A life of trials
Raymond Burr in 'The Case Of The Unsmiling Buddha’
On the set of Tomorrow Never Comes, it is beginning to look as though tomorrow, in fact, never will. The production, wind-whipped, rain-lashed, against the muddy banks of the stinking Rivière-des-Prairies, winding through the city of Laval north of Montreal, is two weeks behind schedule, which, as it turns out, is not the least of the movie’s miseries. Oliver Reed, the hulking British star of Tomorrow, with the ghosts of Barrymore, Burton, O’Toole, and other legendary hell-raisers knocking merrily about in his head, jars the elegant somnolence of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, now breaking up his suite, now inviting his bodyguard cum stand-in, Reggie Prince, out into the night air to trade a few roundhouse swings.
Meantime, the predominantly French-Canadian crew plots a minor separation: the removal of
director Peter Collinson’s arrogant British head from his long, elegant neck. Collinson. Von Stroheim incarnate, lacking only the master’s jodhpurs, riding crop and talent, strides about screaming orders, hardly bothering to conceal his contempt for the crew. A hairdresser crosses his eyes momentarily and Collinson in a flash of temper has him fired. John Osborne, the angry young author of such 1950s kitchen-sink dramas as Look Back In A nger and The Entertainer, now older and greyer, has allowed anger to dissipate to the point where he is not above taking the odd minor movie role to pay off the British taxman. Still, he retains a certain pride, and declines the opportunity to roll around in the nude with Susan George, an actress with a specialty for performing in such scenes, revealing all for the cameras in Straw Dogs and Mandingo.
Amidst these tacky little melodramas, Raymond Burr is towering strength, an immense Buddha of a man who remains aloof from the sideshow, clinging to longstanding professionalism despite the shambles of the production that have forced him to hang around Montreal a week longer than he had planned (at a rumored $40,000 for each extra day), all but ignored. He is left to sit gloomy and alone in his hotel suite or else he is transported to
the set, deposited, then made to wait for hours before the cameras are finally ready to roll. The delays have made him furious, but he says nothing, while managing to exude a faintly disapproving air; Perry Mason retaining his cool after discovering Hamilton Burger in bed with Della Street.
The fact is all but lost in the pandemonium of trying to finish shooting, but Tomorrow Never Comes not only marks Burr’s return to movies, but also the first time he has performed professionally in his native Canada for at least 41 years. He has hardly suffered professionally in the interim. In the 1950s he established himself as one of television’s first and most durable stars, bestriding the narrow video world for 17 straight years, a dubious achievement perhaps, but one matched only by a handful of other stars: Ed Sullivan, James Arness, Lucille Ball, Lawrence Welk. For nine years he was Perry Mason, unbeatable attomey-at-law, then for eight more he played Ironside, the San Francisco police chief confined to a wheelchair— and the Neilsen top 10. Television rescued him from glowering villainy in 90 mostly forgettable B-pictures, made him a millionaire several times over, set him up on his own island in Fiji, and allowed him to construct a spectacular mansion atop one of the more beautifully terraced of the Hollywood Hills. Still, television has a short memory, and a star, even one who has survived almost two decades, is only as good as his last rating point, a hard truth Burr finally encountered last season when his third series, Kingston: Confidential was canceled after only 13 episodes.
One would think performers, having finally slipped the surly bonds of weekly television, would be content to settle back and count their money, but it’s never the case. Raymond Burr, 60 years old and left with nothing else, heads for Montreal, speaking vaguely of another television series and a couple of movies he may produce himself in Canada. “So it turned out that I had a free week,” he explains, “and I decided to come up here and see firsthand what the movie situation is like. You really cannot sit down over lunch or cocktails and find out what is happening. The easiest way to find out is to be with a production.” Yet the occasion of his return is hardly auspicious: “This role,” he concedes, “is not one I ordinarily would have chosen. The picture will not do great things for me, on the other hand it won’t do me any harm, either.”
Burr is cast as the chief of police in a small resort community besieged by a gunman holding his girl friend hostage. Laval in grubby autumn is no one’s idea of a resort, but the $1.3 million budget pays for 500 tons of sand strewn along the edge of the river where docks have also been constructed. None of the cosmetics quite hides the fact that Tomorrow Never Comes reads like a Police Story episode. On paper, Burr’s role lies flat and one-dimensional, the sort of thing he could have phoned in.
He is the consummate professional, however, looking almost desperately for the small nuances that will give his police chief some semblance of depth. “I’ve tried to build the part so that the police chief is a politician,” he explains. “He’s a manipulator of toys, the ultimate politician. This guy is a real bastard.”
Burr moves across the patio, heading for his dressing room, and Buddha is transformed into a great, grey elephant, moving his weight forward with ponderous yet majestic grace. The girth of the man is awesome; he weighs more than 300 pounds, and when he sits the fat bunches at his waist as if he is wearing an inflated inner tube under his trousers. Despite his massive size, there is a vulnerable quality about him that everyone connected with the production is quick to pick up on: a lonely fat man, carrying some unnamed tragedy in the deep folds of his baggy suits, but carrying it stoically. “Nobody knows me very well,” he maintains. He has developed the bearing of a man very much in control, not unlike the characters he plays on television.
But the suspicion of tragedy is not misplaced. He refuses to discuss the details, but his first wife, a pretty young English actress named Annette Sutherland, was aboard the same plane as actor Leslie Howard when the Germans shot it down off the coast of Portugal in 1943. The couple had one son, Michael, who until the end of the war was raised by his grandparents. He had no sooner rejoined his father in America than he died of leukemia at age 10. Burr’s second marriage ended in divorce, and his third wife died of cancer in 1955 on the eve of a delayed honeymoon in the Bahamas. Three wives and an only child gone in a little more than a decade. And fame had yet to catch up with him.
Raymond Burr is an intensely private man, so when he speaks about himself he plays a verbal game of hopscotch, neatly skipping over the small puddles of personal trauma, stirring into muddy ambiguity parts of his past, then abruptly becoming clear and pinpoint accurate about certain episodes he would like to see recorded in print. About his early childhood in British Columbia, for example, he is clear: “I can remember our summer home at Botany Bay, my great grandmother taught me how to swim. I think I’m part dolphin or whale. I remember the barnacles on the beach, and smoking wasps out of the chimney in order to use the summer house. 1 remember our house on Queen’s Boulevard in New Westminster where I was bom, and I remember that the street below us was called Royal and that was where my grandparents lived. I remember wonderful sleigh rides in winter down N ew Westminster’s steep streets.” He pauses, his huge eyes flicking about like searchlights, then he continues, his voice edged with sadness. “I remember much more about the years before I was six than I remember of the years from six to nine.” No wonder. When he was six, his mother, Minerva Smith Burr separated from his father, William Johnston Burr, an employee at a New Westminster hardware company. Minerva Smith Burr gathered up Raymond, his younger brother and sister, and moved to Vallejo, California, where a grandfather owned a hotel. “My mother was always in love with my father,” Burr says, “and he was always in love with her. It was kind of sad because they lived apart for many years and they were still in love with one another. My father finally came back to my mother in 1954, and they lived together until she died in the early Sixties. But I’m sorry for all those years they never spent together. They were two grand human beings and they should have been together.”
Raymond was dispatched to a military academy in San Rafael at the age of 11. Friends who knew him then say the experience was an unhappy one. Burr denies this although he concedes: “There were one or two problems there because I was fat, and school is always a trauma for a fat boy, or if you’re skinny or wear glasses. I was always in trouble with uniforms because I used to fall down a lot. I ripped the knees out of my trousers constantly, and I guess I destroyed the careful symmetry of the line.”
No matter. At age 14 the Depression had hit, and he was finished with school. Here, he becomes ambiguous, filling in the following years with a wide sweep of jobs: work on a sheep and cattle ranch in New Mexico, the Forestry Service in northern California, news jobs at a number of radio stations, enrollment at a clutch of universities.
