my point, however, let's stretch our imagination and believe that the damn girl does exist," he said. "When would we go through the period of courtship, which is very important to a woman, especially—and to marriage? And when would we have time to get the marriage license?
"Seriously—quite seriously—I firmly believe that marriage is to be enjoyed and shared," he said. "Now I have a beautiful home at Malibu beach, but I'm lucky if I get to be in it over a weekend. So if I had a wife, I'd probably only get to see her over a weekend—unless of course she moved in here with me."
Raymond's talk of marriage was a smokescreen, but there was no denying the enormity of his Perry Mason workload and the effect it was having on his life. He wasn't the only television star carrying a show on his shoulders, but with Perry Mason's one-hour format and its signature courtroom scenes, he was on camera for a staggering 90 percent of each episode. And the Perry Mason cast and crew were shooting thirty-nine episodes per season in the early years—seventeen more episodes than today's standard one-hour television drama.
These work demands made outside employment nearly impossible, and while Raymond talked of movie projects, the show took over his life. Affair in Havana, the last movie he made before shooting the Perry Mason pilot, opened in October 1957, and he was making plans for phantom movies that never materialized. One project for which he had high hopes was Robert Blees's book Naked Is the Flesh. Raymond and agent Lester Salkow bought the rights to Blees's book with plans for turning it into a movie, which Raymond envisioned would be shot in Italy. The project died a quick death.
It would be three years before Raymond had the time or energy to act in another movie. He didn't entirely abandon stage work, though. In November 1959, he appeared with Perry Mason castmates Barbara Hale and William Hopper in a benefit performance of The Happiest Millionaire at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse in Alhambra.
By the end of its second season, Perry Mason was firmly entrenched in the public zeitgeist. It was averaging thirty million viewers a week and had cracked the Nielsen top twenty— which was ominous news for The Perry Como Show. By February 1959, Como was talking about leaving his Saturday-night perch to replace Milton Berle as the host of Kraft Music Hall, which aired Wednesday nights. He made the move in September.
Perry Mason's popularity expanded into other areas. Gardner continued to crank out his Perry Mason books, but the television franchise took on a life of its own. There were Perry Mason lunchboxes and board games. Sponsors began lining up to buy time on the show, and Raymond, in one instance, complained about the abundance of on-camera smoking when a cigarette company bought a chunk of time. Lawyers' groups began inviting Raymond to speak at their meetings, and he surprisingly accepted many of their invitations. That added weekend travel, often out of town, to his already-grueling schedule.
"He made a lot of speeches, and he became an officer of the Freedom Foundation in Washington and would travel there occasionally," said Art Marks. "He was very involved with law enforcement with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. He was very much into who he was as a character. Bar associations gave him all kinds of awards . . . and he spoke to them, whether it be in Kansas or Texas. He would fly in for one night and fly back and be shooting the next morning. I said, 'Ray, why do you put yourself through these things?' and he said, 'Because it's such a relief to get away. And I love it.' And he did enjoy it."
The Perry Mason cast grew extremely close and was known as one of the tightest-knit ensemble groups in the business. Raymond, Barbara Hale, William Talman, Ray Collins, and William Hopper all hung their personalized coffee mugs on a shared rack near the back of the set. Practical jokes abounded; sadness and joy were shared among cast and crew. "We saw children grow up and marriages and divorces," Hale said. "It was just amazing. We became very good friends. It was an extended family."
Raymond hosted dinners for the cast and crew out in Malibu, featuring sumptuous spreads of the best food and wine. An invitation to a Raymond Burr dinner party was a sought-after commodity, with the host whipping up dishes in his huge kitchen. A writer who was invited to one of Raymond's dinner parties described his host as "sitting at the head of the huge table like some lustily benevolent medieval squire, tossing his head with raucous laughter at some guest's joke."
Jokes, too, were used on the set to ease the tension and the long, boring hours. Perry Mason was, in essence, an hour-long movie being filmed each week. Tempers flared often, and Raymond used practical jokes to lighten the mood and to fend off the stifling boredom between shots. More often than not, he was the jokes' instigator. And more often than not, Barbara Hale was his target. The stories are legion: Raymond putting a baby alligator in a drawer on the set, awaiting Barbara's inevitable shriek; Raymond filling Barbara's entire dressing room and bathroom, floor to ceiling, with flowers; Raymond enlarging one of Barbara's old studio beefcake shots showing her in a leopard-print bikini and placing it behind the judge's chair; Raymond camouflaging Barbara's car under some lumber; Raymond filling Barbara's commode with green Jell-O. And on and on.
"It went on for weeks. He just never stopped playing gags," Hale said. "He once took everything out of my dressing room. He had a truck come and get it. It went on for two weeks [and] then I said, 'Raymond, this is enough. You get those things back to me or I am going to get a real lawyer.' And he said, 'Nobody beats Perry Mason!' Anyway, he brought it back, and they called me from the set and a moving van was at the gate. He had given me the bill."
The closeness wasn't limited to the Perry Mason costars. Raymond treated everyone on the set as family. The stories about his practical jokes were matched only by the stories of his acts of kindness and benevolence. When he heard that veteran character actor George Stone was ill—nearly blind and unable to find steady work—Raymond, who didn't know Stone, hired him as the Perry Mason court clerk. The role required nothing more of Stone than to sit in a chair at a desk and look busy. When Perry Mason makeup man Irving Pringle collapsed on the set from a hemorrhaging ulcer, Raymond "took him to the hospital, checked him in and was up all night with him," according to Gail Patrick Jackson. When he heard from his secretary Bill Swann that a little girl in Massachusetts, who'd been horribly burned, preferred an autographed photo of her hero Perry Mason to a letter from President Eisenhower, he flew to the hospital to visit her. He was furious when photographers showed up to document the occasion and refused to let his picture be taken.
"There were no secrets about the show. We were an open book," said Art Marks. "There were no actor problems, really. There was no animosity between one actor, one director, or any of that kind of crap. First of all, we wouldn't allow it. If an actor was a problem, that actor was written off, or told off, or corrected. And Ray was the first to say, 'I don't want any of that around. I want a family.' "
Raymond lent money to anyone who asked, grew close to Barbara Hale's children (including future costar William Katt), and contributed generously to charitable causes. He threw lavish dinner parties for friends, sponsored foster children from Korea and Italy, and puttered around the house in Malibu on his days off, tending to his menagerie. And, along the way, he invented another wife.