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The Amazing Mr. Raymond Burr

Raymond Burr finished a scene from a “Perry Mason” episode. walked into his dressing room, changed into a loose fitting sport shirt and donned a pair of jeans. He then sat down to tackle the voluminous heap of mail lying on the floor in his studio dressing room-apartment.

Many stars turn their fan mail over to their secretaries or to a service without even bothering to read it, but not Ray. He receives about 3500 letters a week—and he answers personally all of those that require replies. As a rule, he answers about 600 a week, which is a mammoth undertaking considering his heavy TV schedule for his CBS-TY show.

When Ray was asked what were some of his most interesting letters, he said in his friendly, vital way, “There are many, but this is my prize one.”

He handed over a typewritten letter and as | started to read it, I thought he was kidding. It was a vitriolic little epic.

“What’s more,” Ray said bluntly, “I want you to print this one. It’s my favorite.”

So, just to prove that Ray is an honest kind of guy who can take it. here is the letter:

“Dear Mr. Burr:

I am taking my lunch hour to write and tell you what a big, fat phony I think you are. The reason being—I saw you at the end of the big parade which was held here in San Francisco a month or so ago. When those young boys ran over to get your autograph, you very rudely brushed them off and dashed off to join the politicians on the balcony. Are you running for something, Mr. Burr? If all those cowboy stars can spare the time to sign autographs, then you can too. After all, those stars are a lot more popular with the kids than you are; and you should be flattered that they even asked you. Who do you think you are?

I read an article about you in a movie magazine several months ago and such ‘slush!’ A great big man like you pictured with a cat—a boxer dog, yes—but a cat, ugh!

For a long time I have wanted to write you a fan letter, but this isn’t what I had in mind. I wanted to tell you what an excellent actor I think you are. In the picture, ‘Rear Window’, I didn’t even recognize you until you spoke. And I couldn’t bear you in the picture where you kidnapped Natalie Wood; and in other pictures you were the best. You make a very convincing ‘heavy’ and a delightful wolf. I always made a special effort to see every picture you were in and have always felt that you didn’t get big enough roles. Now that you’re on top, you feel you can afford to thumb your nose at the audience.

I know it is pointless to spend my time writing to a movie star, but I just had to get it off my chest—if just to your secretary.”

The letter bore the signature of an irate lady fan.

“I don’t plan on answering that letter for obvious reasons,” Ray said, “but I would like to give that lady about 1,000 cats. As for my posing with one, this was the photographer’s idea. I like animals although I’m not crazy about felines, but someone gave me a Siamese kitten and did you ever hear of anybody throwing a kitten outside in the cold? At my home in Malibu, I have quite a menagerie, though—six dogs (five Silkies and a St. Bernard), a burro, pigeons, doves, turtles, and other assorted wild life.

“As for the autograph bit, I had gone to San Francisco especially to appear in the parade which was part of the festivities for the first Fiesta held in that city. Beside my car, which was in the front section of the parade, were two Boy Scouts holding up a banner identifying me and the show, but the wind was so terrific that it kept knocking the banner and the boys down, so I stopped the car, rolled up the sign and put it and the boys in the car with me. I wasn’t going to have those kids knocked around. As a result, during most of the parade, nobody knew who I was until the car came close enough for them to get a look at my face.

“When we got to the steps where civic dignitaries were gathered, there were about 5,000 people lined up and I had those two Boy Scouts with me. I wasn’t going to stop and get them crushed in the mob. Also, if I had taken time to sign even one autograph, I’d have had to sign about 5,000 since I don’t believe in just giving out one or two. This would also have stopped the rest of the parade and I didn’t feel I had any right to do that. Such is the story—take it or leave it. Believe me, I’m not anti-autographs, under the right conditions.”

Ray was reading more letters and a few he turned over to me. Some were rather ecstatic in the romantic department—blushingly so—and others offered illuminating opinions of his work on the show. A good part of his mail comes from people who refuse to believe he is merely an actor playing a lawyer because they ask him to handle cases for them. Others want to apply for the job as his secretary. There are, of course, some proposals of marriage. He handles each letter in the way he believes it deserves.

There is a story that proves how Ray regards his fans—although it is one that was never publicized. A short time ago, he got a letter informing him that a little girl of about eight who was a fan of his was seriously burned over two-thirds of her body. She was in a hospital in Worcester, Mass., and it wasn’t certain whether or not she would survive the tragedy.

Ray was heading for New York the weekend after he got the letter and he decided to go to Worcester to see the child. Even though it was stormy and bad flying conditions prevailed in the East, and he had to be back in Hollywood Monday morning, he made the trip and spent quite a long time with the grateful girl, cheering her up. At last reports, she was recovering, and undoubtedly Ray’s visit had much to do with that recovery.

Ray is unique in the Hollywoodlands in that he spends as much time as he does tending to such things as mail. Not only has he the most rugged schedule of any star on TV but he is also constantly making appearances at benefits and making speeches before legal organizations. In fact, he is now booked for talks through 1960. He works on the set until around seven or later, tends to his business matters, and gets to sleep when he can. He is up each morning about three to go over his lines for the day’s shooting with his dialogue director. He has no other time to learn his script.

He lives at the studio and goes to his Malibu home only on weekends. He usually arrives there about 3:45 on Saturday afternoons and he’s on his way back to the studio at three a.m. Monday morning.

Such a schedule has, of course, had its effect on his health. The first couple of years he starred as “Perry Mason”, he had serious trouble with his voice. And not too long ago he was in the hospital suffering from exhaustion. He still is not entirely well, but he won’t slow down: And he won’t turn down any reasonable offer for his services.

Last Thanksgiving, for instance, he agreed to do a full-length play, “The Happiest Millionaire”, for a two-night run as a benefit for a needy parochial school. He recruited Barbara Hale, Bill Talman, and Barbara’s husband, Bill Williams, as cast members. They worked on “Perry Mason” during the day and rehearsed the play at night. It was an exhausting set-up, especially for Ray who only had three days to learn one of the longest parts ever written for an actor. It didn’t matter that he was terribly fatigued—all that counted was that $17.000 was raised for the nuns in those two nights—of which there was a net of $11,000 after production expenses were paid. The actors got nothing—except satisfaction—for their efforts.

So why does Ray work so hard?

He answers with a grin, “Because I’m three-fourths idiot.”

Ray simply loves acting and he wants to do a good job. He is especially firm about the quality of “Perry Mason”.

“It’s been said that I own part of the show,” Ray remarked. “This is decidedly not true. Each year I work harder on it, though, than I did the preceding year. It’s not that I’m overwhelmed with the greatness of the program because I do feel I could do it better. And I hope that the people who have the power to make it better don’t forget that. Ive never shown any temperament on the show but if I ever see anyone letting down on the quality, believe me, I’ll be heard from then! And I want you to quote that!” he said firmly.

Acting isn’t his only interest. He has an inveterate thirst for knowledge and he feels his role as an actor has done much to add to his learning. When he once played George Washington in the play, “Valley Forge”, he did such intensive research he became an authority on the first president. He learned much about British history when he did Henry VIII in “Anne Of A Thousand Days”. And when he played Gauguin he read everything about the painter and even came into possession of two rare letters written by him.

Ray is also quite an avid collector of paintings—and he intends to start his own gallery in a year or so. He is forever on the lookout for new artists and their works.

Once, when he gallery in New Orleans he a picture he especially liked, one by a renowned painter which had belonged to a friend of his. He asked the manager if he could buy it but was told he couldn’t.

“Then why do you have it here on display?” Ray asked.

He was told that it had been part of a collection owned by a prominent local personality. The man had been in a serious accident and thought he was going to die, so he decided to sell his paintings to his friends at very nominal figures—he sort of willed them away. Ray continued to ask to buy the picture so finally the manager said, “All right—I‘ll give it to you for what I paid for it—$500.”

The picture has since been appraised for $28,000.

Ray also collects antiques and he was especially enthusiastic about a rare piece called a petrin which, to the uninitiated, means a dough trough.

“It’s shaped like a casket on a stand,” he said. “And it’s about 200 years old. In the old days bread was made on it and then placed inside to rise. You can guess what I plan to do with it.”

He is going to make bread in it himself, of course!

Ray is quite a cook and although he has help. he prepares all the meals at his home. Recently, he bought a restaurant-like stove with two ovens, eight burners, and a grill. As he said enthusiastically. “I can make 50 loaves of bread in it.”

This is a man who never finds life dull. A man who has never lost his perspective, whose integrity cannot be questioned. It is because he is the kind of honest. unpretentious individual he is that his performance as Perry Mason has become a favorite of so many people. Its easy to understand why his fans write to him as though he were a friend. That’s how he looks on them.

It was close to midnight when Ray finished his work that night. He was tired, so much so that he spoke haltingly, as though he couldn’t think, but there was still that tremendous drive and that wonderful sense of humor.

“Got to take a nap now,” he said airily. “Three o’clock in the morning does come early, you know.”

No wonder Hollywood shakes its head and continues to ask. “How does he do it?” No one, not even Ray Burr, has the answer to that one.





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