He is vague about the roots of his fascination with acting. “I was taken to the theatre in church and school and liked it. I was very much involved in church productions.” He saw his first play in Toronto, a production of Death Takes A Holiday starring Philip Merivale, a well-known actor of the day who eventually influenced him greatly. He toured the world in Night Must Fall before World War II intervened. He joined the navy, was wounded in the South Pacific, and recuperated in time to appear in a short-lived Broadway play, Duke Of Darkness. Fine notices brought an RKO Pictures representative to New York waving a contract in his face. Most of the pictures he made in the next 10 years fall into that category. If there was a lousy movie being made around the RKO lot, Burr was almost certain to be in it, chewing up the scenery as the bad guy. Only A Place In The Sun, in which he played a district attorney, and Rear Window, the classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller that cast him as a white-haired wife murderer, are recalled with any affection. And Rear Window stands out for him more as an example of his sense of humor than as an acting achievement. Arriving in Europe after the film was released in 1954, he discovered he was getting billing above its stars, James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Advertisements often read: “See Raymond Burr in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.” “In 1965
we’d finished Perry Mason and I signed a deal with Universal and was given the number one dressing room on the lot. It was right next door to Mr. Hitchcock’s office; in fact my back window looked out onto it. I kept remembering that billing I had received in Europe years before, and thinking ... So one day I got a full-sized cut-out of Hitch, placed it at the window, fixed the draperies and it looked as if he was peering out my window. Then I got the girls who conduct the Universal tours to pass my dressing room and announce: ‘Oh, there’s Alfred Hithcock in Raymond Burr’s rear window.’ Well, 1 thought it was a tremendous joke, but after about six months, I think Mr. Hitchcock got a little annoyed.”
It is nearly midnight and Burr, as usual, is alone in an apartment above the patio. The apartment has been rented for him during the shooting, and it is adorned with paintings culled from the art section of
Woolworth’s—fishermen casting off at dawn, set into a gilt frame; nearby, a Madonna and her child stare balefully across the room. At the moment he is seated in a corner easy chair, a Salem cigarette in one hand, a Molson Canadian in the other, attempting for perhaps the 10.000th time to answer the question of what it is that has made him one of television’s most enduring stars. “I think probably I started a dialogue with the audience that’s been sustained over the years,” he says, finally. “And then of course both shows were about men who were really knights in shining armor. Both rescued people, both solved problems.” In 1957 no one was predicting stardom for a lumbering movie bad guy, even if he had just shed 125 pounds from a 335 pound frame. Burr came along at a propitious time, although he hardly realized it. And certainly the producers of Perry Mason, who had already tested 50 actors did not think him right for the part. But Erie Stanley Gardner, the prodigious author of the Mason books, considered him perfect. “He liked the way I looked,” Burr recalls. “He was very short, and I didn't know for a long time that he considered himself kind of like Perry Mason.
If television tends to reduce actors to pieces of furniture, and it does, then Burr was a good piece of furniture: comfortable, reassuring, not so radical in design that he would offend the audience that was asked to buy him season after season. Television never allowed him to become a great actor, but it created in him an intense sense of discipline: he always appeared for work on time, never missed a day, and truly cared for what he was doing. During the last two seasons of Ironside the scripts became so bad that he finally threw up his hands and quit. The ensuing trauma gave him a heart attack.
He has been alone ever since his third wife died, although there are plenty of rumors about other women, including, at one time, an affair with actress Natalie Wood. “I’ve had several very close friendships— some people might call them affairs—with ladies in our business over the years. And those affairs wouldn’t have done anybody any good if they had been made public. So I’ve always managed to keep everything fairly private.”
Certainly, there are few rumors concerning him on this Laval movie set. Reports arrive that Oliver Reed and his bodyguard, Reggie, have battled in an Indian restaurant. Peter Collinson screams across the set at an unwary lackey: “Wardrobe! Get out of my shot! Get the hell out!” Producer Julian Melzack witnessing the outburst grimaces with displeasure. Susan George complains angrily that someone is in her dressing room.
Burr watches this latest little melodrama, then wordlessly turns away. Later, when the other stars have retreated from the set, leaving the crew scurrying to ready the next shot, Raymond Burr remains, standing straight against the fierce wind, implying great strength that has been shaken and bent, but not broken. 0