Hollywood star Raymond Burr deserves three different biographies: One for things that are true, one for things that might be true, and one for things that were bald-faced lies. Burr, star of TV’s Perry Mason, took a special kind of interest in creating a false history—even creating fake families. The problem is, it’s hard to say which parts are false and which are true. So, let’s dig deep and sort the truth from fiction with the Man of a Thousand Lies.
1. He Started Out Ordinary
Let’s start with what we do know. We know that on May 21, 1917, a boy named William Raymond Stacy Burr came into this world in New Westminster, BC, Canada. There’s no reason to bother lying about his early childhood, because it was just so ordinary. His father was a hardware salesman and his mother taught piano. Although the more I hear it, the more it does sound a little made up—it’s just that bland.
Well, it may have started out bland, but Raymond Burr’s life quickly got unbelievable.
2. There Was A Dramatic Move
As mentioned, Burr’s father was a hardware salesman. But when Burr was still a small child, he reports that the family suddenly packed up and moved to China. Somehow, Mr. Burr had had a drastic change of employment. He’d been a rather boring-sounding guy who sold tools, and now he was some kind of agent. Biographers mostly accept this fact about Burr’s life as the truth, but with a man like Burr, you never really know.
Regardless, we do know what was in store for Burr next: a very real tragedy.
3. He Faced An Early Hardship
The Burr family was soon back in New Westminster, a suburb of Vancouver. Then, when Raymond was six, his life took a dramatic turn. Poor Burr faced the slow destruction of his parent’s marriage—and then it got worse. His mom packed up the three kids and moved to California, where he would have little contact with his father. Vallejo wasn’t exactly Hollywood—not even close—but for a kid with show business dreams, it was a start.
Of course, this is where things get foggy again.
4. He Started Young
Raymond Burr claims that when he was just 12 years old, he quit school and started looking for work. This could be true, as the Great Depression had started, and things must have been tough for a single mother with three children. Burr said that he went to New Mexico and got a job as a ranch hand: at 12 years old? Well, this could also be true, because Burr later confessed that he was large for his age, and people at the ranch mistook him for an adult.
So, Burr is 12 years old working at a ranch, then what?
5. He Was In Three Places At Once
Some say Burr never returned to school, and yet others contend he graduated from Berkeley High. Another source says that Burr started working in the theater in Vancouver around the same time he had been working as a ranch hand in New Mexico. Clearly, he couldn’t have been in two places at one time—let alone three.
There was only one life for a man as duplicitous as Raymond Burr: He was going to be an actor.
6. He May Have Gone On Tour
During the worst of the Depression, Burr decided he wanted to attend the Pasadena Playhouse acting school, but he couldn’t find the cash. So, at 17 years of age, he somehow made his way to the other side of the continent and joined an unnamed theater troupe in Toronto. He toured Canada, then joined a troop that took him to Australia, England, and even India. What an amazing tour it must have been—if it actually happened. There are, however, no records of any of these activities.
What Burr did next, we know is true.
7. He Was A Big Boy
There is proof that Burr did eventually join the Pasadena Playhouse in 1937, which soon led to appearances on Broadway and on the radio. Burr was a large child—12 lbs at birth—and, obviously, an even larger adult. Always self-conscious about his body, Burr started taking roles on the radio, where size didn’t matter. His deep voice allowed him to play romantic leads—something he never got on stage because he didn’t have the body type they wanted.
Burr could have continued on as a radio actor—and been quite comfortable—but then a life-changing opportunity came his way.
8. His Plus Was A Plus
In the mid-1940s, the film noir period of Hollywood was just beginning. While Hollywood had plenty of hunky leading men, they needed actors to play big, bruising thugs. Raymond Burr found that his plus size was a plus when it came to playing the heavy—literally. Burr had struck Hollywood gold, and, ironically, it was all because of his extra weight.
But Raymond Burr’s success only masked his hidden pain.
9. He Was Bitter
Years later, Burr bitterly called himself the “fat heavy” of film noir. He was in his twenties and the characters he played were much older than he actually was. In fact, something astonishing started happening: He would sometimes even play the father to an actor younger than he was. The way Burr saw it, it was all because of his weight. He would always be the villain, and there was something the villain never got—the girl.
He was in a rut, and it was only going to get worse.
