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The Secret Life of Raymond Burr

By Michael Seth Starr

Applause, 266 pages, $24.95

Emmy-winning actor Raymond Burr's salary rose to $2-million within eight years of playing Perry Mason (Erle Stanley Gardner's fictional crusading lawyer who never lost a case to his arch-nemesis, DA Hamilton Burger). Later, he played wheelchair-bound cop Robert T. Ironside (the first disabled protagonist on TV) for eight seasons. His most memorable film roles were as a bespectacled, cane-carrying DA who tries to send Montgomery Clift to the electric chair in A Place in the Sun (1951), and the hulking, menacing killer in Rear Window (1954), who almost knocks off James Stewart.

Burr made such a large fortune that he could afford a luxurious home in Malibu, his own South Pacific island and several lucrative business enterprises involving orchids and fine wine. But despite the impressive totality of his professional career, Burr felt some inexplicable need to create an astounding false narrative of his own life.

He was born in New Westminster, B.C., on May 21, 1917. His father William, a salesman, was of Irish stock, with five clans going back to a general in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Raymond's grandfather, who immigrated to Canada in 1859, became a prison guard at a B.C. penitentiary filled with killers and hoodlums of the type Raymond would one day play in Hollywood. Raymond's impoverished parents split up shortly after his mother, Minerva (a pianist and homemaker), took Raymond and his younger brother and sister to her parents' home in California.

Taunted for his size (he weighed 12 pounds at birth and often topped the 300-pound mark as an adult), he was extremely shy and had trouble in school, so was sent to a military academy. His early professional credits were disappointing, and it was only after Hollywood agent Edith Van Cleeve got him a $150-a-week contract at RKO, where low-budget B movies were being churned out, that Burr made a significant impact in cinema noir, stalking Lizabeth Scott in Pitfall (1948), menacing Fred MacMurray and Claire Trevor in Borderline (1950), cheating Errol Flynn in Mara Maru (1952) and beating up Frank Sinatra in Meet Danny Wilson (1952). His dark wavy hair, good looks, piercing blue eyes and baritone voice would make him a television star, but Burr sought to embroider and fabricate his biography.

It wasn't enough to say that he had sold tinted photographs door to door or that he had managed a grandfather's land in China, where he had learned the several Chinese dialects in his vast repertoire. His stage biography fabricated a tour of Australia, his own Shakespearean company in England and an appearance at Stratford, where he was the youngest actor to play Macbeth. He later claimed to have created and run the Shakespeare Repertory Company in Toronto. He also invented a distinguished army career, adding a Purple Heart to his résumé for either being shot in the stomach on Okinawa or for being on a ship attacked by kamikaze pilots. Later, he would boast, falsely, of having travelled the world five times.

All these "untruths" (to borrow a politician's euphemism) should have been easy to disprove from records, but the prospect of being unmasked as a liar didn't faze him. If anything, they bred further fabrications, these leading into the dark mystery of his psychosexual identity. In 1948, he married Isabella Ward, actress-daughter of a New Jersey oil refinery troubleshooter. But the marriage was brief, and neither Burr nor Ward would ever specify the reason; in fact, Ward would never speak about Burr again.

Was it because he was cruel (hardly likely, given ample evidence of his extravagant generosity and kindness throughout his career), or was it because he was guarding a secret from the public? Ward kept mum while Burr went on adding to a list of personal misery between the years 1943 and 1955: "two dead wives, a dead son, one ex-wife, and a star-crossed romance with [teenaged]Natalie Wood that was destroyed by powerful studio chiefs."

Michael Seth Starr (television critic for the New York Post) doesn't analyze any disturbances that could account for Burr's chronic fabrications. As he did hundreds (often unbilled) of radio parts and kept up a steady pace in the movies, Burr continued to embellish his biography, claiming he was forced to leave San Rafael Military Academy when his parents lost their fortune. Then he lied that he had accidentally discovered Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, and obtained a degree in English literature from McGill. He also made up teaching positions at Amherst and Columbia. And he went on building his heroic forbearance, claiming that his wife died in the same plane crash that killed actor Leslie Howard.

It was easy to disprove these lies, so why did he bother offering them? His biographer supplies three possible reasons: "One, to forge a sympathetic image for a big-screen heavy trying to soften his tough-guy façade. Two, to cover up and muddle the issue of his sexuality. And three, because it was Raymond himself who needed people to pity him."

Actually, all three are interlocked. Burr was a gay man of private elegance and taste who enjoyed a 35-year relationship with former actor Robert Benavides. To be known as a gay movie or television star was anathema, of course, so camouflage was de rigueur.

Burr could not expect much public sympathy for his secret lifestyle, and pretending to be a victimized heterosexual was a way of earning what he couldn't otherwise have. Unfortunately, this lacklustre biography is content with superficial survey information and steers clear of Burr's inner life. Without this essential core, the book remains disappointingly hollow, and its style largely pedestrian.

Keith Garebian is the author of Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems.