Question: Two questions. First, what was the name of the show where Raymond Burr was in a wheelchair? And second, do I remember correctly that he fabricated some of his personal history (marriages, etc.)? — Ray P., Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
Televisionary: Well, those two questions do have Raymond Burr in common, Ray, but beyond that they're pretty incongruous, no?
Anyway, the answer to the first is Ironside, which ran on NBC from September 1967 to January 1975. Burr starred as Robert Ironside, a consultant and former chief of detectives for the San Francisco Police Dept. who was wheelchair bound after being shot.
As for the second, Burr was an obsessively private person who did indeed fire off a few fibs to the press in his day. He claimed to have been married three times and to have had a 10-year-old son who died in 1953. Wife number one, a Scottish actress whom Burr said died when the plane in which she was flying was shot down by Nazis during WWII, apparently never existed. His second wife, from whom he was divorced, was for real, but his third wife, whom he said died of cancer, was not, nor was the son from his fictional first marriage who, as the actor's story went, died of leukemia. In truth, Burr enjoyed a long relationship with his male companion and business partner before dying of cancer in 1993.
Burr was without a doubt a very well-respected actor, businessman and philanthropist, and deservedly so. But because of his personality quirks — his biographical inventions and elevated need for privacy chief among them — most any profile of him read like someone trying to put together a puzzle. He was very smart, very moody and, above all, very intimidating.
"You know me," he told TV Guide in 1969. "I am imperious. I expect the world to know what I want."
And when the world didn't, the world didn't have a very easy time of it.
"Ray used to scare me," an old family friend of the Burrs said when asked about him. "Used to? He still does. It's those eyes. If I'm talking too much, or behaving stupidly, he'll look at me across the room. It stops me dead. Those eyes — they seem to go right through you to the core. He looks — and you've had it. He affects a lot of people this way."
Burr certainly affected Ironside co-star Don Galloway that way. Galloway called Burr "sir," and Burr let him. Asked about the star keeping him on his toes, Galloway admitted to being awestruck. "You make an idle statement one day. Ray is not even listening. He's not even in the room! Six months later, he drags it up. He's aware of everything going on."
And when Galloway wasn't spelling out how tough Burr could be, Mrs. Galloway was. Faced with a drunken Burr pal who went on and on about how "nice" Burr was, Linda Galloway couldn't take it anymore. "Raymond is not 'nice,'" she said. "He is interesting. He is extraordinary. But 'nice' isn't the word."
A TV Guide reporter related tales of Burr chewing out a man who said America was "a police state" and denied the press was free, freezing out a young woman associate for the better part of an evening because she wasn't respectful enough, and telling off a friend of 20 years who wasn't interested in Ironside. And then there was another man who talked at length about a topic about which he obviously didn't know much before realizing he was out of his depth. "I guess I'd better shut up," the man said. "That's right," Burr responded.
Yet as tough as he could be on others, the actor was equally hard on himself, if not more so. Despite his being involved in all sorts of charitable works and fundraising projects, Burr beat himself up for not enjoying all aspects of it. (He was bored by the meetings and parties required by such work.) And as opinionated as he could be, he hated having those opinions — or, at least, giving voice to them.
"He is a very extraordinary man, a man with strong emotions, strong values and strong convictions," said one friend. "But for some reason he doesn't feel he should express them openly. He seems to feel there is something wrong about it. Almost as if it's guilt."
"Ray's trouble basically is that he is a violently self-assertive man who thinks self-assertion is wrong," said another. "He was taught as a kid that being good meant crucifying yourself for your mother. It hardened into a kind of stoic virtue. Now he feels he should crucify himself for the world. But he doesn't want to. He's really greedy for life. He's spent his life submissively climbing onto crosses, hating it, and hating himself for hating it."
Not that any of that stopped him from having a successful career, or from helping a lot of people along the way. But submissive? Tell that to Don and Linda Galloway.