10. He Wanted To Get The Girl
Even though Burr was getting tons of work as a villain in both film noir and Westerns, Burr wanted to play the lead. He’d already had played in films alongside greats such as Barbara Stanwyck and Claudette Colbert, but his character never got the girl. In fact, the women in these films usually ran away from him in horror. He often said that he was quite aware that he was not attractive.
Pretty soon, his self-esteem hit rock bottom.
11. He Went Ape
It was true that Burr’s characters never walked off into the sunset with a beautiful starlet. In one film, however, he again didn’t get the girl, but he did get the gorilla. In 1954, Burr appeared alongside Academy Award-winning actress Anne Bancroft in Gorilla at Large. This 3-D movie was—according to TV Guide anyway—unintentionally hilarious, but at least it was a change for Burr.
Burr had tasted what it was like to be a lead actor, and to continue doing it, he went from Gorilla to Godzilla.
12. He Was An Americanization
In 1954, a new kind of film was taking Japan by storm, starring a giant lizard named Godzilla. Film distributor Edmund Goldman had an idea that it would do well in America, but at the time, American audiences weren’t keen on watching foreign films. That’s when Goldman had an unorthodox idea. He would Americanize the film by making just two tweaks: changing the title from Godzilla to Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and inserting an American actor into the already finished movie.
I bet you can guess by now which actor he chose.
13. They Put Him In
Putting Raymond Burr into an already finished film was going to be tough. Doing it in a couple of days? Even tougher. They decided they would only redo the scenes that Burr was in, and they decided to do it in America. They rebuilt the sets and hired Asian American actors to double for the ones already in the film. The pressure on Burr was intense, but leave it to the constantly fabricating Burr to exaggerate even this.
14. He Had One Day
The story goes that Burr’s contract was for just one day’s work on Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. The contract said one day, but the money-pinching producers read it literally: 24 hours. This was the reason why the filming was so intense. Burr had to do it all in 24 straight hours. It certainly is a great story—too bad it’s not true.
15. He Told Several Tales
Burr told more than one story about his time filming Godzilla, King of the Monsters! One is the “working 24 straight hours” story. Later, he claimed he actually worked for six days, not one—but he still wasn’t done spinning yarns. He’d occasionally claim he spent months in Japan preparing for the role, which turned out to be completely untrue. Classic Raymond!
Half of what Burr claimed about the film was a complete lie—but that only makes this next fact even stranger.
16. It Wasn’t Beneath Him
Many people thought it was weird that Burr was participating in a “creature feature” in the first place. He’d already established a solid career playing noir bad guys, and this Godzilla thing seemed beneath him. Of course, many assumed it was just a cash grab for Burr. The truth, however, was even more surprising: He actually enjoyed making the movie and was proud of his work.
Maybe Hollywood could tell that Burr was coming into himself—because his life was about to change forever.
17. He Got Called In
Before playing opposite Godzilla, Burr had played a supporting role as a district attorney in A Place in the Sun, with heartthrobs Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Five years later, Burr’s courtroom performance caught the eye of a producer. He was preparing to adapt a series of novels written by Erle Stanley Gardner, starring a lawyer named Perry Mason.
Burr got the call to audition—not for the lead, but for a supporting character. But he was in for a big surprise.
18. He Was Almost Perfect
Even though it was for a supporting role on a TV show, arguably beneath him by then, Burr went to the audition. The producer of Perry Mason, Gail Patrick Jackson, took one look at Burr’s audition and realized something: Burr wasn’t right for the district attorney role. He was, in fact, perfect for Perry Mason himself. Well…not quite perfect.
Before giving Burr the role, Jackson had one request—and it was a doozy.
19. He Crashed
Jackson wanted Raymond Burr to lose weight. Now, Burr had struggled with his weight for most of his life, blaming it for the types of roles he got. But now, Burr was up for a lead part—and nothing was going to stop him. Burr went on a brutal crash diet, but he came back a slimmer man to do one final test. When the author of the Perry Mason novels saw Burr’s test clip, he stood up and stated: “That’s Perry Mason.”
Burr got the role, and he would never be the same again.
20. He Got Famous
The network had high hopes for Perry Mason, but no one knew just how huge it would be. The series ran from 1957 to 1966 and had an audience of 30 million every Saturday night. Burr, who hadn’t really stood out in his previous supporting film roles, was now receiving 3,000 letters from fans per week. Burr must have been on cloud nine as America was finally in love with Raymond Burr.
