Question: My wife and I were talking about how much weight Al Roker and other heavy celebrities have lost and I got to thinking about Raymond Burr, who starred in Perry Mason. Didn't he lose a tremendous amount of weight at one time? Lawrence F., Taos, N.M.
Televisionary: That's part of what got him the role, Lawrence. And it was before the days of gastic-bypass surgery, too.
Having grown up being teased about his size, 340-pound Burr hit Hollywood after serving in the Navy in World War II and decided to do something about his weight. With the same single-mindedness he brought to his roles and nearly all other aspects of his life, he shut himself up in a fleabag motel and subsisted on 750 calories a day, eating mainly cottage cheese and other low-cal foods. Six months later, he emerged a trim 210 not a bad number for a large-framed man who stood 6-foot-2½.
From there his film career got going as Burr landed a string of bad-guy roles in such films as Rear Window and Cry in the Night. Yet by the time he showed up to read for Mason executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson, he'd already put 25 pounds back on, was concentrating on losing it again and was battling to be considered for the heroic lead role. Jackson wanted William Holden for Mason and was eyeing Burr for D.A. Hamilton Burger, who was defeated by our hero in court every week. "Alright, we'll humor him," Jackson reportedly told her cohorts when informed of Burr's desire. "If he'll test for Burger, we'll test him for Mason, too."
Evidently, that was all it took. Author Erle Stanley Gardner, who created the Mason characters in his best-selling books, saw Burr's test footage and was said to have jumped up and shouted, "That's Perry Mason!" Now, only Gardner could say that for sure because at that point the writer had never bothered to describe the character's physical appearance in his writing, even after more than 60 novels. And he must've known what he was talking about, because Burr was a big hit as Mason and the show only helped Gardner's already impressive books sales. (By 1964, 73 Mason novels had sold more than 100 million copies.)
Burr was a huge hit behind the scenes, too. In fact, in all the old TV Guide stories I've read through to research this column, I've never seen a star receive such glowing commentary from his costars and others who worked with him. Nobody had a bad word to say about Burr and everyone seemed to try and top each other with praise.
"Raymond Burr has greater powers of concentration than any actor I've ever worked with," Martha Hyer, who appeared with him in Desire in the Dust, told TV Guide in 1961. The "Burr Method," as it came to be known, involved sitting and concentrating so deeply before a scene that he seemed comatose. "He's not looking at you; you're just not there," Mason costar Barbara Hale, who played Mason's secretary, Della Street, said of sitting across from Burr as he did this for several long minutes before standing it up and shaking it off, in character.
What many of those who worked with him didn't know mostly because Burr kept his private life very much to himself was that the actor developed his keen sense of concentration after a rough childhood in which his parents separated and he had to leave school at an early age to support his mother and younger siblings. All the while his weight made him a target of childhood taunts. Burr always said he learned to deal with difficulties early on in life, after he began to miss his absent father. "You get by," he told an interviewer, "by throwing yourself into work, work, work. I had to work originally because Mother and I needed the money I could earn." Afterward, however, it helped him learn to survive.
And survive he did quite nicely, in fact. Perry Mason's initial CBS run was a success, lasting for nine years beginning in September 1957. (A 1973 attempt at a revival, starring Monte Markham in the title role, lasted only a matter of months.) After that came Ironside, which had a healthy go of it on NBC from September 1967 to January 1975, and an assortment of occasional Mason TV movies.
Not a bad way to get by at all.