Raymond Burr was a dynamic actor, fascinating man, Hollywood icon, and a complex personality on and off the screen. A so-called “closet” homosexual, his sexual orientation was fairly well known among the Hollywood elite, and somehow it wasn’t even much of a painful surprise when the general public learned about this facet of his life after his death in 1993.
The author delves into Burr’s life without nasty exposés but doesn’t ever seem to be able to depict Raymond Burr in all his multitude of skills and talents without harping on Burr’s lifelong battle of the bulge and his homosexual relationships. Granted, Burr’s weight certainly was a factor in his early castings as ‘the heavy’ in B movies, dark and menacing, but the fact that he overcame that superficial aspect of himself and grew into the idyllic good guy, Perry Mason, is a homage to his talent and his personal intensity. In addition, knowing that Burr had a lifelong love in his partner of 35 years, actor Robert Benevides, is truly a tribute to Burr’s ability to isolate his personal life successfully, since Hollywood relationships, heterosexual or otherwise, are not known for their durability.
Author Michael Seth Starr does a great job of giving the reader a solid background for understanding what made Raymond Burr tick. Remembering that the old-time Hollywood system made the studios all-powerful and the actors merely puppets, Starr delves into the hype and misleading information disseminated by the studio about Burr’s childhood and acting past. Unfortunately, Starr doesn’t seem to realize that this same propaganda by the studios was to blame for Burr’s hiding in plain sight as far as his homosexuality goes. Certainly, Hollywood of the ‘40s and ‘50s was not a place where such choices were publicized, whether it was about homosexual relationships or extramarital ones. To understand the studio system as it was and the manipulation they practiced would go far in showing how Burr and others of his time were forced into studio-mandated characterizations and associations, whether they were about fictitious marriages or dating experiences.
The rhythm and flow of Starr’s story is very readable, with thoughtful prose, good interviews with relevant Hollywood names (Barbara Hale, Robert Wagner, and Angela Lansbury), and a solid grasp of what makes readers interested. It would have been nice if more could have been written about Burr’s love of wine and orchids, and his personal tastes and interests sans the studio perspective. In addition, it would have been productive to focus on some of his personal relationships aside from his love life. Without a doubt, a man of Burr’s scope and talents had some depths and inspirations that are not discussed in this biography.
The photos provide another interesting perspective as well, although there may well be too many pictures about the darker “B” movie side of Burr’s acting - strangling, maiming, killing and otherwise mutilating other actors. Despite Starr’s focus on Burr’s weight, the pictures show him to be a handsome man with a comfortable mien that demonstrates Burr as at ease in his own skin.
Overall, this book is worthy of reading, if only to fill in gaps in the reader’s knowledge of this fine actor. The fact that Burr struggled with his weight is a common theme, in and out of Hollywood, and many can relate to that effort. It isn’t important to our understanding of Burr the man, or Burr the actor, any more than knowing he was homosexual defines him. Personality, talent, consideration for others, and a lifelong love are far more important things by which to remember Burr. Remember his TV roles in Perry Mason and Ironside and his gangster movies, with fondness and appreciation, and don’t judge him by studio-enforced rules or personal choices in life. He deserves better.