Of course, fans wanted to know all about him—and that’s when the trouble started.
21. He’d Given Marriage A Try
More than anything, the public wanted to know about Raymond Burr’s love life—and he was more than forthcoming. He told reporters that about 10 years before he’d started playing Perry Mason, he married a fellow actress named Isabella Ward. He said that the two lived for a short time in the basement of Burr’s grandparent’s house in Hollywood. For some unknown reason, the marriage abruptly ended only a few months after the wedding. Ward packed her bags and returned to Delaware, where she was from. As far as we know, all of that is actually true!
The only problem is, Burr didn’t stop his story there…
22. He Said She Crashed
For some reason, Burr thought he should create a second wife. This woman was Annette Sutherland, and she apparently passed in a plane crash. Burr even gave the story some details so it sounded more true. He said it was the same plane crash that movie idol Leslie Howard lost his life in. But that was his first mistake. You see, there was no Annette Sutherland on the flight with Leslie Howard, and people could easily prove that.
Worse still, Burr had also created something else: a son.
23. He Produced A Son
Burr claimed that he and Sutherland had a child. Of course, fans and reporters wanted to see this child, so Burr had to think fast. His “solution” was disturbing: He told people his son had passed from leukemia at just 10 years old. According to the stories, the star of Perry Mason wasn’t just a great actor; he was a sad widower with a deceased son. But the problem was, it was all a lie.
Unfortunately, the more Burr said, the more curious reporters became.
24. He Dated Around
Another story Burr used to keep reporters at bay was about Natalie Wood. Burr had appeared with Wood in the 1956 film A Cry in the Night, playing a creepy old man who abducted the teenage Wood. Burr and Wood went on one of those studio-organized “dates” meant to keep fans reading gossip columns and seeing movies. But no one was buying it…
25. They Weren’t A Match
Burr was 38 and—as you know by now, a big guy—while tiny Wood was just 17 at the time. They were such an odd couple people saw right through the publicity stunt. Burr, however, kept mentioning it in order to look like he’d dated around a bit even though they went out only once. But there was something odd about his interest in Wood.
26. He Was Jealous
Warner Bros also used Wood as a cover for another Hollywood star that needed a fake date: Tab Hunter. Hunter was blond and had boy-next-door looks and, being only eight years older than Wood, seemed a more likely companion. It turned out that Burr was a little jealous of Hunter and was disappointed that Warner Bros had set her up with him as well. He wanted Wood as his fake girlfriend all to himself.
But why did Burr need a fake girlfriend at all?
27. He Got A Mantra
As the popularity of Perry Mason soared, fans and reporters wanted to know more about Raymond Burr’s private life. Burr was likely regretting his creation of a fake marriage and son, but had no choice but to carry on with the lie. It was then that Burr came up with his sound bite: “I don’t discuss that.” He said it so often you could call it his mantra. The reporters, however, pushed for more information—and Burr just did what he did best.
28. He Was The Perfect Imaginary Dad
Much later, Burr told Parade magazine that when he learned that his son had leukemia, he did something that any perfect dad would do: took his son on a final trip. Burr said that he wanted his son to see how beautiful America was, so he took him on a trip across the country. This trip apparently took place in 1952—though his publicist later claimed he worked through that entire year with no vacation.
Now Burr’s lies were making him look like the perfect father—until they finally started to come back to haunt him.
29. There Were Documents
In 1961, a member of the American Bar Association reportedly gave documents to the FBI about Burr. What could they possibly have to say about the mild-mannered Burr? The documents said that Burr was a “noted sex deviant.” This sent Burr into a panic—so he responded by going deeper into lies and getting deeper into trouble.
30. He Did It Again
Burr’s “I don’t discuss that,” mantra somehow was working. But, just when reporters and fans gave up on knowing more about the man behind Perry Mason, Burr did something truly ridiculous: He made up another wife, Laura Andrina Morgan. But what happened to her? Three guesses…Burr concocted another cancer sob story leaving him a widower once again. Clearly, Raymond Burr just could not stop the lying.
But the thing is: For Raymond Burr, the truth was even more dangerous than the lies.
31. It Was A Special Delivery
While starring in Perry Mason, Burr was working a grueling schedule. On one of his rare moments of rest, Burr heard a knock at his dressing room door. Behind the door stood Robert Benevides, a handsome, struggling actor who was there to deliver a script. Burr took a long look at the strapping young man and decided to hire him as his assistant.
Before too long, colleagues on Perry Mason saw that the two men were a little more than close.
32. The Case Was Solved
If we’re looking for a motive for Burr’s steady stream of untruths, we needn’t look further. Burr’s friendship with Benevides made something painfully clear: Burr was gay. The invented wives and son were all a not-so-clever smokescreen for prying reporters. But now that Burr had found someone he wanted to be with, surely he could finally come clean, right? If you believe that, you don’t know Hollywood.
33. He Had To Hide
Remember, Burr’s career began in the 1940s, and his popularity soared well into the 1970s. These were not easy times for gay performers. Back then, actors didn’t come out because it would end their careers. Worse still was the possibility of a prying reporter outing the actor. Look at the lives of other leading men like Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter. The rumors about them being gay were never-ending.
Burr had avoided the gay rumors mostly because he’d never been a leading man. Once he was Perry Mason, though, he was in the spotlight—and very vulnerable.
34. She Knew The Truth
Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wielded a lot of power in Hollywood. Hopper knew pretty much everything that was happening in celebs’ bedrooms, but she didn’t always share it with her reading public. Before Burr met Benevides, he had a fling with an unnamed man. The fling contacted Hopper and threatened to go public with his story.
Hopper had a headline-grabbing story on her hands—one that could end Burr’s career. But this time, Raymond Burr got lucky.
35. She Didn’t Tell
Instead of broadcasting Burr’s indiscretion to the world, Hopper did something honorable. She wrote a letter to Burr telling him about what his fling was threatening. Included in the letter was Hopper’s promise to keep his story a secret and an offer to “stand up and swear anything” for him. You see, Hopper had a soft spot for Burr even before he was Perry Mason.
Burr was lucky to have some powerful people in his corner, but how long could he keep his identity a secret?
36. He Had An Excuse
In 1959, Burr gave a rare interview to Screenland magazine, where he seemed very well prepared to discuss his love life—or the lack of one. Burr gave a very detailed explanation of how busy he was with Perry Mason. He simply didn’t have the time for a wife. This didn’t explain, of course, how other TV stars seemed to have time for a romantic partner, sometimes even more than one.
Clearly, Burr was willing to say anything to explain his single lifestyle, but his lies would catch up with him sooner or later.
37. He Went Back To Back
Burr never remarried after that first, brief union. His excuse of having no time to find a mate was a valid one, but what about when Perry Mason ended? Would he have time then? Well, the show did eventually end in 1966. Burr didn’t, however, start looking for a spouse. He did the opposite: He started a new series. Ironside started one year after Perry Mason ended and ran for nine years.
Again, Burr had an excuse for being single—but nothing lasts forever.
38. He Played It Twice
Burr was now a respected actor in both film and TV roles, and suddenly received an odd offer: make a sequel to Godzilla, King of the Monsters! The original role was now almost three decades behind him, and Burr had come a long way since then. To everyone’s surprise, Burr accepted the role in Godzilla 1985. Again people accused Burr of selling out for the cash—and again it wasn’t true.
39. He Fought The Monster Again
Burr played the same character as in the original Godzilla film, but that created a problem: His name was Steve Martin. By now there was another famous Steve Martin, so they just called Burr “Steve” or “Mr. Martin.” Regardless of his character’s name, Burr once again enjoyed making the creature feature, and endeared himself to legions of Godzilla fans even more.
40. He Kept Himself Busy
Even after Ironside ended, Burr continued to work in other TV series, fueling his “can’t find a wife” story. Most of these series did not last. It wasn’t until 1985 that Burr found success, and it was by going back to the beginning. He started making Perry Mason TV movies and they were immensely popular.
Once again, being Perry Mason was keeping Burr busy, and it kept the rumors that surrounded a man of his age being single at bay. In truth, Burr wasn’t single at all.
41. He Hid The Truth
Remember the strapping man who delivered the script to Burr? This was back somewhere in the 1960s and the man’s name was Robert Benevides. Through the rest of Perry Mason, all through Ironside and every other project, Burr was in a committed relationship with Benevides. Friends and colleagues knew Benevides as Burr’s close companion and, in fact, they were together for the rest of Burr’s life.
But how did they manage to hide their love for so long?
42. They Went Into Business
Burr lived with Benevides on a large estate in Sonoma County in California. All that time, if anyone asked, Burr simply referred to Benevides as his business partner and friend—both of which were true. To make it clear that they were not romantic partners, they even started a business together. In the 1980s they started a winery. But surely, these two would be able to go public eventually, right?
Again: If you believe that, you don’t know Hollywood.
43. He Had No Choice
Hollywood and being gay have always made poor bedfellows. Even now, coming out of the closet has massive career implications. Imagine how it was back in the 1960s and 1970s. There was an expression for the outcome of actors coming out: career suicide. Burr wanted to continue his career as a TV star, so what choice did he have but to hide his true self, and his partner, from outsiders?
Sadly, Burr never had the chance to acknowledge that Benevides was his spouse.
44. He Became Ill
In 1993, Burr was filming yet another Perry Mason movie and became sick. His doctors reported to the media that it was because of a renal cell carcinoma that had spread to his liver. There was nothing they could do: By then, the cancer was inoperable. However, at least Burr had the chance, before passing, to enjoy his last days with friends. He even hosted a few “farewell” parties.
After he said goodbye to everyone who was important to him, Raymond Burr passed on September 12, 1993.
45. There Was Proof
For anyone who doubted that Burr and Benevides were in a committed relationship, there was Burr’s final will to show the truth. Burr left everything to Benevides and left his family completely out of the will—a total some speculated totaled was over $30 million. Some members of Burr’s biological family attempted to overturn the will, but had no success. Burr’s commitment to Benevides was just that strong.
46. He Was A True Star
In his lifetime, Burr received a huge number of awards and appeared on best lists in many publications. For Perry Mason, he won two Emmys, plus the six nominations he garnered for Ironside. In 1960, he got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and one on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2009—and also a Canadian stamp in 2008. TV Guide named him their Favorite Male Performer in 1960 and then, in 1996, put him on their list of 50 Greatest TV Stars of all time.
47. He Had One Regret
Throughout his life, Burr had been a gracious and generous man. He sponsored a total of 26 orphans and made financial contributions to various charities. He had only one regret. Near the end of his life, Burr told TV Guide that he wished he hadn’t accepted the role of Perry Mason. He said the character took over his life, and that being Mason burdened him. It didn’t do much for his love life either. After his passing, TV Guide finally called Benevides Burr’s “constant companion”—a huge step up from “just a friend.”
Incidentally, Benevides continues to run the winery. As a tribute to his late partner, he renamed it Raymond Burr Vineyards.
48. He Had Two Dates
A decade before meeting Benevides, Burr did a USO tour entertaining American servicemen in Korea. When he returned, he showed up at a red carpet gala with his USO costar Evelyn Russel on his arm. What most people noticed, however, was that someone else was with Burr: a much younger man smartly dressed in a naval uniform. Burr introduced the stranger as Frank Vitti, just returned from Korea.
Vitti made a great photo-op—but there was much more to his relationship with Burr than that.
49. He Changed His Story
Sailor Frank Vitti accompanied Burr on several more USO visits as a kind of tag along—but then some information emerged that didn’t jibe. Burr suddenly started referring to Vitti as his nephew. But why hadn’t he explained this familial tie earlier? Well, now Vitti was living in Burr’s house, and he needed an excuse for that. If Perry Mason were on this case, he’d say that Burr had a modus operandi: creating fake family members.
50. He Disappointed A Fan
Love Story director Arthur Hiller worked on a few Perry Mason episodes and had this story to tell. Burr was looking for someone to renovate his house in Malibu, and Hiller had someone good. The guy he was recommending was even a big Burr fan, so the contractor was excited to be working on his idol’s house. Later, Hiller ran into that contractor again—and the man told him a shocking story.
51. He Dressed In Pink
It turned out that the contractor had arrived at Burr’s house and was met with a surprise. When Burr answered the door, he was wearing nothing but a bathrobe. The contractor went on to say that it was also the color of the robe that bothered him: pink. It seems strange that if Burr was actively hiding his lifestyle, why would he come to the door dressed like this? I’d guess he was expecting someone else.
Slip ups like this pink bathrobe weren’t helping with his secret life, and they definitely didn’t help with prying reporters.